Why so S.A.D.?
5 Natural Ways to Beat the Winter Blues
By Ewa Futkowska
Besides the brief relief of Valentine’s Day, the dreariness of February can leave most of us in the northern hemisphere feeling pretty bummed out. It’s cold, the days are short, there’s not much to do, and the weight of the long winter months bears heavy on our souls. As far as I’m concerned, this 28-day-long monstrosity may as well be called “almost March”. It’s no surprise that Seasonal Affective Disorder is in full swing this time of year, but frown not my friends. We’ve got you covered with these 5 Natural Ways to Beat the Winter Blues.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter (a chemical messenger) produced by your nerve cells that sends signals to other nerve cells. It helps to control our mood, which is why it’s often referred to as the “happiness hormone”. Studies tell us that somewhere between 75% and 95% of serotonin starts in our gut lining. That’s a heck of a lot! The “good bacteria” in our intestines increases levels of tryptophan, an amino acid required to make serotonin in the brain. In fact, there has been lots of exciting research that shows probiotics can improve your mood even if you’re NOT suffering from seasonal depression. One study, from the Leiden Institute of Brain and Cognition at Leiden University in the Netherlands, examined 40 healthy young adults who had no mood disorders. Half of them consumed a powdered probiotic supplement every night for four weeks while the other half of the participants took a placebo. The people who took probiotic supplements reported less reactivity to sad moods than those who took placebos (source: Elsevier). So how do you stock up on your happy bugs? Eat plenty of yogurt, kefir, kimchi, and sauerkraut. If none of these sound appealing, consider supplementing with a good quality probiotic.
2. Eat Happy!
Since you now know that your body makes serotonin from tryptophan, you can help yourself out by eating foods high in this amino acid. High tryptophan foods include nuts, seeds, and beans (especially pumpkin seeds, soybeans and lentils) tofu, cheese, oats, eggs and many meat products (such as chicken, turkey and lamb). Another way to “eat happy” is by consuming essential fatty acids, specifically Omega 3’s. Cold water fish, for example, are very high in the eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) form of Omega 3. EPA increases serotonin release from presynaptic neurons by reducing inflammatory signaling molecules in the brain known as E2 series prostaglandins, a serotonin inhibitor (source: FASEB Journal). In other words, the higher your blood levels of EPA, the more serotonin you are likely to make. So what’s for dinner tonight? How about some herring, salmon, mackerel, or sardines. Wait… sardines for dinner? That can’t be right.
3. Vitamin D
Vitamin D deficiency has long been associated with Seasonal Affective Disorder (source: The Journal of Nutrition). Scientists have found Vitamin D receptors in many parts of the brain, and these receptors are found in the areas of the brain that are linked to the development of depression. For this reason, vitamin D deficiency has been linked with depression and with other mental health problems. Exactly how vitamin D works in the brain isn’t fully understood, but the popular theory is that vitamin D affects serotonin, and how it works in the brain (source: PubMed). Sunlight triggers the production of vitamin D in the body, and so moral of this story is… get some rays! Get outside on days that are sunny, buy some full spectrum light bulbs for the house and office, and consider Vitamin D supplementation through the gloomiest weeks.
Everyone knows that regular exercise is good for the body, but it’s also one of the most effective ways to support your mental health. Exercise is a powerful depression fighter for several reasons. Most importantly, it promotes all kinds of changes in the brain, including neural growth, reduced inflammation, and new activity patterns that promote feelings of calm and well-being. It also releases endorphins, adrenaline, serotonin and dopamine. These chemicals all work together to make you feel good (source: Harvard University). As an added bonus, a good workout gives us a sense of accomplishment—that feel-good “productivity high” that rushes through us when we check something off our to-do list. So don’t let the cold weather keep you from moving. Layer up and go for a walk, take a yoga class, or finally put that gym membership to good use.
5. St John’s Wort
St John’s Wort (botanical name Hypericum perforatum) has been linked to many health benefits, but it is best known for its ability to relieve stress, depression and anxiety. While science still hasn’t uncovered all of the secrets of this ancient herb, there is good research out there which suggests that St. John's Wort helps reduce symptoms of mild-to-moderate seasonal depression by increasing the activity of the right brew of chemicals in the brain. It acts similarly to selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a popular type of antidepressant often prescribed to treat depression. By increasing the availability of the brain chemicals serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, it can help to improve mood (source: University of Maryland Medical Centre). Look for St John’s Wort as a tea or supplement at most health food stores.
Hang in there fellow winter worriers! Before you know it, spring will be upon us. The buds will be in full bloom, the patios will be in full beer, and we’ll be lathering on the sunscreen rather than worrying about Vitamin D deficiency. So goes the circle of life in the north.