For those of us who live in colder climates, winter means less sunlight, and for most, less time outdoors and physical activity. Although the specific cause is not yet know these factors seem to contribute to the winter blues, more formally known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). If you are feeling ‘less than’ your normal self, here are the top natural ways to prevent and/or treat this seasonal slump in mood:
I know exercise is often touted as a cure-all, but with a few exceptions it really does make everything better. Clinically, exercise is associated with a decrease in depressive symptoms. So, if you notice your mood or energy slipping downward, increase your physical activity. In fact, exercise is comparable to antidepressant medications for mild to moderate depression and has been shown to improve depressive symptoms when used in addition to medication.
Light therapy using a specialized light has also been shown to be effective at reducing the symptoms of SAD. Light boxes contain bright lights that you use during the day (preferably in the morning) to keep your circadian rhythms in sync when the days are short and dark. Light boxes can be purchased online or from most health & wellness stores. Click here for the one I use (no affiliation – just a happy customer).
A balanced, whole foods diet can also help reduce the symptoms of depression. Diets that are high in refined carbohydrates and processed foods are associated with a higher risk of depression. A 2015 study showed that eating a modified Mediterranean diet rich in whole foods helps to decrease depressive symptoms.
- Avoid processed/packaged foods, fast foods and refined carbohydrates (sugars and starches)
- Eat more whole foods including:vegetables and fruit
- nuts and seeds
- legumes (beans, peas, lentils etc.)
- whole grains (brown rice, quinoa etc.)
- lean meats
- fatty fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel)
- Your plate should be 1/2 vegetables and fruit, 1/4 whole grains and 1/4 protein (animal, plant-based, or a mixture of both)
There has been some preliminary findings that some supplements may be beneficial in reducing the symptoms of depression.
Lower circulating Vitamin D is associated with increased symptoms of depression. In order to maintain Vitamin D levels I often recommend taking a Vitamin D supplement over the winter months to counter the effects of reduced sunlight during this period for those living in colder climates.
OMEGA 3 POLYUNSATURATED FATTY ACIDS (PUFAs)
There is some evidence that a deficiency in Omega 3 fatty acids may contribute to mood disorders. Omega 3 fatty acids are important fats critical to the function of the Central Nervous System.
The best food sources of omega 3 fatty acids include:
- small fish such as mackerel, herring and sardines
- beef (preferably grass-fed)
- soybeans and tofu (preferably organic to avoid GMOs)
When choosing an omega 3 fatty acid supplement choose natural fish oils such as cod liver oil (which is also high in Vitamin D) rather than processed omega 3 fatty acids since they are in a form that the body is used to processing.
There is growing evidence that the gut microbiome can influence our moods. The microbiome is a complex system of bacteria that normally inhabit our gut and can influence hormone secretion, nutrient absorption, fat storage and immunity. Probiotics are foods (and supplements) that supply our gut with ‘good’ bacteria to populate the microbiome and help keep ‘bad’ bacteria in check.
The best food sources of probiotics include:
- naturally fermented foods (pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi, vegetables etc.)
- tempeh, miso and natto (preferably organic to avoid GMOs)
- some cheeses (gouda, mozzarella, cheddar, and cottage cheese)
Try to eat at least one serving of a probiotic food daily or take probiotic supplements. Make sure to choose a supplement with multiple strains to ensure diversity within the microbiome.
Saffron (Crocus sativus) has been shown to have a significant effect on the severity of depression in some studies. Saffron is available as a spice, although it is fairly pricey, and currently there are only a few brands that carry saffron supplements.
St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) has also been shown to be an effective herbal treatment for mild to moderate depression.
Always discuss with your doctor before you start taking supplements, if you are taking any medications and always take supplements as directed by your health practitioner.
In addition there are several lifestyle modifications that can combat the winter blues.
- SLEEP – Ensure that you are getting adequate sleep at night; avoid electronics for at least one hour prior to going to bed and try to go to bed and get up at the same time each day, avoiding naps if possible.
- SOCIALIZE – Try to avoid isolating yourself since this will increase feelings of loneliness. Set regular appointments with friends and family, and keep them.
- SELF CARE – Take care of yourself. Often self-care is one of the first things to go when we are feeling down but resist this temptation and instead nurture yourself.
If your symptoms last more than a few days seek medical attention. The information in this post is intended to be preventative or an adjunct to your current therapy and is not intended to replace medical advice from your doctor.
Eat well, Feel well, Live well