Fall and winter mean shorter days, colder weather—and for many people, the winter blues. Of course, nearly everyone has low-energy days and occasional bouts of “the blues.” But did you know that the winter blues can be long-lasting? Fortunately, targeted winter nutritional support can provide protection against the blues by beneficially “toning down,” or modulating, a stress hormone called cortisol. And, who doesn’t have stress during the winter season.
The winter blues is marked by feelings of depression, lethargy, and lack of motivation that can interfere with normal activities. While the blues strikes most often in winter, it can also affect people who don’t spend much time in the sun, work midnight shifts and sleep during the day, or who don’t get sun during rainy seasons.
Sunshine and Serotonin
Light, especially sunshine, stimulates the production of various chemicals in the brain that can help decrease the winter blues and other types of depression. For example, sunlight exposure helps the body keep higher levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, a brain chemical that helps a person have a sense of well-being. When someone gets too little sunlight, serotonin decreases, and that can bring on winter blues and other problems.
Stress Hormones and the Winter Blues
Cortisol, a naturally-occurring stress hormone associated with mood, well-being, and stress response, is released from the adrenal cortex (located along the perimeter of the adrenal gland). Too much cortisol—a potential symptom associated with insufficient sunlight—can inhibit the “reuptake,” or reabsorption, of serotonin into presynaptic cells. (A presynaptic cell is the transmitting end of a neuron, or brain cell, which passes serotonin and other neurotransmitters to the postsynaptic cell).
Lowering cortisol release can help to reduce the reabsorption of serotonin, making more serotonin available to the body. This result can, in turn, help to relieve depression, including the winter blues.
Natural Blues Fighters
Certain nutritional ingredients may help fight the winter blues. They work by helping to keep cortisol, serotonin, and other substances found in the brain within normal ranges. These winter nutritional supports include:
Because many people today don’t get enough sunlight, they can become vitamin D deficient. Vitamin D deficiency has been shown to contribute to depressive behavior. On the other hand, increasing levels of vitamin D in people who are deficient affects the function of glucocorticoids—hormones produced in the adrenal cortex—in ways that can help to relieve depression. The recommended dosage of vitamin D varies from person to person, but some experts suggest 1000 to 2000 international units daily, depending on age and health status. It’s best to consult your healthcare practitioner for the proper vitamin D dosage for you. And keep in mind that vitamin D supplements are absorbed better if taken with a meal.
Folate, or folic acid, is a B vitamin that also plays a role in mood. Low folate levels have been associated with depression. However, a clinical trial conducted at the Department of Psychiatry, London, UK, showed that depressed patients receiving regular dosages of 5-methyl tetrahydrofolate (a highly bioavailable source of folic acid) showed significant improvements over periods of three and six months. As with vitamin D supplements, you should consult your healthcare practitioner to determine the proper dosage of folate for you.
Folate is often taken with vitamin B12 because the two work together to enhance biological processes that can help to relieve depression. For instance, folate and vitamin B12 supplements can enhance DNA methylation, which can help to decrease cortisol secretion. As we’ve seen, lower cortisol secretion helps to make more serotonin available to the body, which can help to relieve depression.
Dhydroepiandrosterone, is a hormone naturally produced by the adrenal glands. It has been shown to reduce symptoms of depression by 50% compared to a placebo in an NIMH study.
A Blues-Fighting Power Combo
Vitamin D, vitamin B12, 5-methyl tetrahydrofolate, and DHEA can be taken in combination to enhance their beneficial effects in fighting the winter blues.
If you’re interested in natural approaches to fighting the winter blues, please schedule an appointment at my office. We can offer a comprehensive plan that includes dietary and lifestyle counseling as well as targeted, high quality nutritional support.