Seasonal Support

As the Sun Sinks Lower, Elevate Your Moods Naturally

It’s a vestige of our ancient biology – with the sun starting to hang lower in the sky, bringing shorter days, our bodies want to slow down and hibernate a little. And as our metabolism ratchets down, we may also develop moods that are as low as the sun across the horizon.

Along with the change in seasons, the quality of our nutrition, which provides the biochemical building blocks of both the body and the brain, can affect our moods. In his studies on nutrition and mood, Welsh researcher David Benton, Ph.D., noted that the brain is particularly sensitive to changes in its nutritional milieu. He pointed out that the first signs of nutritional imbalances, whether abnormal blood sugar or nutrient deficiencies, affect our moods and behavior.

As we move into the late fall and winter months, when depressive moods become more common, it is especially important to be vigilant about good nutrition and supporting your brain’s biochemistry with a few choice supplements. As a general rule, you may have to experiment a little to determine which specific supplements and amounts work best for you.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that typically begins in the fall or winter, when days are shorter, and lifts when daylight hours lengthen in the spring and summer.

Vitamin D

We make our own vitamin D when skin is exposed (without sunscreen) to sunlight, so it’s hard to ignore the association between SAD and the fall and winter seasons when sunlight and vitamin D are in short supply. Several studies have drawn a direct link between low vitamin D and SAD, with supplementation improving mood. In an Australian study, researchers reported that vitamin D reversed many symptoms of SAD, including carbohydrate cravings, excessive sleepiness, lethargy, and abnormal changes in circadian rhythms.[1] Try: 1,000 to 5,000 IU daily.

Melatonin

A hormone made by the pineal gland, melatonin regulates our circadian (or daily) rhythm. We secrete more melatonin at night, which makes us sleepy, and less toward morning. When it’s cloudy, when there are shorter days, or when we spend too much time indoors, melatonin levels may rise during the day, leaving us feeling sluggish and down. Used correctly, melatonin supplements can reset your body clock, but timing is key. Start with a low dose, such as 250 to 500 mcg about one to two hours before you go to bed. Many people can take up to 3 mg nightly. Don’t drive after taking melatonin, and don’t combine it with alcohol or other sedatives. If you feel groggy the next morning, you’ve taken too much.

L-Tyrosine and B12

L-tyrosine is an amino acid and the core of our “upper” neurotransmitters and thyroid hormones. Taken in the morning with vitamin B12, L-tyrosine can lift you out of the occasional blue or “down day,” according to Priscilla Slagle, M.D., a nutritionally oriented psychiatrist in Palm Springs, California. Try 500 mg of L-tyrosine and a 500 mcg vitamin B12 lozenge for optimal absorption. Don’t use L-tyrosine is you have high blood pressure.

Depression

Psychiatrists diagnose many subtypes of depression, including but not limited to mild, moderate, and severe depression. Perhaps the best and simplest definition of depression is sadness plus hopelessness – that is, a deep sense of sadness combined with a feeling that life will not get better. Most people know when they feel sad and hopeless about life.

Eating a healthy diet goes a long way toward maintaining healthy moods. Researchers have long understood that diabetes and lesser forms of glucose intolerance increase the likelihood of developing depression. There could be numerous mechanisms for why this occurs, including blood-sugar swings and impaired neurotransmitter function.[2] [3]

B-Complex Vitamins

Feelings of depression are stressful, and the B-complex vitamins have been known since the 1940s as anti-stress nutrients. How do they work? Various B vitamins help convert amino acids, such as L-tyrosine and L-tryptophan, to mood-regulating neurotransmitters, which can buffer us against stress. Vitamins B3 and B6 seem to have the strongest anti-depressant effect, but vitamin B12 and folic acid often help as well. Instead of taking individual Bs, opt for a high-potency B-complex formula, which should contain 50 mg of the major Bs as a guideline. (Note: The niacin form of B3 will cause a tingling flush for about one hour, and vitamin B2 will turn urine bright yellow, but is harmless.)

Omega-3 Fish Oils

Babies need the omega-3 fats EPA and DHA for normal brain development, but our need for EPA and DHA doesn’t change as we grow up. Numerous studies have found that the omega-3 fish oils provide significant benefits in depression and other mood disorders.[4] [5]  The omega-3s seems to work by aiding the transmission of neurotransmitters in the brain. [6] Try taking 2 to 4 grams of fish oils daily.

