What to do now to ward off the winter blues

The long dark days of winter can leave even the most optimistic of us feeling blue.  Find out here how the right nutrition may help to boost your mood until the sunny days of spring return.

A recent survey of 2000 Britons found that as winter approaches, the clocks go back and the days get shorter, a sense of gloominess descends upon millions of us. Almost half (47%) claim to really hate this time of the year, with up to 66% saying they feel depressed as the dark winter days draw in.  51% tend to stay at home more and socialize less (which in itself sounds a bit depressing) but even so, 48% feel more tired during the winter, and 13% feel so much lower and slower that they say it makes them less productive at work.  Worryingly – and perhaps not unrelatedly –  8% say they hit the bottle to help them get through the long dark winter days and nights.

Winter depression, low mood and reduced energy levels, do seem genuinely to be related to the lack of light, akin to a form of hibernation1.   According to one theory, the part of the brain involved in regulating the circadian rhythm (sleep/wake cycle) in people who feel depressed in the winter, responds inappropriately to artificial light (which has a different wavelength from sunlight), resulting in low mood and fatigue 7.

Another theory involves low winter-levels of vitamin D, which are linked to low mood 8,9:  most of the vitamin D we need is made by the action of sunlight on the skin, but in the winter, there is not only less sunlight, but in northern latitudes, the wavelength is wrong for vitamin D synthesis, hence we’re reliant on stores built up in summer.  But those are often very low because of the lack of summer sunshine when the weather is bad, or the use of sunscreens when it isn’t.  The result is vitamin D deficiency, which affects not only mood but our susceptibility to illness.

The survey referred to above was carried out by the Canary Islands Tourist Board, whose solution presumably is a winter holiday in the Canary Islands, so you might think it wise to take their research with a pinch of salt, but there is some more reputable science out there which suggests that a gloomy mood really can have significant, negative effects on our ability to function:  it is linked to impaired problem-solving ability, learning, memory, reasoning and general health, so could very well lead to a decline in work performance, as well as less enjoyment of life 2-6.

So what can you do about the winter blues, if you can’t afford a winter holiday in the sun?

Nutritional factors

There are many ways in which the right nutrition can influence your mood.

Oily fish – salmon, trout, sardines, mackerel, herrings

These fish contain healthy, omega-3 fats, low levels of which are thought to contribute to depression.  It seems that these fats help to maintain the fluidity of cell membranes, which helps nerve signals to be properly transmitted, enabling ‘happy’ messages to get through.  They are also anti-inflammatory, so they suppress particular chemicals which can trigger feelings of low mood and depression 14.

So try sardines on toast as a quick lunch or snack; mackerel pate as a sandwich filling (just mash up a smoked mackerel fillet with low fat cream cheese and a dollop of mustard or horseradish sauce), or salmon marinated in honey, lemon and ginger then gently grilled or steamed.

Chicken and turkey

These are a good source of the amino acid tryptophan which is use to make the brain’s feel good chemical, serotonin.  Cottage cheese is another good source.  Levels of serotonin in the brain are directly affected by the amount of tryptophan available15.    Chicken and turkey are also a good source of the amino acids phenylalanine and tyrosine, needed to make dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine that help to ensure proper cognition, clarity and stable moods.10

So try a wholemeal bread chicken salad sandwich for your lunch, cottage cheese on a baked potato, or turkey escalopes for dinner, made by bashing a turkey breast steak nice and flat and dipping it in breadcrumbs and grated parmesan before frying gently in olive oil or baking in the oven.

Eat your greens!

Low levels of folic acid found in leafy greens such as cabbage, broccoli and kale can contribute to a build up of a substance called homocysteine which is thought to unbalance the brain’s chemistry and interfere with its messenger chemicals known as neurotransmitters 16.  Low levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine can contribute to depression.

As well as folic acid, vitamins B12 (abundant in animal products such as meat and dairy or Marmite for vegetarians) and B6 are important for recycling homocysteine.    Bananas, chicken, salmon and wholegrains are all good sources of vitamin B6.  Higher levels of vitamins B6, B12 and folic acid are all related to improved mood 11, 12, 13.

