Just like shorter days and frigid weather, seasonal depression can sneak up on you.
One minute the sun is shining, the weather is perfect, and all is right with the world. The next thing you know, you’re braving the blistering cold and going both to and from work in the dark.
The change is stark, to say the least. So it’s really no wonder that seasonal affective disorder strikes so many people like clockwork.
But just because we should see it coming from a mile away doesn’t mean we actually will. The holidays might have you so busy that you don’t even notice something’s amiss. Until one bad day eventually turns into a seemingly endless string of them.
And that’s exactly why I’m bringing it up now. Because what you assume is a simple case of the “winter blahs” could actually be the first signs of seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. And recognizing them could mean the difference between suffering until spring or finding healthy strategies to lift your mood this winter season.
A common problem without a clear cause
The origins of SAD are tricky to pin down.
Anecdotally, no one will argue with the existence of the phenomenon—winter’s dreary weather and short, dark days are a pretty universal drag. But for reasons that science is still trying to figure out, some people just get hit harder.
The cause is likely to be a combination of seasonal disruptions in circadian rhythms, hormone and neurotransmitter levels, and genetic or psychological predisposition. But the symptoms will feel familiar to anyone who’s ever battled depression:
- Appetite changes
- Attention problems
- Carb and sugar cravings
- Excessive sleep
- Heavy feeling in limbs
- Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
- Low energy
- Low mood
- Social withdrawal
- Weight gain
In short, if this list looks like a snapshot of your life—one that mysteriously struck with the shifting seasons—then you’re almost certainly struggling with SAD. And identifying the problem means that you can work on addressing it.
But let’s start with one thing you shouldn’t do—and that’s running to your doctor for antidepressants.
Prescription “cures” come at a deadly cost
Antidepressant drugs “work” by blocking either the serotonin or norepinephrine transporter.
And while this temporarily helps to keep these “feel good” chemicals in your brain, antidepressants may also prevent cells in other crucial organs from taking up these biochemicals the way they normally do.
Which is one of the reasons why these drugs come with a boatload of risks.
Like the fact that they may quite literally kill you.
That was the conclusion of a recent meta-analysis of 17 different studies. Researchers examined the links between antidepressants, cardiovascular events, and overall mortality, in both heart patients and the general population.
They found that, among the general population, antidepressant drugs increased overall death risk by 33 percent—and risk of heart-related events by 14 percent. This effect went across the board, striking along all the various classes of antidepressants.1
Certainly, there are times in which a patient truly in need can find great success with this method of treatment. But generally, antidepressants are overused and overprescribed.
I always advise patients to carefully consider other options before resorting to prescription medications.
The good news is that this is far from a rock and a hard place. Because there are a lot of steps you can take to head off seasonal depression at the pass. And the earlier you get a jump on it, the better.
Step 1: Fake it ‘til you make it
Winter steals your sunshine—literally and figuratively. And the absence of sunlight can interfere with your mood, your health, and your body’s natural circadian rhythms.
Obviously, we can’t help that the days are shorter. And all the lamps in the world won’t make up for that lost sunshine… unless, of course, you invest in full spectrum lighting.
When I installed full spectrum light bulbs in my office, it changed my life.
Although they’re a little more expensive, improvements in your mood and overall well-being are well worth the investment. You can find them at Home Depot or in your local hardware store. (They run about $9 a pop.)
I use these bulbs year-round in every lamp. As the name suggests, they give off a full spectrum of light, which mimics sunlight. Needless to say, it’s a lot easier than sitting in front of one of those light boxes you may have heard about.
But of course, this still leaves the problem of lost vitamin D, which your body only generates in response to UV rays. So it’s a good thing there’s an easy fix for that too.
I recommend anywhere from 2,000 IU to 10,000 IU of vitamin D3 per day.
It all depends on your blood level, where you live in the country (us Northerners see a lot less sun), and how much time you spend outside without sunscreen.
Needs will vary, but the bottom line is that most people need a lot more vitamin D than they’re actually getting. In fact, about 80 percent of Americans are deficient. So while it might sound excessive, the upper end of this dosage range is actually perfectly safe.
