The winter can be a magical time of year, but it can also be one of the hardest for our overall health and wellness—especially for anyone struggling with mental health challenges. The cold, darker days of winter can have a direct impact on your mood and may fuel what’s known as seasonal depression. Current statistics estimate that Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) affects up to 10% of the population, and for reasons researchers are trying to understand, it’s estimated that women are four times more likely to struggle with this condition than men.1 While many factors can play a role in depression, SAD is specifically linked to a lack of vitamin D this time of year. Secondary factors like less physical activity, eating more inflammatory foods, and an increase in immune activity against cold and flu viruses can also contribute.
However, research shows there are safe, natural and effective ways to support a healthy mood, help ease depression, and promote greater resilience to anxiety and stress. Try these tips to help boost your mood and manage your mental health.
How Vitamin D can Reduce Winter Blues
Vitamin D is one of the most important nutrients for optimal health, with key roles in mood and stress, cognitive function, immunity, inflammation, and more. Vitamin D is actually a hormone and our primary source of it comes from our skin, in response to sun exposure, earning it the name of “the sunshine vitamin”. February in the Northern Hemisphere appears to be the worst month for seasonal depression, and is also the time of year when sunlight is scarcest in many areas.2
Culinary mushrooms can provide vitamin D, particularly shiitake mushrooms. Mushrooms such as Reishi, Ganoderma, and Lentinus, are also good sources, particularly when they’re exposed to sunlight.3 Taking vitamin D3 supplements or medicinal mushrooms every day can also be an effective strategy to ease seasonal depression and other mood imbalances, while supporting immune and overall health.4
While it is common to experience more stress and episodes of depression during the winter months due to the shift in weather and minimal sunlight, as well as common holiday stress, there are a few tools that may help you reduce the winter blues. Supplementing with key vitamins and minerals, eating healthy foods, and engaging in regular moderate exercise are just a few ways to boost your health and your mood this season.
Healthy omega 3 fatty acids from cold water fatty fish like salmon and sardines can also help support a healthy mood and ease symptoms of SAD. Marine-based omega 3 fats can help reduce inflammation, improve neurotransmitter communication, and support healthy serotonin levels—a key neurotransmitter that influences mood and mental health.5
Regular exercise is not only beneficial for our physical health but also for our brain and mood. Physical activity releases endorphins— neurotransmitters that generate feelings of happiness and satisfaction. Exercise can also help generate new neurons in the brain, improving memory and brain function.
The Role of Inflammation in Mood and Depression
One of the biggest driving factors in depression and mood imbalances appears to be inflammation, and its vicious cycle with stress, anxiety, and depression. Common mood imbalances like these can fuel inflammation in the brain and body. On the other hand, chronic inflammation in the gut and throughout the body is shown to contribute to depression, anxiety, and other mood imbalances and cognitive issues. This cycle of stress, inflammation and depression can easily perpetuate itself, and is made worse by inflammatory foods, toxin exposure, infections, and other drivers of inflammation in the body.
While this may seem overwhelming as we search for solutions, it’s important to know that many of the strategies we can use to quell inflammation in the gut and throughout the body, can also bring significant improvements for mood, anxiety, mental health, cognitive function, and overall neurological wellness. For example, regular meditation practice is a clinically proven method to boost mood and help reduce chronic stress and anxiety, allowing us to break free from stress-filled “survival mode”. It’s also shown to reduce numerous markers of inflammation in the body, in addition to other measurable health benefits.
Diet for Happiness
A study in the British Journal of Health Psychology, looked at the relationships between diet and mental health, and showed that participants who consumed more vegetables and fruits significant improvements in mental health and mood compared to those who ate fewer servings.6
A larger study in the journal, Social Indicators Research, looked at dietary trends for tens of thousands of people in the UK. Data showed that happiness and mood varied among subjects according to the amount of vegetables and fruits they consumed each day. From this data, researchers concluded that for optimal happiness, reduced depression, and overall mental health, the ideal servings of fruit and vegetables per day is seven.
Other published data demonstrate improvements in mental and emotional health from antioxidant rich foods, regular exercise, meditation and mind-body practices like yoga and breathing exercises. These strategies work to reduce inflammation, support optimal neurological wellness, and promote healthy microbiome activity—another key for supporting mood and mental health.
In addition, targeted supplements that promote antioxidant activity, neurological health, and help reduce inflammation, are also shown to support a healthy mood and help reduce depression.
Vitamins and Supplements for Mental Health
A study from the Indian Journal of Psychiatry demonstrated the benefits of antioxidant vitamins in treating patients with depression stemming from anxiety. The data showed that antioxidant vitamins A, C, and E were significantly reduced among patients with mood disorders. Supplementing with these nutrients was shown to reduce anxiety and depression.8
In my practice, one of the most powerful botanical extracts I recommend for mental health, neurological function, oncology support and more, is a botanical extract called pure honokiol. Purified from Magnolia bark, honokiol is shown in research to support the neurotransmitter GABA, which plays important roles in relaxation, mood, and other key areas. Honokiol also supports other neurotransmitter activity, and can defend against cognitive decline and depression. Because of its ability to cross the blood brain barrier, honokiol shows benefits for numerous conditions related to neuroinflammation, as well as other key areas of health.
Depression, even seasonal depression, and other mood imbalances can have multiple causes and contributing factors, from hormonal imbalances that impact your nervous system, stressful circumstances, infections that lower our antioxidant reserves, neuroinflammation from toxins like heavy metals and pesticides microbiome imbalances, and much more. Supporting mood and mental health with a multilayered strategy can help to bring your mind and body into balance, and reduce some of the aggravating factors that can contribute to depression and anxiety.
By supporting mental and emotional health from numerous angles, we can do a lot to build up our inner health reserves and enhance our energy and vitality naturally—creating positive, rather than negative feedback loops and cycles that continue to improve your health each day.