As the fall weather is settling in, some of us may be feeling depressed, unproductive, and have decreased energy levels. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, research suggests that between 2 and 3 per cent of the general population may have seasonal affective disorder (SAD), while another 15 per cent will have a less severe experience called the “winter blues.” SAD is a type of depression that seems to be related to the amount of sunlight that you are exposed to. An extreme form of the “winter blues,” SAD is worst for most people in the fall and winter. In rare cases, some people develop SAD during the late spring or early summer months.and not just the occasional winter blues.
It is important speak to your naturopath or doctor to help identify symptoms and work together to develop a wellness plan to help you cope with SAD.
Below are symptoms, diet and lifestyle recommendations that you may find helpful this season.
SAD symptoms can be difficult to identify, however, if you have episodes of depression that recur at the same time every year for more than 2 years, you may have SAD.
- Depressed mood
- Feelings of hopelessness
- A lack of energy
- Difficulty concentrating
- Changes in sleep and appetite
- A loss of pleasure in activities you once loved
- Loss of libido
- Sleep problems
- Weakened immune system
- Thoughts of death or suicide
Nutrition For The Brain
Gut health is so important in how our brain functions. Recent studies show that the gut is not only 80% of our immune system, but it contains 95% of the body’s serotonin. Choosing foods to support your intestinal system can be beneficial for your mental health as well.
Increase Omega 3 fats:
Omega-3 fats are called essential fats, because unlike some other substances, they can’t be manufactured within the human body, and therefore it is essential that you take them in through your diet.
The richest dietary source is from oily fish such as:
- Fresh but not tinned tuna
Increase B Vitamins:
People with either low blood levels of the B-vitamin folic acid, or high blood levels of the amino acid homocysteine (a sign that you are not getting enough B6, B12 or folic acid), are both more likely to be depressed. Folic acid helps to normalise homocysteine. A deficiency in vitamins B3, B6, folic acid, zinc and magnesium have all been linked to depression. When you have low homocysteine levels it means your brain is good at ‘methylating’ which is the process by which the brain keeps it’s chemistry in balance.
Food Sources for B Vitamins:
- Dark leafy greens
- Sunflower seeds
- Nutritional yeast
Click here to read my post on methylation and get 5 tips on how to improve your methylation process.
Boost Your Serotonin:
Serotonin is made in the body and brain from an amino acid called tryptophan. Tryptophan is then converted into another amino acid called 5-Hydroxy Tryptophan (5-HTP), which in turn is converted into the neurotransmitter serotonin.
Serotonin Rich Foods Include:
- Hickory nuts
Tryptophan Rich Foods Include:
- Seafood of all kinds
- Meat of all kinds
- Poultry of all kinds
How you eat these foods will also impact your serotonin levels. According to Dr. Judith J. Wurtman, co-author of The Serotonin Power Diet, for maximum absorption of serotonin, she suggests to eat these above foods away from protein as protein blocks serotonin synthesis.
Balance Your Blood Sugar:
There is a direct link between mood and blood sugar balance. All carbohydrate foods are broken down into glucose and your brain runs on glucose. The more uneven your blood sugar supply the more uneven your mood.
Eating lots of sugar is going to give you sudden peaks and troughs in the amount of glucose in your blood; symptoms that this is going on include fatigue, irritability, dizziness, insomnia, excessive sweating (especially at night), poor concentration and forgetfulness, excessive thirst, depression and crying spells, digestive disturbances and blurred vision. Since the brain depends on an even supply of glucose it is no surprise to find that sugar has been implicated in aggressive behaviour, anxiety, and depression, and fatigue .
Lots of refined sugar and refined carbohydrates (meaning white bread, pasta, rice and most processed foods,) is also linked with depression because these foods not only supply very little in the way of nutrients but they also use up the mood enhancing B vitamins.
Sugar also diverts the supply of another nutrient involved in mood – chromium. This mineral is vital for keeping your blood sugar level stable because insulin, which clears glucose from the blood, can’t work properly without it.
regular soft drinks/sodas, energy drinks and sports drinks
desserts or snacks, including cakes, cookies, pies and cobblers
refined carbohydrates like sweet rolls, pastries, waffles, pancakes and doughnuts
sweetened teas and fruit drinks, such as iced tea, fruit punch, etc.
dairy desserts, including ice cream
Increase Gut Loving Foods:
Our brain and our gut are closely connected and constantly communicate – this is referred to as the “gut-brain axis.” Many systems, including our immune system, gut microbiome (all the teeny tiny organisms and bacteria in our gut), and central nervous system play an important role in this communication. Newer research is now showing that our diet can also affect mental health. Lots of research has been done to look at diet and depression and with good reason; according to the World Health Organization, depression is a leading cause of disability worldwide and affects more than 300 million people globally.
Pre-and probiotic foods can also have a positive effect on our gut microbiome. Probiotics are live organisms such as bacteria, that when consumed, can have a positive effect on the host (aka those who eat them), some are also naturally found in our digestive tract.
