Image by shifaa mokai from Pixabay

February 1st, 2021

As we are dead in the middle of winter, many of us still have cold days ahead. This time of year often brings "cooped up" feelings and many of us tend to feel downright dull and depressed.

Twenty-five percent of the US population suffers from a significant drop in mood and energy during the winter, often known as the "winter blues." Of those suffering with the winter blues, more than 20 percent develop seasonal depression, or seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Common symptoms of SAD include weight gain, lethargy, fatigue, irritability and decreased sociability.

Have you experienced any of these symptoms in winters past?

Here are some options to consider so you don't have to live with a sour mood until the brighter days of spring arrive. You don't have to turn to questionably effective anti-depressants. Consider Mother Nature's mood boosters. Mother Nature provides all of the essential ingredients your brain needs to function optimally and to lift your spirits naturally. Including many of these options in your life can help you feel much better all year long, not just in the winter!

Here are some of the top natural mood-boosters and how they work:

1) Omega-3 Fats: While you know that fish consumption is good for your brain, you might not realize that it's a "mood food" too. The essential fatty acids found in cold water fish - omega-3 - are critical to brain health and mood, yet as many as 80 percent of us don't get enough. Omega-3s help build connections between neurons in the brain and they also help create the receptor sites for neurotransmitters. Optimize your omega-3s by enjoying wild caught seafood (like salmon and sardines) or by taking a high quality fish oil supplement.

2) Vitamin D: The "sunshine vitamin" does a lot to help brighten your mood. Up to 90 percent of us are deficient at least part of the year (mostly winter months), and as many as 50 percent of us are critically deficient. To combat the doldrums, optimize your vitamin D level with 20-30 minutes of sunlight at least 3-5 days a week. If you live in a climate where this is not possible, consider "light therapy" which is generally accepted as one of the most effective treatments for SAD.

You may wish to supplement your diet with vitamin-D rich cod-liver oil or take a supplement with 2,000-5,000 IUs of vitamin D3 daily. Optimal D dosing for kids differs based on age.

3) B Vitamins: Vitamins B6, B12 and folate also help to produce mood-boosting serotonin. That's not all these B-vitamins do. They also lower homocysteine - an amino acid that increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and depression. A 2002 study found that women with high homocysteine levels had double the incidence of depression.

B-vitamins in the body are depleted by stress, (which is plentiful during the winter holidays!) so be sure to include lots of foods rich in these nutrients in your diet, like leafy greens, avocados, asparagus, broccoli, bell peppers, chicken, salmon, lamb, liver, beef and non-fortified brewer's yeast.

4) Selenium: Selenium is critical for immune health and staying healthy through the holidays. Here's a good reason to top off your supply: Low levels of selenium are also associated with an increased risk of depression. Consider supplementing selenium or better yet, enjoy Brazil nuts, as just one provides 150 percent of the US RDA of selenium.

5) Antioxidants: Fighting free radicals means protecting cells - including brain cells, which are most susceptible to damage. Clinical studies have found that people with depression have low levels of antioxidants in their blood. Improve your diet with high antioxidant foods, like blueberries, cranberries, blackberries and raspberries, organic dark cacao and supercharged antioxidant spices like cinnamon, turmeric and cloves.

6) Animal Protein: If you're a vegetarian, you may be lacking the important depression- fighting amino acid - tryptophan, an important precursor to serotonin. Protein-rich foods such as grass fed beef; free-range chicken and pastured eggs are some of the best sources of tryptophan.

7) Probiotics: Depression is not all in your head. It could be in your gut too. Your gut is responsible for making many neurotransmitters and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) has been found to contribute to depression by promoting inflammation and oxidative stress, as well as reducing the absorption of mood-boosting nutrients.

Get your gut health in check by enjoying fermented foods (like sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha), raw, grass-fed cultured dairy products (like kefir and yogurt) and taking a high quality probiotic. I've been taught that everyone consuming the American diet should be on a probiotic to improve gut health.

8) Low Glycemic Carbs: Refined carbs (all the whites, bread, flour, rice, sugar, etc.) cause a sugar buzz or "high" and subsequent crash. While that's bad news for energy and insulin levels, there's even more to the story. Sugar burns up your mood-enhancing B-vitamins and diverts the supply of chromium - a mineral that helps keep blood sugar stable and positively affects the release of feel-good norepinephrine and serotonin.

Be sure to opt for complex carb foods, and replace your typical sugary holiday treats with just-as-delicious low or no sugar substitutes. We've been confused all these years eating a low-fat diet when we should have been eating a low refined added sugar/carb diet.

9) There are two natural supplements that can boost your mood and help to keep your neurotransmitters in balance. They are SAM-e and 5-HTP. Anti-depressant medications can cause serious side-effects - including addiction, aggression, and worsening depression (including thoughts of suicide), not to mention an increased risk of cardiovascular events and even death. Try some of the natural mood boosters first before turning to a pill.

If you want to further address or avoid depression, start by exercising consistently, enjoying time in the sun frequently and following as many of the nutritional guidelines listed above as possible.

Keep your wits about you during these last few winter months and incorporate the proper nutrients into your diet to help you stay at your mental peak throughout the winter.

Here is to spring,


Chris Nagy, MD