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NYC Psychoanalyst, Susan Whedbee Blog : Fighting The Winter Blues

Author: Susan Whedbee
Private Practice NYC Psychotherapist

As we turn the clocks back and the days get darker and colder you may find yourself coming down with the winter blues. Seasonal Affect Disorder, otherwise known as SAD is more common when we are exposed to less light during the day. It is characterized by recurrent episodes of depression which may occur in late fall and winter and alternate with periods of normal mood the remainder of the year.   Other symptoms of SAD include hypersomnia (excessive sleep and lethargy), carbohydrate craving, weight gain, and for some, hopelessness, lack of interest in normal activities and isolation.

There are a number of things that you might consider to combat the winter doldrums in a natural fashion:

Light exposure:  

Many people who are not severely depressed respond well to light therapy.   According to Joel Fuhrman, M.D., exposure to morning light helps the brain to regulate the production of melatonin which then regulates our sleep-wake cycle. If we are not exposed to adequate light in the winter this cycle can be disrupted.   A therapeutic light corrects the body’s clock, restores normal melatonin production and stimulates the production of serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter which elevates our mood and is often low when we are depressed.

 Exercise:

Exercise works to increase the production of serotonin. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence in the United Kingdom asserts that when aerobic exercise is done regularly, one’s mood can improve without the side effects of medication. Research conducted at the University of Texas at Austin has shown that 40 minutes of exercise can have an immediate effect on one’s mood. In addition, Fuhrman asserts that yoga has been shown to improve depressive symptoms. You may be surprised what you find when you monitor your mood before and after your workout.

Vitamin D:

A 2010 national study found that people who are depressed are more likely to have a deficiency in vitamin D compared with people who have adequate levels of this vitamin. It was found that when suffering from SAD, their mood tended to improve as their levels of vitamin D increased over the normal course of a year.

 Omega-3 Fatty Acids:

Fuhrman points out that Omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in brain health – DHA is associated with cognitive function and EPA with mood. In a meta-analysis of 28 trials, it was determined that EPA supplementation is effective for improving depressive symptoms. In another study, scientists found that societies that eat a small amount of omega-3 fatty acids are more predisposed to major depressive disorder than societies that get adequate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. For people who are depressed, DHA and EPA supplementation may be indicated.

High Nutrient Diet:

Since alcohol is a depressant, you may want to cut back on its consumption. You may also consider eating a more whole food plant strong diet since plants contain substances such as dopamine, serotonin, melatonin that positively affect one’s mood. Fuhrman points out that plant foods contain a high degree of antioxidants which help to decrease the markers of oxidative stress on the brain – markers of oxidative stress are associated with higher incidences of depression. Moreover, many people suffering from depression are deficient in folate and may also be low in potassium. Green vegetables and legumes are high in folate and all whole plant foods are rich in potassium.

Another meaningful dietary alternative is to consume more complex carbohydrates to boost your tryptophan levels.  In his article, John McDougall, M.D., points out that this essential amino acid is converted in the brain into serotonin. How much tryptophan that enters the brain depends on other large amino acids that are present in the blood. A high protein meal full of meat, dairy foods and eggs contain other amino acids which compete with tryptophan for entry into the brain. As a result there is less tryptophan passing into the brain which then decreases the synthesis of serotonin. Conversely, consuming more complex carbohydrates consisting of whole plant foods results in the highest levels of serotonin absorption in the brain since fewer large amino acids are competing with tryptophan.

There is clearly a connection between a healthy lifestyle and a healthy mood. So please don’t despair if you are suffering from the winter blahs – there are a number of things that you can start to do right now. If, however, you are experiencing significant symptoms, you may want to discuss this with your primary care provider or see a mental health professional so that you can be properly evaluated and treated.