A Functional Medicine Guide To Bracing For The Wintertime Blues

Functional Medicine Practitioner By William Cole, D.C., IFMCP
Functional Medicine Practitioner
Dr. Will Cole, D.C., IFMCP, is a leading functional medicine expert who specializes in clinically investigating underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Cole is also the bestselling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.

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While winter is a great time for quiet nights at home, one dark, quiet night after another can take its toll on a person. Before you know it, the calmness you may have felt at the start of the season looks more like the winter blues the second it hits February.

You definitely aren't alone in this feeling. In fact, close to 20 to 35% of people have struggled with mild to severe forms of seasonal affective disorder, more commonly referred to as SAD.

As a functional medicine practitioner, it's my job to get to the bottom of why you feel the way you do. Then, once you know the reason behind your symptoms, you can better know how to tackle the issue at hand. And when it comes to SAD, it all has to do with your happy neurotransmitter, serotonin.

Your serotonin transporter (SERT) levels rise up to 5% during the winter months, which leads to less serotonin in the brain. Therefore, the less of this happy neurotransmitter you have, the more down or sad you will feel. But knowing this, we can focus on the many natural ways to boost serotonin so you can live in more peaceful bliss this winter:

1. Add in adaptogens.

Adaptogens are herbs that help your body deal with stress. The adaptogen Mucuna pruriens contains high levels of L-DOPA, the precursor to dopamine. Another adaptogen I love is holy basil. In one study of ayurvedic medicine, 1 gram of holy basil, or tulsi, lowered depression, anxiety, and stress symptoms in just two months. These adaptogens can be found in tea, capsule, or powder forms. (Psst, here is a more detailed guide to adaptogens.)

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2. Go for massage therapy.

Go ahead and treat yourself to a massage. Regular bodywork not only lowers your stress hormone, cortisol, but also boosts dopamine and serotonin.

3. Get outside.

OK, hear me out. The last thing you probably want to do is go outside when it is freezing, but exposure to cold weather increases both blood flow and endorphins.

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4. Try acupuncture.

Acupuncture has been linked to increased levels of both serotonin and dopamine. So much so, in fact, that in one study of treatment-resistant patients, depression was reduced after just one 30-minute acupuncture session.

5. Do some exercise.

While exercising might be the last thing you want to do in the cold weather, working out and getting your heart rate going is just another way to produce a rush of feel-good endorphins. Indoor HIIT workouts are a perfect solution to having to head outside for your exercise.

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6. Take St. John's wort.

This natural herbal supplement has been used for years in Germany as an alternative to antidepressants due to its ability to increase serotonin receptors and dopamine signaling. While more research needs to be done on its effectiveness, studies have shown it may help reduce depression.

7. Supplement with vitamin D.

Your mood and hormones rely on vitamin D to function optimally. Since your sun exposure is almost nonexistent in the winter—unless you are lucky enough to live somewhere like Southern California—you are going to have to get your vitamin D from somewhere else. Focus on vitamin-D-rich foods like egg yolks and wild-caught fish, but adding in a supplement can also help, as it's difficult to always get in enough vitamin D through food alone.

Running labs can give you an idea of where your levels are at, but ideally we are aiming for a range of between 60 and 80 ng/mL, so a good dose can be anywhere between 2,000 and 6,000 IUs per day.

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8. Consider light therapy.

Mimicking the sun with lightboxes (units that emit bright light) has been shown in multiple studies to help alleviate SAD. So if you can't get some real sun, this might be the next best thing.

9. Stimulate your vagus nerve.

Your vagus nerve is one of your cranial nerves that connects your brain to your gastrointestinal system (known as the "second brain" in the scientific literature). Stimulating this important nerve with modalities like pulsed electromagnetic field, or PEMF, has been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve and serve to be an effective treatment for depression and can boost norepinephrine and serotonin. Deep breathing exercises and intermittent fasting have also been shown to improve vagus nerve function. Ironically, when we are talking about improving your mood during the cold, darker months, cold therapy has also been shown to improve vagal tone. Ice bath, anyone?

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10. Experiment with aromatherapy.

Essential oils like lavender have been shown to stimulate serotonin production, similar to anti-anxiety medication like lorazepam. Diffuse this throughout the day at home or work, and breathe in the calm.

11. Get in an infrared sauna.

I love saunas, and for good reason! Just 15 minutes a day of infrared sauna use for a month was shown to decrease depression in a randomized controlled trial. 

12. Drink more tea.

Cozy up to the fire with a warm cup of organic tea. Green, black, and white tea contain a compound called L-theanine. L-theanine was shown to improve neurotransmitters like glutamate, which are out of balance in depression. Alternatively, you can supplement with L-theanine on its own. 

William Cole, D.C., IFMCP
William Cole, D.C., IFMCP
Will Cole, D.C., IFMCP, is a leading functional-medicine expert and a Doctor of Chiropractic. He...
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