St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum)

This herb remains the treatment of choice in Europe for depression. In fact, study after study has shown that it works just as well, if not better, than the leading prescription drugs [7] [8] [9] [10] in lifting mild-to-moderate depression. St. John’s wort is also less expensive and causes fewer side effects compared with prescription anti-depressant drugs. An analysis of 29 studies found that St. John’s wort helps in the most severe type of depression, which is the most difficult to treat, even with drugs. [11] Try 300 mg three times daily for mild-to-moderate depression. For severe depression (also called major depression), take 600 mg three times daily. (Note: St. John’s wort accelerates the body’s breakdown of drugs, including oral contraceptives and chemotherapeutic drugs, and therefore reduces their effectiveness.)

L-Tryptophan and 5-HTP

L-tryptophan and 5-hydroxytryptophan are two forms of essentially the same molecule, a precursor to the calming and anti-depressant neurotransmitter serotonin. Inadequate intake of L-tryptophan (found in protein) quickly leads to feelings of depression, and women may be more susceptible than men to low tryptophan levels. As with St. John’s wort, studies have found that L-tryptophan supplements work as well as many anti-depressant drugs. The improved mood may be related to how this nutrient boosts not just serotonin, but also dopamine and noradrenaline. The body can also convert some serotonin to melatonin.

Take tryptophan or 5-HTP on an empty stomach at least 15 minutes before or two or more hours after eating. Pay attention to the amount you take: the beneficial dosage of L-tryptophan is about 10 times higher than it is for 5-HTP. For depression, try either 500 mg of tryptophan three times daily or 50 mg of 5-HTP three times daily, with the last dose before bed. For sleep problems, try 1 gram (1,000 mg) of tryptophan or 100 mg of 5-HTP before bed.

SAMe

“SAMe” is short for S-adenosylmethionine, a natural compound involved in the body’s production of serotonin and other neurotransmitters. Studies have shown that SAMe can work as well as some anti-depressant drugs, and it also boosts the activity of those meds.[12] [13] [14] [15] [16] Try 800 to 1,600 mg daily.

Anxiety

Anxiety takes many different forms. As strange as it might sound, anxiety often overlaps with depression, in part because both mood issues frequently share the same underlying nutritional problems. It can also grow out of worries and stresses, leading to a sense of chronic nervousness, or it can trigger anxiety attacks and panic attacks. Even obsessive-compulsive disorder can at times be considered a form of anxious behavior.

B-complex vitamins

A high-potency B-complex (or a high-potency multivitamin) should be the first supplement taken to reduce anxiety. A supplement containing 25 to 50 mg of vitamin B1, B2, and B3 should contain relative amounts of other B vitamins. If your diet tends to be high in sugars and carbohydrates, add 100 mg extra vitamin B1.[17]

Magnesium

Feeling tense, particularly in your back and shoulder muscles, is often a sign of anxiety. Magnesium is a natural muscle relaxant that has general calming benefits. Muscle twitches and spasms are a sign of magnesium deficiency, and many people consume too much calcium relative to magnesium. Of all the many forms of magnesium supplements, magnesium citrate offers the best compromise in terms of good absorption and low cost. Try taking 200 mg of magnesium twice daily. Too much will result in loose stools.

GABA and L-theanine

These two nutrients, taken by themselves or in combination, increase relaxation while also improving mental focus. GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid) is both an amino acid and a relaxing neurotransmitter. It works by helping the brain filter out distractions. L-theanine, found in high-quality green tea, has neurotransmitter-like effects similar to that of GABA. Try taking 500 mg of GABA one to three times daily, at least 15 minutes before or one hour after eating. Take 200 mg of L-theanine one to three times daily by itself or with GABA.

Inositol

Technically a carbohydrate, inositol functions like a B vitamin and is often included in B-complex supplements. This nutrient has been shown, in very large amounts, to reduce the occurrence of panic attacks. In one study, researchers reported that 18 grams of inositol daily for one month reduced the number of panic attacks from six or seven weekly to only two or three. [18] In a separate study, researchers found that 12 grams of inositol daily reduced the frequency and severity of panic attacks, as well as the severity of associated agoraphobia (fear of public places).[19] Those dosages translate to a lot of tablets or capsules, so I recommend taking up to 5 grams of inositol in combination with a B-complex vitamin.

Back in 1968, Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling, Ph.D., advocated the use of high-dose vitamins C and B3 to improve the biochemistry of the brain.[20] He coined the term orthomolecular psychiatry to describe this approach – it means to straighten out the molecules of the brain. Since then, scientists have gained a greater understanding of how numerous nutrients form the foundation of healthy brain chemistry. They are safer, less costly, and often more effective than prescription drugs. So whether it’s the shorter days of fall and winter, or any other time of the year, first try a natural approach to support your brain’s biochemistry and maintain healthy moods.

