Depression, anxiety, and seasonal mood changes

With the winter soon to be in full force, shorter days, less fresh air, and cold temperatures forcing us to take shelter inside our homes, diminished emotional stability and altered mood issues are common.  For individuals who experience a chronically lower mood this may edge them further towards depression.  For others the slight tendencies to an anxious response become a daily struggle, and sleep or relationships problems result from this.  Even individuals who do not have chronic issues with depression or anxiety can find that seasonal blues are an issue.  Fortunately there are many things which can be done to support the mood, nurture the body and soul, and rejuvenate the body so it is ready for another summer.

In the winter for most of us there is more time to cook and prepare meals.  Taking more time to cook and preparing foods that are internally more warming will nurture our internal energy, supporting and restoring the fuel that we tend to burn in the summer and warmer weather.  Our body needs more energy to keep it warm, and digestion is often compromised because of this.  Eating seasonally is important, and for most people the digestive system will be better toned by eating warming foods.  Warming foods include things that have been cooked for longer times (stews, crock pots, and fruit compotes), root vegetables, and herbs and spices such as ginger and turmeric (also roots) which are warming.  Beverages which enhance warmth such as turmeric and ginger tea with coconut milk (also called Golden Milk for those looking for recipes) will bring warmth to the body and digestive system.  Avoiding things that are cold or uncooked (ice water, salads, and ice cream for much of Wisconsin) will support digestive tone and fire as well. 

Exercise is supportive to a healthy mood as it releases endorphins.  Endorphins are hormones which make your body feel good, and also decrease our perception of pain.  Getting regular exercise and fresh air also helps the body to have improved appetite and sleep.  Exercise helps boost self esteem, and supports healthy metabolism, cardiovascular health, and blood sugar regulation among other things.  Moving the body improves circulation, and for people who are chronically chilly or old this also is helpful.  If temperature and ground conditions allow you to exercise outside safely, the beauty of nature in winter is something we can also appreciate.

The best things to support the mood and the physiology associated with depression or anxiety vary on an individual basis. Some things in addition to diet and exercise that are supportive to most people include daily consumption of a quality fish oil, supplemental vitamin D, probiotics, and a B complex vitamin with methylated forms of B12 and folate.  There are a variety of mechanisms by which these things support the body and healthy mood.

Fish oil contains essential fatty acids (also known as omega-3’s) which are necessary (essential!) for the body as we are not able to produce them.  The parent fatty acid for omega-3 production is alpha-linolenic acid, however this is not efficiently converted into the forms of omega-3’s found in fish oil (EPA and DHA) making these nutrients in supplement or food form also essential.  Omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory and support cellular membrane fluidity.  Both of these mechanisms may be important for maintaining a healthy mood and emotional balance.

 Vitamin D is converted to the active form in the skin by sunlight exposure, and the portion of the ultraviolet spectrum (UVB) necessary for this is not present in the winter.  This causes supplemental vitamin D to be necessary.  An alternate option would be the usage of a specialty sun lamp which provides the UVB wavelength necessary for vitamin D synthesis.  However as this may also lead to sunburn and damage associated with the development of skin cancer, one must use caution with such exposure, and oral supplementation may be more appropriate.

Probiotics are something which most people have heard of, and tend to think of exclusively affecting digestive health.  However probiotics have been shown to have an effect on metabolism, immune system function, inflammation, allergies, skin conditions, as well as mood.  The mechanism of all these actions is not known, and the effect tends to be something which is not acute and dramatic but occurs over a longer period of time.  Supporting the body on a daily basis with a quality probiotics year round will support health.  Varying the specific type or strain of probiotics every couple months or so also may be beneficial.  Fortunately there are many different types available which can be found at all health food and most grocery stores!

B vitamins support the body in many ways, and in the context of mood, are important for synthesis and conversion of amino acids into neurotransmitters.  Methylated forms of B12 and folate are important for supporting the body’s processes of methylation – essential for DNA transcription and all aspects of metabolic function.  Greater discussion of this is beyond the scope of this dialog but much information exists online for those who are seekers of such information.  Poor ability to methylate due to genetic variations is common, and such individuals may be predisposed to anxiety and or depression as well as cardiovascular disease and other common disease conditions.  By providing these nutrients in methylated forms physiology as a whole is better supported, with resulting benefits in overall mood also common.

In addition to each of these things, it is important to remember that companionship and connection to others also is important.  Finding ways to include community and connection by attending a class, community activity, or other activity with group involvement will benefit health and the heart in many ways.  Giving and receiving hugs promotes release of oxytocin, a hormone which has many actions in the body, including that of reducing anxiety and promoting a sense of connectedness and trust.   Do consider this and each of these things as you support your mood this winter season!