Desperate For Sun & Warm Weather? Here's Your Self-Care Action Plan

Photo: Trinette Reed

The winter season can be welcomed as a time to enjoy cozy nights on the couch with your loved ones and your favorite Netflix shows. But after months on end cooped up inside with a dwindling queue of episodes to watch, winter can quickly become depressing. You are not alone in this feeling. About 20 to 35 percent of people suffer from mild to severe forms of seasonal affective disorder, or SAD for short. And an increase in depression cases is something I definitely see this time of year at my functional medicine center.

So what's the science behind this? When we take a look at our brain, we see that one of the biggest culprits behind these winter blues is a neurotransmitter called serotonin. Serotonin is in charge of keeping you happy, and during the winter months, serotonin transporter (SERT) levels rise by up to 5 percent, which translates to less serotonin in the brain. This depletion of your feel-good neurotransmitter leaves you feeling depressed and lethargic.

Thankfully, there are many things that you can do to naturally up serotonin production and balance your hormones. So without further ado, read on for your guide to SAD!

1. Support methylation.

Methylation is a process that happens one billion times every single second in your body. It is responsible for a lot of different aspects of your health, including making feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin. B vitamins are the fuel behind methylation, so make sure to consume plenty of foods rich in B vitamins like grass-fed beef, organ meat, and folate-containing dark leafy greens.

2. Fuel your brain.

Your brain is comprised of 60 percent fat, and 25 percent of your body’s total cholesterol is located your brain as well. When dealing with the blues, it’s key to continue to fuel your brain with powerful superfoods. When you deprive your brain of what it's made of, you aren’t doing your happy neurotransmitters any favors. By upping your fat intake, you give serotonin and other feel-good chemicals an environment to thrive in. My go-to choices are coconut oil, ghee, wild-caught fish, and everyone’s favorite, avocado. Pass the guac, please!

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3. Optimize your protein intake.

Tyrosine is an amino acid found in protein sources such as fish and meat. This helps your body make DOPA, which then coverts to the neurotransmitter dopamine. It is particularly high in wild-caught salmon, cage-free organic eggs, and grass-fed ground beef, so stock up on these during your next shopping trip. If you aren’t too fond of meat, you can turn to legumes, nuts, and seeds, as they contain tyrosine as well.

4. Supplement your sunshine vitamin.

Sun is the most bioavailable form of vitamin D, and it is the one nutrient that every single cell of your body needs to function properly—hormones and mood included! It's synthesized by your body when your skin is exposed to sunlight, which is way less likely to happen in the winter. And since it's impossible to get enough vitamin D from food alone, supplementation can be necessary. A normal range should be between 60 and 80 ng/mL. So depending on where your starting levels are, a good daily dose is between 2,000 and 6,000 IUs per day.

5. Try St. John's wort.

This natural herb is recommended more often than prescription medications for depression in Germany! More research needs to be done to determine just how effective it is, but long-term studies have shown its ability to help stabilize mood.

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6. Heal your gut.

Medical literature often refers to your gut as your "second brain" since 95 percent of serotonin is produced and stored in your gut. By making sure your gut is healthy—by bringing in a supplement or probiotic-rich fermented foods—it will help alleviate the feelings of melancholy.

7. Take nature's chill pill.

What can’t adaptogens do? These system balancers of the plant and herb kingdom restore imbalances wherever they are needed in your body. Mucuna pruriens, in particular, is uber-powerful when dealing with the winter blues. It contains high levels of L-DOPA, which is the precursor to your neurotransmitter dopamine. Try adding some to your morning smoothie!

8. Try light therapy.

Blue-light boxes are mini sunlight machines and can improve the winter blues and symptoms of depression by mimicking the sun.

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9. Wake with the sun.

Dawn simulators work as alarm clocks, but instead of a loud sound to wake you, there is a gradual increase in light that is similar to a sunrise. Look for ones with full-spectrum light that is the most similar to natural sunlight.

10. Experiment with aromatherapy.

Call your favorite essential oil company and place an order for some essential oils—STAT! Studies have shown that lavender essential oil produces a calming effect similar to the anti-anxiety medication lorazepam, which works by boosting serotonin levels.

11. Get moving.

After an intense workout, it’s not uncommon to experience an intense feeling of happiness, often referred to as "runner’s high." This is due to the increased production of endorphins your body releases after participating in some sort of exercise. In the winter, choose activities that boost your heart rate like HIIT training sessions that can be done indoors.

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12. Treat yourself to the spa.

Infrared saunas are great for detoxing and reducing inflammation as well as reducing stress. I like to use my personal sauna throughout the winter to work up a sweat and Zen out. Chronic stress can do a number on your gut, which as we have seen, can affect serotonin levels.

Want to learn more about infrared saunas? Check out our video with Higher DOSE founder Lauren Berlingeri.

William Cole, D.C.

Functional Medicine Practitioner
Dr. Will Cole, leading functional medicine expert, graduated from Southern California University of Health Sciences as a doctor of chiropractic. His extensive postdoctorate education and training is in functional medicine and clinical nutrition. Dr. Cole consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He specializes in clinically investigating underlying factors and customizing health programs for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal dysfunctions, digestive disorders and brain problems. Visit www.drwillcole.com for free e-books, recipes, and webcam evaluation.
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William Cole, D.C.

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