We're at that weird time of year between Winter and Spring where the weather is just as unpredictable as our mood. Between the seasons changing and the stress of the pandemic, this is a perfect recipe for mood imbalance. Every time I feel a little “off” I hit up my naturopathic kween, Dr. Michaela. I asked her a few questions to better understand what happens to the body and mind when these symptoms arise and what can be done to restore balance. Between conversations with clients and our staff, I know I’m not the only one who goes through this. I thought I’d share our conversation so we can all feel better together.
AM: What is seasonal affective disorder? Why does it occur?
MF: Seasonal Affective Disorder (also called SAD for short) is the term used for any seasonal episodes of mental/emotional disturbances, most often winter depression. These episodes of low mood often get much better once the season changes. The most common thing people think of is those severe winter blues that happen, but improve when spring and summer come back. We aren't currently sure why SAD occurs, but there are a few theories ranging from a disturbance in circadian rhythms (the night/day sleep cycles our bodies follow naturally), to lower serotonin (our happy brain hormone), to changes in our vitamin D levels. Personally, I don't think it's as easy as just one of those theories, but all of the theories playing into one another. In the past, before industrialization, we would sleep longer during the winter months, mostly during times of darkness. Now, however, we adhere to our schedules and are awake during more dark hours than previously. I think this messes with our brains' sleep/wake cycle and therefore changes how we release our neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, etc. We also see less daylight and therefore make less vitamin D, which has a large role in both mood and immunity. Lastly, I think we can't dismiss the stress (both good and bad) that winter months bring with increased holidays, etc.
AM: Are there any food items that help with winter blues? Anything that should be avoided?
MF: There are foods that can help, albeit indirectly. Keeping B vitamin levels higher will help wtih mood, especially B12, folate, and B6. Good food sources of B12 are meats, fish, and eggs. If you are vegetarian, you can easily take a supplement every day of B12, look for a sublingual methylcobalamin or hydroxycobalamin as they are best absorbed. Folate can be found in green leafy veggies, fruits, nuts, eggs, and other meats. If you choose to supplement folate, please avoid folic acid. Folic acid is very poorly absorbed by up to 40% of the world's population, so it is best to either eat it in your diet or supplement with folate or 5MTHF. B6 can be found in meats, whole grains, and veggies. B6 is almost always chronically low in women who take birth control pills, which are known to deplete B vitamins, but especially B6.
Fish can be super beneficial for the winter months not only for the B vitamins it possesses, but also the omega 3 fatty acids they have. Omega 3s are not only antidepressants and mood elevators, but also are anti-inflammatory. They can help with pain, exercise recovery, and even improve cholesterol levels. My favorite study about omega 3s is an Australian study by Barbara Meyer (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4368577/) that showed that omega 3s can even decrease aggression and ADD in prisons!
The other main thing I often suggest to people with mental/emotional concerns is probiotics or probiotic foods. There are more neurotransmitters made in your gut than your brain and I often tell patients that both immunity and mood start in the gut! Probiotic foods are things like sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, kefir, yogurt, tempeh, and kombucha. I always caution people with dairy based fermented foods though. Many people are sensitive to dairy and food sensitivities can include low mood. If there are existing abdominal complaints like gas/bloating, pain, cramping, or any immune dysfunction, please ask your doctor about trying probiotics before starting. Some conditions can become worse with probiotics.
Things to avoid are just inflammatory foods like sugar, fried foods, trans fats, excessive alcohol, and processed meats, etc. There is a school of thought that believes that depression can be attributed to mild brain inflammation, so keeping inflammation to a minimum can be very helpful.
AM: What are some tips to improve mood during this time of year?
MF: My main tips and tricks are to try to stay as healthy as possible over the winter months! Exercise will increase endorphins and help elevate mood, improve sleep, and keep inflammation down. Try to get some sunlight or, if appropriate, take a vitamin D supplement over the winter months. I find this really helps elevate mood and keep your immune system strong. Eat plenty of vegetables as they are full of anti inflammatory and all those great B vitamins I spoke about earlier.
Another important thing is to have good sleep hygiene, which means keeping blue light to a minimum in the hours before bed. Normally, I try to avoid using most electronic devices (easier said than done, I know!) for at least 30 minutes. Ideal is 1-2 hours, but I'll be honest, even 30 minutes helps. Also, avoid caffeine and strenuous exercise before bed.
Lastly, I LOVE gratitude journaling. Everyday, take 20 minutes or less (that's seriously all it takes to lower blood pressure, elevate mood, and even reduce stress!) and journal. Subjects can range from what happened to you that day like a diary, to stream of consciousness, to things you are grateful for. My personal favorite is to use gratitude prompts such as, "Tell about your favorite smell and why". I often google gratitude journal prompts or buy a journal with them and spend 5-20 minutes answering the question. If 20 minutes is too much for you, you can try meditation for 3 minutes a day. Studies support that just THREE minutes a day will help center your brain, elevate mood, and decrease anxiety. There are even a special subset of meditation and mindfulness for those that need to multitask even those 3 minutes a day.
If you think your mood is really low, or you have thoughts of hurting yourself or others, please reach out to a friend, boss, family member, doctor, or trusted mental health professional for help. There are even apps such as TalkSpace and Lantern that are affordable and easy to use.
Remember, oftentimes low mood can go along with other signs and symptoms such as SIBO and GI issues, autoimmune conditions, and even pain. Naturopathic doctors can help support all these things well! I've often been really excited how effective small simple changes in diet and gut health have really positively impacted mood! And as always, talk to your doctor before starting new supplements. //
If you feel like you’re feeling a little blue, reach out. Email Dr. Michaela to set up your consultation.