Vitamin D supplementation

If you feel low in the winter but not at other times of the year, you might want to think about getting your vitamin D levels tested.  It’s not a good idea to take a supplement without regular testing, as too much vitamin D can be as harmful as too little.

Lightboxes

One solution which works for some people is a lightbox.  This emits very bright light at the same wavelength as the visible part of sunlight (so no damaging UV light), and the idea is you have it on for at least 30 minutes a day.  Having one on your desk may help.  Anecdotal evidence – that is to say my own experience – is that even installing daylight bulbs in offices can help; they aren’t especially powerful, they just mimic the light quality of sunlight, and seem to make people feel lighter and brighter, with a, well, altogether sunnier disposition.

 

References

  1. Nassir Ghaemi (2011) The Truth About Seasonal Affective Disorder, Medscape, http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/736715
  2. Yen YC, Rebok GW, Gallo JJ, et al. Depressive Symptoms Impair Everyday Problem-Solving Ability Through Cognitive Abilities in Late Life. Am J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2010 Jun 25. Published Online Ahead of Print.
  3. Byrne GJ, Pachana NA. Anxiety and depression in the elderly: do we know any more? Curr Opin Psychiatry. 2010 Nov;23(6):504-9.
  4. Rapp MA, Schnaider-Beeri M, Wysocki M, et al. Cognitive Decline in Patients With Dementia as a Function of Depression. Am J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2010 Jul 8. Published Online Ahead of Print.
  5. Steffens DC, McQuoid DR, Payne ME, et al. Change in Hippocampal Volume on Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Cognitive Decline Among Older Depressed and Nondepressed Subjects in the Neurocognitive Outcomes of Depression in the Elderly Study. Am J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2010 Jun 1. Published Online Ahead of Print.
  6. Hamer M, Bates CJ, Mishra GD. Depression, Physical Function, and Risk of Mortality: National Diet and Nutrition Survey in Adults Older Than 65 Years. Am J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2010 Apr 27. Published Online Ahead of Print.
  7. Melatonin Sensitivity to Dim White Light in Affective Disorders Neuropsychopharmacology 21:408–413, 1999 Pradeep J. Nathan, Ph.D., Graham D. Burrows, M.D., and Trevor R. Norman, Ph.D (1999)
  8. Hoogendijk WJ, Lips P, Dik MG, et al. Depression is associated with decreased 25-hydroxyvitamin D and increased parathyroid hormone levels in older adults. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2008 May;65(5):508-12.
  9. Jorde R, Sneve M, Figenschau Y, et al. Effects of vitamin D supplementation on symptoms of depression in overweight and obese subjects: randomized double blind trial. J Intern Med. 2008 Dec;264(6):599-609.
  10. Gelenberg AJ, Gibson CJ. Tyrosine for the treatment of depression. Nutr Health. 1984;3(3):163-73.
  11. Skarupski KA, Tangney C, Li H, et al. Longitudinal association of vitamin B-6, folate, and vitamin B-12 with depressive symptoms among older adults over time. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010 Aug;92(2):330-5.
  12. 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 May;57(5):871-6.
  13. Merete C, Falcon LM, Tucker KL. Vitamin B6 is associated with depressive symptomatology in Massachusetts elders. J Am Coll Nutr. 2008 Jun;27(3):421-427
  14. Gordon Parker, Neville A. Gibson, Heather Brotchie, Gabriella Heruc, Anne-Marie Rees, and Dusan Hadzi-Pavlovic (2006) Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Mood Disorders Am J Psychiatry 2006; 163:969–978
  15. Schaechter JD, Wurtman RJ (1990). “Serotonin release varies with brain tryptophan levels“. Brain Res. 532 (1-2): 203–10. doi:10.1016/0006-8993(90)91761-5. PMID 1704290.
  16. Folstein M, Liu T, Peter I, Buell J, Arsenault L, Scott T, Qui WW (2007) The homocysteine hypothesis of depression  American Journal of Psychiatry Jun;164(6):861-7.