With less sunlight in the winter months, many people suffer from what's commonly referred to as the “winter blues." Technically, physicians recognize this as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
The specific cause of SAD is unknown, but factors that may contribute to SAD include disruptions in circadian rhythm and serotonin and melatonin levels as a result of seasonal changes in sunlight patterns.
If you find yourself feeling down this time of year, here are five healthy strategies to help you beat the winter blues:
1. Make sure you're getting an adequate amount of vitamin D.
During the winter months, people who live 33 degrees north or 30 degrees south of the equator are unable to synthesize vitamin D due to a lack of sunlight exposure. One study involving a high-risk population with low vitamin D status suggested that a daily dose of 1,200 IU of vitamin D3 helped rid participants of depressive symptoms. To combat depressive moods, I recommend regularly assessing serum hydroxyvitamin D (25-OH D) levels with your health care provider and receiving adequate vitamin D supplementation during the winter months.
2. Improve your sleep hygiene and sleep quality.
One of the hallmark characteristics of seasonal mood disorders is poor sleep quality, due to decreases in serotonin levels and disruptions in melatonin levels. Chronic sleep disturbances are a major risk factor for depression and anxiety disorders, among other detrimental health conditions. One study found that people reporting insomnia were nearly 10 times more likely to have clinical depression and anxiety.
Another practice that is often recommended by health care professionals for promoting better sleep is known as "sleep hygiene." Creating a comfortable sleep environment, limiting the use of electronics while in bed, avoiding caffeine and alcohol consumption before bedtime, and creating sleep schedules can all enhance sleep hygiene.
3. Give your serotonin levels a boost.
The body's ability to synthesize the "feel good" neurotransmitter serotonin depends on the amount of tryptophan available in the brain. One study found that acute tryptophan depletion can negatively affect your memory, attention, and executive functions. 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) is the immediate precursor of serotonin from tryptophan.
4. Exercise more to release natural endorphins.
Exercise offers tremendous benefits not only to your physical health but also to your mental well-being. Exercise stimulates the release of endorphins, which can combat feelings of depression. Working out for 30 minutes a few times a week can improve overall mood. And exercising can also help ease stress and promote relaxation, which can be particularly helpful for individuals who struggle with sleep disturbances.
5. Supplement with minerals.
Minerals are involved in all aspects of brain function and deficiencies have been linked to the pathophysiology of depression. Zinc, magnesium, and lithium are among some of the most important minerals in the body, as they are involved in several enzymatic reactions that influence neurotransmitter synthesis.
Research shows that dietary zinc and magnesium deprivation can result in behavioral disturbances including anorexia, impaired cognitive function, and neurological disorders. One study found that women who received 7 mg of zinc daily for 10 weeks reported significant improvement in their mood. Lithium, which is present in our environment, food, and drinking water, is an essential nutrient for the human body. The last two decades have clarified lithium's abilities to protect brain cells, stimulate neuronal growth, and also help balance mood. One placebo-controlled study found that the group receiving nutritional lithium reported increases in positive mood, happiness, and energy.
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If you think you may be suffering from a seasonal mood disorder, please consult your doctor before beginning any treatment.
James Greenblatt, M.D., is an integrative psychiatrist and chief medical officer of Walden Behavioral Care in Waltham, Massachusetts, and a faculty member in the Department of Psychiatry at Tufts Medical School. In his 24 years of clinical psychiatric practice, Dr. Greenblatt has applied personalized, evidence-based assessment and objective supplement approaches to guide patients to mental and emotional wellness. Dr. Greenblatt sits on the Pure Encapsulations Medical Advisory Board and has helped develop the PureSYNAPSE™ product line to provide individualized, integrative support for mood, sleep quality, stress, memory, and healthy eating behavior.