As the days get colder and darker, 25 million people across the country suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and up to 20% of Americans are dragged down by a milder form of seasonal depression. Depressed mood is not the only symptom of the winter blues; many may not notice any change in mood but instead will experience low energy, fatigue, trouble waking in the morning, insomnia, increased appetite, carbohydrate cravings, and weight gain. Other mood changes include irritability, anxiety, panic attacks, a lack of interest in usual activities, and withdrawal from family and friends. You may experience just a couple of these issues or many; make sure to see your doctor to be sure another medical condition is not causing your symptoms. If your doctor gives the OK for you to treat your winter blues naturally, here are some things you can try.
Omega-3 supplementation, ideally from fish oil, is one of the most important things you can do to counteract seasonal depression, because these essential fatty acids increase production of serotonin. Studies on various populations throughout the world find that in countries where little or no fish is consumed, depression rates are up to 50 times greater than countries with high fish consumption. Multiple studies have found that low PUFA (polyunsaturated fatty acid) levels are associated with more severe depression. A Norwegian study with over 21,000 participants found that regular cod liver oil supplementation led to 30% fewer depressive symptoms, with longer periods of supplementation correlating with the lowest levels of depression. Green Pasture Fermented Cod Liver Oil is an excellent source of omega-3s/PUFAs and is one of the highest quality fish oil supplements on the market. It is available in several flavors and either liquid or capsule form. If you are already taking fish oil, now is the time to increase your daily dose. While fish and fish oil are generally considered the ideal sources of omega-3s, vegetarians and vegans may experience some of the omega-3 benefits from walnuts and flax seed oil.
The other essential component in combatting SAD is ensuring that you are getting adequate vitamin D. Called “the sunlight vitamin” by many, vitamin D supplementation is particularly crucial for those who get little direct sunlight exposure. People with depression often have low vitamin D levels, which makes sense since this vitamin is necessary for serotonin and dopamine production. A review of research published in Nutrients found that in the studies without flaws, vitamin D supplementation of 800IU or more, when substantial enough to demonstrate a change in vitamin levels, was about as effective as antidepressant medication at managing depression. There is also some speculation that low vitamin D levels signal our bodies to go into winter metabolic mode, leading to weight gain over the coldest months. While the Recommended Daily Allowance of Vitamin D is only 400IU for adults, many experts are now recommending much larger doses, up to 4000 or 5000IU a day or more, for optimal health and wellbeing. Vitamin Code Raw D3 contains 5000IU of raw, whole food D3, along with probiotics and enzymes to optimize absorption.
Since exercise boosts serotonin levels and levels of other feel-good hormones, working out daily can go a long way in easing the blues. If you don’t enjoy running and biking outside in the cold, you can join a gym, invest in a treadmill or elliptical, or find home workouts online or on your phone. Just half an hour a day, or an hour three times a week, has been shown to be just as effective as taking an antidepressant, alleviating depression in 60-70% of study participants. If it’s been a while since you’ve last exercised, or you’re having trouble getting going due to lack of motivation, start out with just 10 jumping jacks in the morning, and slowly work up to a full workout. Check out our Pinterest board for workout ideas and routines. Find something you love, because you’ll be more likely to stick to it if you enjoy doing it.
Reset Your Body Clock
Swap your light bulbs for full-spectrum lights, and get plenty of time outdoors or by a window. Sunlight on a bright sunny day can be 100 times brighter than even the brightest indoor lighting. Morning light is crucial to keeping your body clock on track, so try to get outside for a short walk when you start your day. Light therapy boxes are available too, if you aren’t able to spend time outdoors. Always get your daily light exposure during daytime hours, because at night it can interfere with melatonin production. Also, melatonin levels decline as we age, sometimes preventing the deep, restorative sleep that we need to feel our best. Some people with the winter blues find that a small dose of melatonin not only helps them sleep better and regulates the internal body clock, but also improves mood and other depressive symptoms. Try Melatonin Sleep Support Spray by Mercola, and consider experimenting with the timing of your dose, as some SAD studies have found benefit to afternoon, and even morning, melatonin supplementation.
Several herbs and natural formulas can help with depression, whether seasonal or chronic. A supplement known as 5-HTP, or 5-hydroxytryptophan, can help raise serotonin levels as it is a precursor to serotonin synthesis. Use this supplement with caution, as it may interact with prescription antidepressants, and take it only for a short period of time. SAM-e, a chemical naturally found in the body, is also available as a supplement, and can reduce symptoms of depression. An herb called St. John’s Wort seems to work similarly to an SSRI by keeping serotonin circulating through the brain, and many studies have found it to be as effective as prescription antidepressants. None of these three supplements should be taken alongside a prescription antidepressant without a doctor’s supervision, as this could lead to life-threatening serotonin syndrome. Consult your doctor before trying these supplements if you suffer from bipolar disorder.
Diet & Vitamins
Despite the intense carb cravings you may be experiencing, it is best to avoid sugar, starches, and simple carbohydrates such as white bread or pasta, as they will cause highs and lows as well as lead to weight gain. Also avoid or limit caffeine, which can suppress serotonin levels. Instead, focus on bright, colorful fruits and veggies, whole grains, fish, nuts, and seeds.
Make sure you are getting enough vitamins and minerals. Calcium and magnesium are required not only for serotonin production, but also for absorption and utilization of vitamin D. Magnesium has a relaxing effect on nerves and muscles. Dr. Frank Lipman, who combines Eastern and Western medicine in his practice, says, “Insufficient levels of magnesium can compound SAD symptoms by inhibiting the conversion of tryptophan to 5-HTP, which can decrease the production of mood-stabilizing serotonin and melatonin. To boost magnesium levels in winter, I recommend taking 400-600mg at bedtime.” Try Catie’s Whole Food Magnesium along with Catie’s Raw Vegetable Calcium, or if you prefer an all-in-one supplement, opt for Garden of Life Raw Calcium, which contains 80% of the daily value of calcium as well as 100% of magnesium, along with other trace minerals, or Natural Vitality Balanced CalMag, which contains the ideal ratio of calcium to magnesium.
A B-Complex supplement is also helpful. Research is finding that high B vitamin intake is associated with less depression. B-12 supplementation often improves energy, and B-6, which is particularly supportive during periods of stress, aids in the production of serotonin, melatonin, and dopamine. Garden of Life Vitamin Code Raw B-Complex provides these essential vitamins as well as inositol, a vitamin-like substance that has been shown to improve depression by augmenting serotonin activity in the brain. Catie’s Whole Food B-Complex is another great option.
What else can you do?
Go for a massage — studies have found it to increase serotonin. It doesn’t seem to matter if the massage is done by a professional, a partner, or a friend. Any physical contact with another human may be beneficial, so if you can’t get a massage, at least get (or give) more hugs, and spend more time cuddling with your partner or children. Another simple way to boost serotonin levels is to reminisce about happy moments. “Think happy thoughts,” such as remembering in vivid detail your wedding day, a fun outing with a relative, a party with a friend, or a ride on the carousel when you were a child. Remembering negative events has the opposite effect and decreases serotonin, so try to avoid listening to bad news stories or rehashing difficult life situations. Consider coming up with a happy memory list to use as a starting point for those moments when you find yourself reminiscing about sad events.
If these supplements and lifestyle changes are not helping, or if you are experiencing more severe depression, suicidal thoughts, or other serious problems, consult a doctor or therapist immediately. Don’t attempt to fight it off on your own — help is available. Natural options are great as a first resort or for milder winter blues, but some people may require professional treatment. If you are in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 immediately.