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Winter Blues? The Best Supplements + Self-Care Tips To Battle Seasonal Affective Disorder

A Functional Medicine Expert's Guide to Beating a Cold + Boosting Immunity Dr. Will Cole 1

At first, winter feels magical. I mean, what’s not to love? There’s hot cocoa, crackling fireplaces, and snow gently falling outside. But—fast forward three months and most of us are starting to feel a little stir-crazy, sick, and sad. Our skin is dry, our noses are running, and we absolutely yearn to get outside and feel the sun on our skin.

If you can relate to this, you’re not alone. In fact, close to 20 to 35% of people have struggled with mild to severe forms of seasonal affective disorder, also known as SAD.

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Your endocrine system – the name for your entire hormonal system, including such sub-systems as your thyroid, adrenals, and sex hormones – is potently affected by sunlight. A study (1) published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society found that shorter days increased levels of both melatonin (the sleep hormone) and DHEA (a sex hormone precursor produced by your adrenals), and also caused actual physical changes to the adrenal glands, which are your main stress-response system. These changes lead to further hormone fluctuations downstream, and all that hormonal shifting can have a noticeable impact on your mood.

Several studies (2) have also found that levels of iodine, an essential nutrient for healthy thyroid hormones, and TSH, (3) the brain hormone needed to wake up the thyroid, were both adversely affected during winter months. Another factor is the “happy” brain hormone or neurotransmitter, serotonin. SERT (serotonin transporters) levels in people with SAD were shown to be 5 percent higher (4) in the winter. The higher levels of serotonin in the winter indicate less serotonin in the brain, which can lead to feelings of depression.

All of these hormonal changes can leave you feeling SAD and blue.

As a functional medicine practitioner, it’s my job to help my patients feel good all year long. And yes, that means through the entire winter—no matter if you live in Florida or Minnesota. If you’re feeling the winter blues come on, it’s time to try one of these functional medicine tips, stat.

1. Stimulate your vagus nerve

Have you heard of the vagus nerve? It’s a nerve that travels all over your body but is most famous for connecting your brain to your GI system. Simulating this nerve has been shown (5) to be an effective treatment for depression. You can do this through modalities like pulsed electromagnetic field but also by doing practices such as deep breathing exercises and intermittent fasting.

2. Exercise, even if it’s just for a little

I know you don’t want to (Who wants to exercise when it’s freezing outside?!) but when it comes to supporting your mood, there’s nothing more important than getting your body moving. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy; in fact, it could be as simple as a 10-minute at-home HIIT workout or a dance party around the kitchen.

3. Lean on TCM

Traditional Chinese medicine includes many different healing modalities, but the most famous is probably acupuncture. Acupuncture has been linked (6) to an increase in serotonin and dopamine, two neurotransmitters we want to support in the winter. But how well does this really work? Pretty well. In fact, one study (7) on treatment-resistant patients found that depression was reduced after just one 30-minute acupuncture session.

4. Get a massage

Many of us think of a massage as a huge luxury, but it’s time we start thinking of it as part of our winter self-care routines. Research has shown that bodywork not only lowers cortisol—your body’s main stress hormone—it boosts (8) dopamine and serotonin, which means a happier you.

5. Try taking some adaptogens

More specifically, try taking adaptogens, a group of herbs that are meant to help your body deal with stress. My two favorites for winter are Mucuna pruriens—which contains high levels of L-DOPA, a precursor to dopamine—and holy basil. In a 2008 study (9), a dose of 1 gram of holy basil for two months lowered symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress. That's one of the reasons I developed an adaptogenic blend of my own with Agent Nateur, called holi (y o u t h) that contains spirulina, marine collagen, and pearl along with holy basil—to take advantage of its calming benefits.

6. Take St. John’s wort

Speaking of herbs, you’ve probably already heard of St. John’s wort, a natural supplement that’s been used for years as an alternative to antidepressant medications. While more research needs to be done, the studies we do have point to its ability to reduce depression (10).

