Individuals who experience this type of low-mood or depression only during the winter months may be suffering from a specific condition called seasonal depression or seasonal affective disorder, also known by the acronym SAD.
What causes seasonal depression?
Then comes SERT, or sodium-dependent serotonin transporter. This is a special protein that acts like a clean-up crew, heading out into the synaptic cleft to “mop up” the serotonin and put it back into its storage form in the nerve cell. When SERT stores serotonin, that “happy” signal is cut short.
Sunlight helps keep SERT levels low, and people with SAD may have SERT levels that are more sensitive to sunlight than the average person. A recent study out of Denmark showed that people with depression or chronic low-mood only in the winter months may have normal SERT levels in the summer, but higher winter-time levels of SERT than unaffected individuals.
Fortunately there are several ways to raise serotonin naturally, even in the winter months.
Natural remedies for seasonal depression
- Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Deficiencies of omega 3 fatty acids are commonly seen in individuals with chronic depression. This may be due to their affects on serotonin in the brain. The omega 3 fatty acid EPA increases serotonin release from it’s “storage form” in the nerve cells to it’s “active” form in the synaptic cleft, while DHA helps postsynaptic nerve cells respond to serotonin by increasing the ability of serotonin to trigger their receptors. Together EPA and DHA increase the activity and the potency of serotonin in the brain.
- Vitamin D
Vitamin D supplementation may help some individuals with seasonal affective disorder. Your body needs vitamin D to create serotonin from it’s precursor tryptophan. Low levels of vitamin D may prevent the body from producing enough serotonin, leading to low-mood, anxiety, and depression.
Spend time outdoors! Even on an overcast day, light levels outdoors are typically 1000-2000 lux. Compare that to 150 lux, which is the light level in the average home, and you’ll see that even on an overcast day you can get as much as 10 times the light exposure outdoors as you would get inside. Remember, SERT is down-regulated in bright light, so any increase in light levels can potentially help you keep more serotonin active longer. A light box is another option for those who can’t be outside due to weather extremes.
A good workout promotes both serotonin production and release. Short amounts of aerobic exercise like cycling, basketball, or running are especially good at increasing serotonin levels in the brain. So are low-intensity, meditative practices like yoga. One caveat: to get the benefit, these should be exercises that you enjoy. Rather than worrying about the “right” exercise or the exercise that’s “best” for you to do, focus on the things that you like the best. And don’t overdo it - too much exercise can actually deplete serotonin
15 minutes of massage has been shown in studies to increase serotonin levels by up to 35%. This doesn’t have to be professional massage - even just a short shoulder or neck massage from a friend or partner can make a huge impact on serotonin levels.
- Positive thinking
It may sound hokey, but thinking about happy memories actually has a biochemical affect in your brain. Positive memories increase serotonin production in the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain that is involved in memory and attention. Conversely, negative memories or dwelling on negative thoughts can decrease serotonin production in this area. Unfortunately, being depressed can make it a lot harder to remember happy events. This actually has a name: it’s called state-dependent memory, meaning that it’s much easier to remember a state that matches the state that you are currently in. There are several ways that may make it easier to remember happier times on a bad day or during depression, such as looking at photos of happy memories, looking back on social media posts, or reminiscing with friends or family.
If you feel like you suffer from seasonal affect disorder, any other types of serious depression, or even just the “winter blues,” contact your local naturopathic doctor, DO, MD, or holistic practitioner today to see what they can do to help you put the fun back into your winter months.