Fortunately, there are natural methods that help to alleviate the winter blues. Unfortunately, all too often, the connection between a healthy lifestyle and a healthy mood state is overlooked. It is well known that exercise and other natural methods are effective at alleviating depression symptoms. My natural protocol for depression has helped many sufferers of depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD) improve their symptoms without the risks and side effects associated with antidepressant medications. Even for those who do not suffer a mood disorder, it is common to experience some decline in mood during the winter.
Benefit of Exercise for the Winter Blues
Exercise is known to be as effective as antidepressant drugs or cognitive behavioral therapy for improving the symptoms of depression and the winter blues. Exercise works by increasing the production of serotonin, a mood-elevating neurotransmitter, which is often low in those with depression. The combination of aerobic exercise plus strength training is better than aerobic exercise alone, and yoga has also been shown to improve symptoms.1-4
The Benefit of Light Exposure the Winter Blues
In the winter, we tend to spend most of the day’s sunlit hours indoors, at work, or just staying warm at home. Exposure of the retina to morning light helps the brain to properly regulate its production of melatonin and therefore, our sleep-wake cycle; inadequate light exposure during the winter can disrupt this cycle.
During the winter, if getting natural sunlight isn’t possible, a therapeutic light is an effective substitute; it corrects the body’s clock, restores normal melatonin production, and stimulates the production of serotonin.5
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) has been successfully treated with light therapy for nearly thirty years. Light therapy is also highly effective for depression, comparable to the effects of anti-depressant drugs, so it is effective even for non-seasonal depression.6 Light therapy is an excellent tool for anyone who experiences sadness, fatigue, or disrupted sleep patterns, especially if associated with winter.
The Benefit of Omega-3 Fatty Acids for the Winter Blues
Omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in brain health; DHA is primarily associated with cognitive function, and EPA with mood.7 A recent meta-analysis of 28 trials determined that EPA supplementation is effective for improving depression symptoms.7-8 EPA and DHA are considered long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, in contrast to the shorter ALA found in plant foods, such as flax, hemp and chia seeds, walnuts, and leafy greens.
The primary source of EPA is fish, although a small amount of ALA from plant foods can be converted to DHA and EPA in the body. Since conversion efficiency is low for many people, in addition to eating ALA-rich foods daily, I recommend a DHA + EPA supplement for everyone, and a higher dose of EPA for those with depression and the winter blues.9-11
Benefit of a High-Nutrient Diet
Two notable studies compared mood scores in people eating vegetarian versus an omnivorous diet. In an observational study, vegetarian Seventh Day Adventists reported more positive mood and lower levels of depression and anxiety compared to omnivore Adventists.12
In a second study by the same research team, people were assigned to different diets for two weeks. Those in the vegetarian group increased their mood scores after the two weeks, but individuals on the omnivorous diet did not.13 These results suggest that plant-based foods contain substances that positively affect mood. One possibility is the high antioxidant content of plant-based foods; the brain is highly susceptible to oxidative stress. Markers of oxidative stress are indeed associated with a higher incidence of depression and the winter blues.14
Another study found a connection between fruit and vegetable consumption and healthy mood. The authors collected data on the diets of 80,000 people and analyzed scores on a life satisfaction questionnaire relative to the amount of fruit and vegetables consumed daily. Even after adjusting for many other parameters, such as employment status, marital status, income, illness, education, and other dietary variables, greater fruit and vegetable consumption was strongly correlated with greater life satisfaction scores.15
Studies found that fruits and vegetables increase peoples’ moods.
In addition to antioxidants, vitamins and minerals may factor into the positive effects of fruits and vegetables on mood. Several B vitamins contribute to the production of mood-enhancing neurotransmitters, such as folate.16-17 Folate deficiency is known to increase the risk of depression; about one-third of people with depression are folate-deficient.17-20 Also, a low-sodium, high-potassium diet has been shown to have a positive effect on mood.21 Green vegetables and legumes are rich in folate, and all whole plant foods are naturally rich in potassium and low in sodium.
Benefit of Vitamin D
Reduced exposure to sunlight during the winter means less natural vitamin D production by the skin. Scientists don’t know exactly how vitamin D works in the brain, but it is thought to affect the production of neurotransmitters, including serotonin.22 Low blood vitamin D levels are associated with SAD and depression, and there is evidence that supplementing with vitamin D helps to maintain a healthy mood state.23-24 For example, a 4000 IU/day dose of vitamin D for six months starting in the summer improved wellbeing scores in February compared to a lower (600 IU) dose.25
Vitamin D is active in essentially every cell and tissue in the human body and contributes to many facets of health. It is crucial for everyone to maintain adequate blood vitamin D levels (a 25(OH)D of 35-50 ng/ml) with supplements.
