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4 Steps to Support Your Mental Health With Nutrition

Many of us struggle with our mental health at this time of year when the days are shorter, darker, and -- in the west coast’s case -- rainier.

Experiencing mild depression, fatigue, oversleeping, overeating, carbohydrate cravings, irritation and loss of pleasure and interest in life are all symptoms of what over 40 million North Americans struggle with during the winter months: seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

There are a number of factors that contribute to feeling low at this time of the year, but the lack of sunlight is the most prominent. Not only does reduced sunlight disrupt the body’s circadian rhythm (or biological clock), it causes an imbalance in melatonin, which is one of the key players in sleep quality and mood. Further, it lowers serotonin levels, the brain chemical that affects mood and can cause feelings of depression.

The good news is that you don’t have to go on an expensive vacation to a warm destination to heal SAD; there are many simple and effective ways to ease symptoms simply using nutritional support.

Here are my suggestions to beat the winter blues and get back to feeling like yourself again:

1. Optimize gut health

It might surprise you, but most of our serotonin is located in the gastrointestinal tract versus the brain. This is why optimizing our gut health is crucial for the production and regulation of serotonin. There are a few ways you can improve your gut health:

  • Take  These are the “good” bacteria that work in the intestinal tract. Probiotics help to reduce inflammation in the body, which affects mood, release of neurotransmitters, cognitive function and ability to cope with stress.
  • Choose complex over simple carbohydrates. Foods like beans, oats, whole grains, yams and lentils allow for a slower, more consistent release of serotonin than pastries, white bread and dairy products, for example. When you combine complex carbohydrates with the amino acid called tryptophan, which exists in cashews, chicken breast, turkey, eggs, and fish, there is an increase in the availability of serotonin.
  • Eat whole foods. Gut health depends on fibre to help it get rid of any accumulated toxins or bad bacteria. It also helps us absorb and digest our food better. Up your intake of fibre-rich foods, such as fruit, veggies, nuts and seeds.

2. Incorporate natural supplements

While I always encourage my patients to get as much nutrition as they can from their diets, I recommend incorporating a few supplements to ensure that their bodies are getting the necessary vitamins and minerals to function optimally and combat the winter blues. Here are my suggestions:

  • Research supports a connection between low vitamin D levels and SAD. Vitamin D, actually a hormone, needs UV B sun exposure in order to be processed in the body.
  • 5-hydroxytryptophan () - This supplement is the precursor to serotonin, and when taken orally helps increase serotonin levels in the brain to alleviate many SAD symptoms.
  • - Effective in helping maintain adequate serotonin levels, I recommend finding a  supplement that contains all the essential B vitamins such as thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, B6, B12, folic acid and pantothenic acid (B5).
  • - This supplement has been shown to have a positive effect on serotonin, dopamine and melatonin, which helps to improve symptoms of SAD and depression. Although St. John’s Wort extract is effective on its own, when combined with light therapy there seems to be an even more significant improvement in symptoms of SAD and depression. Note: St. John’s Wort interacts with many medications so please seek the guidance of a licensed health care provider before taking this herb.
  • - The body produces more melatonin when it is dark and decreases the production when it is light. Melatonin supplementation may relieve the symptoms of SAD because it increases brain melatonin levels as well as suppresses cortisol secretion.Take melatonin 30-45 minutes before bedtime.
  • – Fish oils have been shown to be deficient in people who suffer from SAD. Omega-3s are important for all around brain function, inflammation, skin/hair/nails and heart health. Be sure to find a pharmaceutical grade omega-3 fatty acid free of all impurities and dose at least 800 mg of EPA/400 mg DHA per day.

3. Regulate blood sugar

 

 

Many foods can aggravate depression due to the way they alter our blood sugar levels. When we have inconsistent blood sugar levels, we have inconsistent moods. For example, many foods containing blood-sugar spiking refined sugars or white flours have a high glycemic index which causes insulin-dense fat cells to release inflammatory messages to the brain. This causes an altering of mood, followed by a sugar crash. Excessive amounts of foods with a high-glycemic index can produce what feels like a roller coaster of emotions. These mental highs and lows can result in fatigue, irritability, dizziness, insomnia, anxiety, poor concentration and even excessive thirst. Here are some ways to regulate your blood sugar levels:

  • Avoid excess caffeine, alcohol, refined sugars, white flour, white rice, and breakfast cereals.
  • Replace refined sugars with natural sugars, such as fruit, maple syrup or honey and eat in moderation.
  • Eat smaller and more frequent meals.
  • Incorporate healthy protein sources such as organic free-range meats, nuts, eggs, seeds and legumes in every meal.

4. Support your adrenal glands

Your adrenal glands are two small glands that sit on top of each kidney. These glands have a lot of responsibility; they control sleep, appetite, mood and the body’s ability to cope with stress. In some cases, SAD is caused by increased secretion of cortisol by the adrenal glands. Here’s how to nutritionally support the adrenal glands:

  • Incorporate adaptogenic herbs in your diet, such as   These herbs help your body naturally ‘adapt’ to stressors and bring your systems back into balance.
  • Boost your intake of B vitamins by eating more local and wild fish; free range poultry, some legumes, eggs and dark leafy greens.

Begin incorporating the above nutritional support recommendations for relief of SAD. If your symptoms are more severe, and if you have questions or concerns about your mental health, please visit your local naturopathic doctor. 

Take care!