NOTE: Depression is a serious illness. If you suspect you have depression, talk to your healthcare provider.


References

[1] Gloth FM 3rd, Alam W, Hollis B. Vitamin D vs broad spectrum phototherapy in the treatment of seasonal affective disorder. J Nutr Health Aging, 1999;3:5-7.

[2] Lustman PJ, Anderson RJ, Freedland KE, et al. Depression and poor glycemic control. Diabetes Care, 2000;23:934-942.

[3] Weber B, Schweigr U, Dueschle M, et al. Major depression and impaired glucose tolerance. Experimental and Clinical Endocrinology & Diabetes, 2000;108:187-190.

[4] McNamara RK. Evaluation of docosahexaenoic acid deficiency as a preventable risk factor for recurrent affective disorders: current status, future directions, and dietary recommendations. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2009 Aug-Sep;81(2-3):223-31.

[5] Colangelo LA, He K, Whooley MA, Daviglus ML, Liu K. Higher dietary intake of long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids is inversely associated with depressive symptoms in women. Nutrition. 2009 Oct;25(10):1011-9.

[6] Su KP. Biological mechanism of antidepressant effect of omega-3 fatty acids: how does fish oil act as a ‘mind-body interface’? Neurosignals, 2009;17:144-152.

[7] Schrader E. Equivalence of St. John’s wort extract (Ze 117) and fluoxetine: a randomized controlled study in mild-moderate depression. International Clinical Psychopharmacology, 2000;15:61-68.

[8] Brenner R, Azbel V, Madhusoodanan S, et al. Comparison of an extract of hypericum (LI 160) and sertraline in the treatment of depression: a double-blind, randomized pilot study. Clinical Therapeutics, 2000;22:411-419.

[9] Gastpar M, Zeller K. Comparison of hypericum extract STW3 and sertraline in the treatment of moderate depression: a double-blind randomized 24-week-study. Psychopharmakotherapie, 2005;12:146-153.

[10] Szegedi A, Kohnen R, Dienel A, et al. Acute treatment of moderate to severe depression with hypericum extract WS 5570 (St John’s wort): randomized controlled double blind non-inferiority trial versus paraxetine. British Medical Journal, 2005;330:503-507.

[11] Linde K, Berner MM, Kriston L. St. John’s wort for major depression. Cochrane Collaboration, 2008; doi 10.1012/14651 858.CD000448.pub3.

[12] Nahas R, Sheikh O. Complementary and alternative medicine for the treatment of major depressive disorder. Can Fam Physician. 2011 Jun;57(6):659-63

[13] Levkovitz Y, Alpert JE, Brintz CE, Mischoulon D, Papakostas GI. Effects of S-adenosylmethionine augmentation of serotonin-reuptake inhibitor antidepressants on cognitive symptoms of major depressive disorder. Eur Psychiatry. 2011 Jun 10. [Epub ahead of print]

[14] Mischoulon D, Fava M. Role of S-adenosyl-L-methionine in the treatment of depression: a review of the evidence. Am J Clin Nutr, 2002;76(5):1158s-1161S.

[15] Delle Chiaie R, Pancheri P, Scapicchio P. Efficacy and tolerability of oral and intramuscular S-adenosyl-L-methionine 1,4-butanedisulfonate (SAMe) in the treatment of major depression: comparison with imipramine in 2 multicenter studies. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2002;76:1172S-1176S.

[16] Alpert JE, Papakostas G, Mischoulon D, et al. S-adenosyl-L-methionine (SAMe) as an adjunct for resistant major depressive disorder. Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology, 2004;24:771-664.

[17] Elmadfa I, Majchrzak D, Rust P, et al. The thiamine status of adult humans depends on carbohydrate intake. International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research, 2001;71:217-221.

[18] Palatnik A, Frolov K, Fux M, et al. Double-blind, controlled, crossover trial of inositol versus fluvoxamine for the treatment of panic disorder. Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology, 2001;21:335-339.

[19] Benjamin J, Levine J, Fux M, et al. Double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover trial of inositol treatment for panic disorder. American Journal of Psychiatry, 1995;152:1084-1086.

[20] Pauling L. Orthomolecular psychiatry. Varying the concentrations of substances normally present in the human body may control mental disease. Science, 1968;160:265-71.