Beating the Seasonal Blues

The season of holiday celebrations is past, and while this time usually brings lots of happiness and joy with friends and family, it also means the coming of shorter, darker days, which can really affect our feelings of wellbeing. (There’s good reason why this season is filled with twinkling lights, candles, and firelight!) Compounded with missing family who live far away, coping with family who live just a little too close, or just overwhelmed by it all, it’s quite common to feel a little blue this time of year. But don’t despair – there are steps you can take to beat the seasonal blues.

Commonly known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, this form of seasonal depression usually strikes during the winter months, though a less common form of the disorder can occur during the summer, and like other forms of depression, is more common in women than men. Symptoms of SAD include increased appetite and weight gain (weight loss is more common in other forms of depression); increased sleep and daytime sleepiness; lack of energy and ability to concentrate; social withdrawal; and general unhappiness and irritability.

Because the shorter winter days are often correlated with SAD, try to get outside during the daylight hours as much as possible, even on overcast days – the natural light is good for you. Though it may sound like the last thing you want to do, make an effort to remain socially active – regular contact with friends and family can have a significant effect on mental wellbeing. For some people, light therapy using a special lamp that imitates light from the sun, has proven to be an effective treatment for SAD. And be sure to center your diet on vegetables, healthy fats, and quality protein, avoiding refined carbs and sugar.

There are also several key supplements to keep in mind that support healthy moods and brain functioning through these long winter months, and throughout the year.

Vitamin D. Generally, vitamin D levels tend to decrease in the winter. SAD has been correlated with low levels of vitamin D, which is hard – and sometimes impossible, depending on where you live – to obtain from the sun during the darker winter months. Studies have found that subjects with depression, including SAD, have low levels of vitamin D and that increasing their levels through supplementation led to improvement in mood. Vitamin D deficiency is especially common among older adults, where it is associated with low moods and cognitive impairment, so supplementing becomes even more important.

Melatonin. A National Institute of Mental Health-funded study found that 65 percent of SAD symptoms stem from daily body rhythms that have gone out-of-sync with the sun, due to winter’s late dawn and early dusk. The change in season can disrupt the balance of the natural hormone melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood. The pineal gland, located in the middle of the brain, responds to darkness by secreting melatonin, which re-sets the brain’s central clock and helps the light/dark cycle re-set the sleep/wake cycle and other daily rhythms. Researchers pinpointed how rhythms go astray in SAD and how they can be re-set by taking melatonin supplements at the right time of day. They determined that a “typical” person’s rhythms are synchronized when the interval between the time the pineal gland begins secreting melatonin and the middle of sleep is about 6 hours. Seventy-one percent of the SAD patients had intervals shorter than 6 hours, indicating that their rhythms were delayed due to the later winter dawn. Taking melatonin capsules in the afternoon lengthened their intervals, bringing their rhythms back toward normal.

NOTE: The key is taking the melatonin supplements at the correct time of day, otherwise, it could worsen symptoms. If you want to try melatonin supplementation for SAD, it is important to discuss this with your health care provider.

Omega-3 fatty acids. A study by Belgian researchers found seasonal declines in people’s blood levels of EPA and DHA that correlated with lower levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which helps regulate mood, sleep, and appetite. While the exact mechanism is not known, researchers point out that cell membranes are made up partly of EPA and DHA and it is possible that increasing the levels of them makes it easier for serotonin to pass through cell membranes.

Studies also suggest that populations that eat more fish per capita, such as Japan and Iceland, have unexpectedly low rates of SAD. While EPA and DHA alone may not be a cure for SAD, we do know that they are important for optimal brain function, including promoting healthy moods, so it can’t hurt to add a supplement – usually fish oil — that contains optimal amounts of EPA and DHA to your routine.

B Complex. The B vitamins B6, B12, and folic acid are necessary for normal neurotransmitter production and function, including serotonin and dopamine. The B vitamins are also required for cellular energy production (a lack of energy is one of the major symptoms of SAD). A high-potency B complex should provide adequate amounts of each B vitamin, but you may consider adding individual B vitamins based on your individual requirement.

This fall and winter, as the light begins to dim and the days grow shorter, prepare your mind and body for the seasonal shift with some mindful awareness – expose yourself to natural light as much as possible, maintain a healthy diet, and nurture your relationships – and consider a few important supplements to maintain optimal brain health and support a healthy (and happy) mood. The dark days of winter will have never looked so good!

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