Prebiotics are a type of non-digestible fiber compound and work together with probiotics to allow specific changes to take place, both in the composition and activity of the gastrointestinal system. They play a fundamental role in preserving health by maintaining balance and diversity of intestinal bacteria, especially increasing the presence of “good bacteria” called lactobacilli and bifidobacteria.
- Raw Chicory Root
- Raw Garlic
- Raw Onions
- Raw Jerusalem Artichoke
- Raw Dandelion Greens
- Cooked Onions
- Raw Asparagus
- Raw Wheat Flour
- Raw Bran Flour
- Raw Bananas
Probiotics are healthy or good bacteria that when eaten in right amount have health benefits. Once in the colon, the bacteria multiply and help to keep a balance between the good and bad bacteria that live there. Probiotics are added to certain foods.
- Homemade yogurt
- Miso soup
- Microaglae (spirulina, chorella, and blue-green algae)
- Non GMO Tempeh
- Bone broth
Making a habit to add a probiotic food source to your diet daily is a sure way to improve and promote a healthy gut and improve your mood.
Dr. Robert Levitan, CAMH conducted a study where researchers followed 122 patients and evaluated whether light therapy improved the mood of patients when it was used both with and without the commonly prescribed antidepressant fluoxetine.
Light therapy involved 30 minutes of exposure to a fluorescent light box soon after waking up every day for eight weeks. The study measured the change in a common depression rating scale score before and after the real or sham treatment.
Light therapy reduced symptoms among many patients. The greatest benefit was seen among those who had combined light therapy and antidepressants treatment, with about 75 per cent responding positively.
Whether it be friends, family, or professional counselling, it is important to ensure that you have a solid support system that is full of love and encouragement to help you through SAD. If you are uncomfortable attending a session in person or having a particularity bad day, there are hotlines available for your convenience. The hotlines are NOT to replace proper counselling session or urgent attention needed, the live agents are meant as a sounding board for suggestions and can offer helpful first steps to a wealth of resource and information 24/7.
Ontario Mental Health Helpline: 1-866-531-2600
Canadian Mental Health Association: https://cmha.ca/find-your-cmha/
Distress and Crisis Ontario: http://www.dcontario.org
Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868
Exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function. Aerobic exercise have been proved to reduce anxiety and depression.
Types of aerobic exercise include:
Mindfulness & Meditation:
In addition to exercise, the practice of mindfulness and meditation has also proven to improve mental health. Research suggest that mindfulness is positively associated with psychological health, and that training in mindfulness may bring about positive psychological effects. These effects ranged from increased subjective well-being, reduced psychological symptoms and emotional reactivity, to improved regulation of behaviour.
Types of Mindfulness and Meditation Exercises include:
- Guided Meditation
- Mindful Based Stress Reduction
- Tai Chi
For more information, resources, and course information visit The Mindfulness Toronto website.
Before taking any supplements, it’s always in your best interest to contact your naturopath or health care professional to ensure that it is in the best interest of your wellness and there are no interactions with your medications.
- St. John’s wort: St. John’s wort is an herbal remedy that has long been used in Europe as a treatment for mood disorders. Standardized extracts have shown an effectiveness equaling Prozac in the treatment of mild to moderate forms of the disease. It should not be taken with anti-retroviral medications, birth control pills, or antidepressant medications, especially SSRIs like Prozac or Celexa.
- SAMe (S-adenosy-L-methionine): Has the advantage of working more quickly than St John’s wort. Use only the butanedisulfonate form in enteric-coated tablets, or in capsules.
- Vitamin D3: Research shows that improving your vitamin D levels can help to reduce the symptoms of depression. Vitamin D acts like a hormone in the body and effects brain function, which is why a deficiency is linked to an increased risk for mood disorders, including depression and seasonal affective disorder. Aim for spending 10–20 minutes in the sun daily.
In the past I have suffered from post partum depression (PPD) and in that time suffered from SAD which made all the symptoms of PPD significantly worse. It was important for me to have a solid support system and after some research, I asked for a referral to Women’s College Hospital – Reproductive Life Stages Program. This program made the difference in my recovery. Another great source of counselling that is of benefit is Art Therapy, a creative artful way of expression and analysis of the expression with the help of a registered psychotherapist.
SAD and depression can be difficult to identify, manage and can be isolating. I hope this post can shed some light on this matter, and that the above suggestions are helpful to you or someone you know. You are not alone and there are lots of qualified help and support groups for you. For more nutritional information and suggestions feel free to contact me.
Sumbul Zafar, R.H.N.
Fish oils: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC533861/
Gut brain: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4662178/
Gut brain: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/gut-second-brain/
Gut brain: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2515351/
Increasing serotonin: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2077351/
Protein blocking serotonin: https://www.webmd.com/depression/features/serotonin#1
Protein blocking serotonin: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-antidepressant-diet/201411/chasing-away-insomnia-bowl-oatmeal
Light therapy: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/fullarticle/2470681
Light therapy: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2679625
St.johns wart: https://nccih.nih.gov/health/stjohnswort/sjw-and-depression.htm
Vitamin d: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2738337/