In fact, I take 10,000 IU of D3 every day. To determine an optimal dose for you, ask your doctor for the 25(OH)D blood test to see where your vitamin D level is. And if it’s below 80ng/mL, plan on having it checked every six weeks until you get it up where it needs to be.
Personally, once I got my level up to around 80, I felt my mood change for the better.
So don’t let your doctor tell you you’re fine if your level is around 30. (And most doctors will.) Sufficient isn’t the same as optimal. Aim higher!
Step 2: Don’t forget vitamin D’s essential mood-boosting sidekicks
Like vitamin D, you really should be taking a daily, high-quality fish oil supplement with a high amount of EPA and DHA. (I’ve been recommending a total of 3,000 mg of combined EPA and DHA for years now.)
But in the event that you’re not on board yet, here’s why it’s time to start today…
Researchers have found that vitamin D and EPA/DHA actually work together in a precise collaboration to maximize your body’s serotonin function.2
And obviously, adequate serotonin levels in the brain are critical to boosting your mental health.
Vitamin D kicks off the process by regulating serotonin production. Then EPA steps in to influence the release of serotonin. And finally, DHA helps usher the serotonin into the brain’s receptors efficiently.
The result is improved mood. Which makes this a simple, healthy way for anyone battling seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or mild depression to ease their symptoms.
Speaking of serotonin, make sure you’re taking a daily probiotic too. This is one of my most essential everyday recommendations, but it’s also a key strategy for tackling SAD.
Because what most people don’t realize is that your gut is actually responsible for generating the bulk of your body’s serotonin. (Which is just one reason why you’ll hear people call it “the second brain.”)
My favorite probiotic is Dr. Ohhira’s. I recommend 2 capsules per day.
Step 3: Go back to basics
Last but not least, there’s one unavoidable fact: To get a handle on SAD, you have to go back to basics and make a healthy diet and regular exercise a top priority.
As for diet—if you haven’t already, it’s time to finally kick the sugar habit.
Not only does sugar depress your immunity (as I discuss on page 8), it depletes vital B vitamins from your body and zaps your energy and alertness. Needless to say, that doesn’t help your mood, even if that Christmas cookie feels good in the moment.
Instead, I urge you to fill up on nutrient-dense whole foods and healthy fats. And just as importantly, slash carbs (which are really sugar, just by another name).
In fact, I outline the simple, delicious way you can break free of sugar’s vice-like grip in my latest book, The A-List Diet. (Go to www.AListDietBook.com to get your copy today.)
The idea behind this way of eating is to put your body into ketosis. Because as I explained back in the January 2018 issue of Logical Health Alternatives (“The real culprit behind post-holiday depression”), this state—in which your body switches to fat as its main source of fuel—is an effective, natural solution for a wide range of neurological issues, including depression.
But you’ll get even better results from all of the steps I’ve outlined in this article if you also incorporate physical activity into your daily routine. Exercise raises endorphins and energy levels. It’s also one of the most effective ways to stabilize your body’s natural circadian rhythms.
You get bonus points if you can squeeze in some sunshine with it, too—an admittedly tall order when it gets dark before 5 p.m. But if a brisk 20-minute walk during your lunch break is all you can do, rest assured that it will still make a huge difference.
5 more safe, natural mood boosters to help you through the winter
The three simple steps I outlined above are all it takes to ease SAD in many of my patients. But if you find you need a little extra help to get through the winter, here are a few of my top picks for mood-boosting supplements:
SAM-e. This is an amino acid that helps to boost serotonin levels. Starting mid- to late October, I start taking 400 to 800 mg every morning.
B complex. B vitamins alleviate stress and boost energy. I usually recommend taking a B-100 complex each day. But I double up on my B vitamins in the winter (a dose of 200 mg per day).
Tryptophan. This nutrient can help to raise serotonin levels and get you a good night’s sleep. I start taking 100 to 300 mg each night before bedtime in the winter.
During these dark and gloomy months, I also take more zinc (30 mg) and magnesium (750 mg) daily.
- Maslej MM, et al. Psychother Psychosom. 2017;86(5):268-282.
- Patrick RP, et al. FASEB J. 2015 Jun;29(6):2207-22.
- Naumann J, et al. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2017 Mar 28;17(1):172.