The natural, brain-healthy properties of a high-nutrient diet, regular exercise, adequate vitamin D and omega-3 stores, and light exposure combine to promote a positive mood, even in the cold, gray days of winter.
- Gill A, Womack R, Safranek S. Clinical Inquiries: Does exercise alleviate symptoms of depression? J Fam Pract 2010;59:530-531.
- Uebelacker LA, Epstein-Lubow G, Gaudiano BA, et al. Hatha yoga for depression: critical review of the evidence for efficacy, plausible mechanisms of action, and directions for future research. J Psychiatr Pract 2010;16:22-33.
- Saeed SA, Antonacci DJ, Bloch RM. Exercise, yoga, and meditation for depressive and anxiety disorders. Am Fam Physician 2010;81:981-986.
- Ma Q. Beneficial effects of moderate voluntary physical exercise and its biological mechanisms on brain health. Neurosci Bull 2008;24:265-270.
- Miller AL. Epidemiology, etiology, and natural treatment of seasonal affective disorder. Altern Med Rev 2005;10:5-13.
- Golden RN, Gaynes BN, Ekstrom RD, et al. The efficacy of light therapy in the treatment of mood disorders: a review and meta-analysis of the evidence. Am J Psychiatry 2005;162:656-662.
- Kidd PM. Omega-3 DHA and EPA for cognition, behavior, and mood: clinical findings and structural-functional synergies with cell membrane phospholipids.Altern Med Rev 2007;12:207-227.
- Martins JG. EPA but not DHA appears to be responsible for the efficacy of omega-3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation in depression: evidence from a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. J Am Coll Nutr 2009;28:525-542.
- Harnack K, Andersen G, Somoza V. Quantitation of alpha-linolenic acid elongation to eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acid as affected by the ratio of n6/n3 fatty acids. Nutr Metab 2009;6:8.
- Davis BC, Kris-Etherton PM. Achieving optimal essential fatty acid status in vegetarians: current knowledge and practical implications. Am J Clin Nutr 2003;78:640S-646S.
- Arterburn LM, Hall EB, Oken H. Distribution, interconversion, and dose response of n-3 fatty acids in humans. Am J Clin Nutr 2006;83:1467S-1476S.
- Beezhold BL, Johnston CS, Daigle DR. Vegetarian diets are associated with healthy mood states: a cross-sectional study in Seventh Day Adventist adults. Nutrition Journal 2010;9:26.
- Beezhold BL, Johnston CS. Restriction of meat, fish, and poultry in omnivores improves mood: A pilot randomized controlled trial. Nutr J 2012;11:9.
- Tsuboi H, Shimoi K, Kinae N, et al. Depressive symptoms are independently correlated with lipid peroxidation in a female population: comparison with vitamins and carotenoids. J Psychosom Res 2004;56:53-58.
- Blanchflower DG, Oswald AJ, Stewart-Brown S. Is Psychological Well-Being Linked to the Consumption of Fruit and Vegetables? Social Indicators Research 2012.
- Coppen A, Bolander-Gouaille C. Treatment of depression: time to consider folic acid and vitamin B12. J Psychopharmacol 2005;19:59-65.
- Miller AL. The methylation, neurotransmitter, and antioxidant connections between folate and depression. Altern Med Rev 2008;13:216-226.
- Ng TP, Feng L, Niti M, et al. Folate, vitamin B12, homocysteine, and depressive symptoms in a population sample of older Chinese adults. J Am Geriatr Soc 2009;57:871-876.
- Sachdev PS, Parslow RA, Lux O, et al. Relationship of homocysteine, folic acid and vitamin B12 with depression in a middle-aged community sample. Psychol Med 2005;35:529-538.
- Watanabe H, Ishida S, Konno Y, et al. Impact of dietary folate intake on depressive symptoms in young women of reproductive age. J Midwifery Womens Health 2012;57:43-48.
- Torres SJ, Nowson CA, Worsley A. Dietary electrolytes are related to mood. Br J Nutr 2008;100:1038-1045.
- Bertone-Johnson ER. Vitamin D and the occurrence of depression: causal association or circumstantial evidence? Nutr Rev 2009;67:481-492.
- Murphy PK, Wagner CL. Vitamin D and mood disorders among women: an integrative review. J Midwifery Womens Health 2008;53:440-446.
- Lee DM, Tajar A, O’Neill TW, et al. Lower vitamin D levels are associated with depression among community-dwelling European men. J Psychopharmacol 2011;25:1320-1328.
- Vieth R, Kimball S, Hu A, et al. Randomized comparison of the effects of the vitamin D3 adequate intake versus 100 mcg (4000 IU) per day on biochemical responses and the wellbeing of patients. Nutr J 2004;3:8.