7. Don’t forget your vitamin D

Vitamin D’s nickname is the “sunshine vitamin” because we get it when direct sunlight comes into contact with our skin. Knowing this, it’s no surprise that our levels are often low in the winter. You can focus on eating vitamin D-rich foods like egg yolks and wild-caught fish, but many of us still require a supplement. In my practice, I like my patient’s levels to be between 60 and 80 ng/mL, which can require a dose of anywhere between 2,000 and 6,000 IUs of vitamin D per day.

8. Get a lightbox

In the winter it’s not uncommon to leave for work in the dark and come home long after the sun has set. Instead of letting your only light exposure be the fluorescent lighting in your office, try getting a lightbox. They have been shown—in many studies! (11)—to help alleviate SAD. If you can’t get some real sun, this might be the next best thing.

9. Book an infrared sauna session

If you’re craving some heat and a mood boost, try booking an infrared sauna session. Studies have shown that just 15 minutes of sauna a day for a month decreased (12) depression.

10. Drink more tea

After you’ve worked out, taken your vitamin D supplement, used your lightbox, and bo0ked a sauna session, it’s time to cuddle up on the couch with a warm glass of organic tea. Luckily, this can also support your mood. L-theanine, a compound found in green, black, and white tea was shown to improve (13) neurotransmitters like glutamate, which can be out of balance in people with SAD.

11. Support methylation

Methylation is your body’s biochemical superhighway that is responsible for multiple different aspects of your health, including making serotonin. B vitamins are what primarily fuel methylation. These can be found in abundance in grass-fed beef, organ meat, and dark leafy greens like spinach.

12. Fuel your brain

About 60 percent of your brain is comprised of fat and close to 25 percent of your body’s total cholesterol is found in your brain. In order to fight the blues you need to fuel your brain with healthy fats to give serotonin an environment to thrive in.

In my book Ketotarian, I write a lot about the difference between healthy fats and unhealthy fats—and why low-fat diets wreck your brain. Omega-3s are pretty much the epitome of a healthy fat; they are essential for optimal brain health and fend off symptoms like brain fog and fatigue. They’re found naturally in fatty fish like salmon and sardines. If you don’t eat a lot of fish, I recommend supplementing with 2250 mg EPA and 750 mg DHA per day during the winter for brain health and anti-inflammatory support.

13. Up your protein intake

Protein sources like meat and fish contain an amino acid called tyrosine which helps your body make DOPA which is converted to your neurotransmitter dopamine. The highest food sources are cage-free organic eggs, grass-fed ground beef, and wild-caught salmon. If you eat a more plant-based diet, legumes, nuts, and seeds also contain tyrosine.

14. Heal your gut

Your gut is often referred to as your “second brain.” About 95 percent of serotonin is actually produced and stored in your gut. Keeping your gut healthy will help alleviate winter blues.

To make sure the good bugs in your gut are outnumbering the bad ones, try incorporating probiotic-rich foods—like kefir and sauerkraut—and a probiotic supplement into your routine. Opt for a supplement with at least 10 billion CFUs and take it daily.

15. Wake up when the sun does

Dawn simulators are a type of alarm clock that trades out a loud sound with a gradual increase in light similar to sunrise. Make sure to get one with full-spectrum light since that is the most similar to natural sunlight.

16. Inhale happy

Time to place an order for some essential oils! Research has shown (14) that diffusing lavender essential oil can have an antidepressant-like effect.

17. Spice it up with curcumin

You’ve probably heard of curcumin, the main anti-inflammatory compound in turmeric. If you want to fend of inflammation, a curcumin supplement—along with an anti-inflammatory diet—is the way to go. Curcumin has shown promise for a wide range of inflammatory-based issues, like depression and anxiety (15) and arthritis (16). I recommend incorporating turmeric into your diet throughout the winter and supplementing if you need extra support. To make sure you’re getting the most out of your supplement, you should always look for turmeric combined with black pepper to increase absorption.

