• By Clancy Harrison
  • In 2017
  • November 21, 2017

Beating the Winter Blues with Nutrition


By: Zachari Breeding, MS, RDN, LDN, FAND

Winter is a difficult time for a lot of people – we stay indoors more often, the days grow shorter, and pigeon color skies means less sunny days. This can bring upon what is known as the “winter blues,” a general feeling of malaise, lethargy, and even depression. If you are someone who succumbs to these feelings, how do you combat them? Perhaps nutrition can provide some answers.

The connection between depression an obesity have been studied extensively. In fact, there is a link between the gut and the brain via the vagus nerve. As they are in constant communication with each other, it is important to understand the relationship between how the gut interacts with the brain in order to see how depression occurs. Of course, there are genetic and environmental factors that may contribute to both – one thought is that they both involve inflammation. We have discussed inflammation + nutrition in several other articles on The Sage: Nutritious Solutions, so this should be of no surprise. Fat tissue (adipose) is active in the body and plays a role in releasing inflammatory responses throughout the body, including the brain. These responses can affect the hypothalamus, the part of the brain responsible for mood. Additionally, an excess of these inflammatory responses can cause an over arousal of the sympathetic nervous system, which can cause increased cortisol levels, which results in low magnesium levels. Low magnesium has been tied to poor sleep and even migraines, which can definitely cause lethargy, malaise, and depression. One way to combat excess adipose is through a healthy eating regimen and physical activity.

Excess consumption of fructose, like those found in nearly all processed foods, can lead to malabsorption of tryptophan (yes, like what is found in turkey). Low tryptophan levels have been linked to low serotonin levels, depression, and anxiety.

So, how can nutrition help? Inflammation is balanced in the body through an adequate ratio of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids. Plenty of foods contain omega 6, so usually our ratio is thrown off. Omega 3 fatty acids help promote healthy brain cell connections as well as neurotransmitter receptors. Therefore, this can increase your body’s natural ability to process serotonin. You can also help promote getting adequate tryptophan through intake of foods high in this amino acid, such as meat, fish, beans, and eggs. You may also supplement with DHA/Fish Oil/Krill Oil – aim for 2g-4g of EPA/DHA per day.

You also want to make sure you are eating plenty of vegetables to feed the good gut flora and help our digestive system heal from the inflammation.  Fruit and dark green vegetables are also high in folate, which can also help with depression through normalizing homocysteine levels that are responsible for making sure the brain functions properly. Also, fruits and vegetables are typically high in magnesium, so supplementing this nutrient is not really necessary.

Unless going on a sunny tropical vacation is in the cards, supplementing vitamin D may help. Low vitamin D has been linked to depression – especially seasonal affective disorder (the “winter blues”). It is recommended to typically supplement 600-1000IU Vitamin D3 with 400-600mg Calcium twice daily to make sure you optimize absorption. There are also a few foods enriched with vitamin D (such as milk, eggs, etc.), which are great to incorporate into your diet so long as you do not have a food allergy/intolerance.

These are just a few suggestions. Overall, it is recommended to choose to consume meals high in fruits and vegetables, lean meats/beans, and with minimal processing. Incorporating a physical activity regimen can reduce excess adipose and help balance other hormones in the body linked to mood. Consume a diet rich in omega 3 fatty acids and vitamin D, supplementing where necessary. If you suffer from depression year round, it might be beneficial to seek the help from a licensed therapist/psychiatrist. Remember, nutrition is but one of the tools in our toolbox to combat the “winter blues!”

If you would like to learn more about how to prepare delicious recipes packed full of nutrition, check out The Sage: Nutritious Solutions at www.the-sage.org!

(2) Rogerio, A P, et al. Anti-inflammatory effect of quercetin-loaded microemulsion in the airways allergic inflammatory model in mice. Pharmacological Research. 2010:61;288-297.

Zach Breeding, MS, RDN, LDN, FAND, is a Philadelphia-based registered dietitian nutritionist, professional chef and clinical dietitian at Drexel Medicine. He is the author of The Slice Plan: An Integrative Approach to a Healthy Lifestyle and a Better You. Connect with Zach on his website, The-Sage: Nutritious Solutions, and on Facebook and Twitter.


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