If you want to learn more about your own health case please check out our consultation process. We offer webcam as well as in-person consultations for people across the country and around the world.

photo: unsplash.com

References:

  1. Rendon NM, Rudolph LM, Sengelaub DR, Demas GE. The agonistic adrenal: melatonin elicits female aggression via regulation of adrenal androgens. Proc Biol Sci. 2015;282(1819):20152080. doi:10.1098/rspb.2015.2080
  2. K M Behall, D J Scholfield, J G Hallfrisch, J L Kelsay, S Reiser, Seasonal variation in plasma glucose and hormone levels in adult men and women, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 40, Issue 6, December 1984, Pages 1352–1356, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/40.6.1352
  3. Diana Loreta Paun, Rodica Petris, et al. The evidence of TSH variation according to the temperature and geographic region in patients with thyroid pathology Endocrine Abstracts (2010) 22 P774
  4. European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP). (2014, October 20). Biochemical cause of seasonal depression (SAD) confirmed by researchers. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 21, 2020 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/10/141020212412.htm
  5. Manta S, Dong J, Debonnel G, Blier P. Enhancement of the function of rat serotonin and norepinephrine neurons by sustained vagus nerve stimulation. J Psychiatry Neurosci. 2009;34(4):272‐280.
  6. Wen G., He X., Lu Y., Xia Y. (2010) Effect of Acupuncture on Neurotransmitters/Modulators. In: Xia Y., Cao X., Wu G., Cheng J. (eds) Acupuncture Therapy for Neurological Diseases. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-10857-0_5
  7. Yeung AS, Ameral VE, Chuzi SE, Fava M, Mischoulon D. A pilot study of acupuncture augmentation therapy in antidepressant partial and non-responders with major depressive disorder. J Affect Disord. 2011;130(1-2):285‐289. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2010.07.025
  8. Field T, Diego MA, Hernandez-Reif M, Schanberg S, Kuhn C. Massage therapy effects on depressed pregnant women. J Psychosom Obstet Gynaecol. 2004;25(2):115‐122. doi:10.1080/01674820412331282231
  9. Bhattacharyya D, Sur TK, Jana U, Debnath PK. Controlled programmed trial of Ocimum sanctum leaf on generalized anxiety disorders. Nepal Med Coll J. 2008;10(3):176‐179.
  10. Linde K, Berner MM, Kriston L. St John's wort for major depression. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2008;2008(4):CD000448. Published 2008 Oct 8. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD000448.pub3
  11. López V, Nielsen B, Solas M, Ramírez MJ, Jäger AK. Exploring Pharmacological Mechanisms of Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) Essential Oil on Central Nervous System Targets. Front Pharmacol. 2017;8:280. Published 2017 May 19. doi:10.3389/fphar.2017.00280
  12. Masuda A, Koga Y, Hattanmaru M, Minagoe S, Tei C. The effects of repeated thermal therapy for patients with chronic pain. Psychother Psychosom. 2005;74(5):288‐294. doi:10.1159/000086319
  13. Hidese S, Ota M, Wakabayashi C, et al. Effects of chronic l-theanine administration in patients with major depressive disorder: an open-label study. Acta Neuropsychiatr. 2017;29(2):72‐79. doi:10.1017/neu.2016.33
  14. López V, Nielsen B, Solas M, Ramírez MJ, Jäger AK. Exploring Pharmacological Mechanisms of Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) Essential Oil on Central Nervous System Targets. Front Pharmacol. 2017;8:280. Published 2017 May 19. doi:10.3389/fphar.2017.00280
  15. Fusar-Poli L, Vozza L, Gabbiadini A, et al. Curcumin for depression: a meta-analysis [published online ahead of print, 2019 Aug 19]. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2019;1‐11. doi:10.1080/10408398.2019.1653260
  16. Daily JW, Yang M, Park S. Efficacy of Turmeric Extracts and Curcumin for Alleviating the Symptoms of Joint Arthritis: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials. J Med Food. 2016;19(8):717‐729. doi:10.1089/jmf.2016.3705

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BY DR. WILL COLE

Evidence-based reviewed article

Dr. Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, leading functional medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He received his doctorate from Southern California University of Health Sciences and post doctorate education and training in functional medicine and clinical nutrition. He specializes in clinically researching underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the best selling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.

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