Essential Nutrients for Seasonal Affective Disorder

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What are the recommended vitamins and minerals for fighting seasonal affective disorder? Keep seasonal depression away with these blues-busting supplements.

The mind and body are very closely related. It’s essential for your mental health that your body and brain get the proper vitamins and minerals.

Insufficient levels of serotonin and improper functioning of melatonin may contribute to seasonal affective disorder. The body produces these hormones through tryptophan synthesis. If tryptophan is not processed effectively, serotonin and melatonin don’t function properly. This can leave you depressed and fatigued.

Processes in the body can be tricky to understand. It’s helpful to get a sense of the tryptophan conversion process and some of the things that impact how it functions.

Tryptophan synthesis:

  • Tryptophan gets converted to 5 HTP. Proper levels of Vitamin B6 and magnesium help this process. Fish oil helps the body maintain tryptophan.
  • 5 HTP converts to serotonin.
  • Serotonin converts to melatonin and SAM-e, a regulating hormone.

How are serotonin and melatonin related to seasonal depression?

Serotonin: a neurotransmitter derived from tryptophan. Known as a “happy hormone”. Serotonin is involved in neurological processes. It affects mood, memory and appetite. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin that may trigger seasonal depression.

Melatonin: a hormone involved in the regulation of biorhythms, including sleep and reproductive cycles. Melatonin is derived from serotonin. The release of melatonin is impacted by the amount of light received by the eye’s retina. In the darker days of winter, the retina receives less light and the body produces more melatonin. This may contribute to fatigue and low mood associated with seasonal affective disorder.

Essential amino acids, vitamins, and minerals that impact serotonin and melatonin

Tryptophan: an amino acid that is essential in creating serotonin and melatonin in the body. The body cannot produce tryptophan, it has to be consumed. Dietary sources of tryptophan include: salmon, turkey, eggs, spinach, seeds, milk, soy, and nuts

Magnesium: a mineral naturally found in your body, magnesium helps improve energy and sleep, reduces anxiety, regulate blood pressure, keep the immune system strong, and improve circulation and metabolism. 

Magnesium helps your body process tryptophan, which creates serotonin and melatonin. Because of this, a normal level of magnesium allows the body to maintain a healthy circadian rhythm, the internal clock that regulates your sleepiness and wakefulness. In the winter months, it’s thought that decreased sunlight may disrupt the circadian rhythm and contribute to seasonal mood changes. 

Good food sources of magnesium are leafy greens, spinach, black beans, chickpeas, soy beans, cashews, almonds, pumpkin, flax or chia seeds, whole grains such as whole wheat flour, oats, barley, quinoa, salmon, and banana. There’s typically not much magnesium in animal products, but plants are rich in magnesium, so a plant-based diet can help improve the body’s magnesium level. 

If you’re not getting enough magnesium through your diet, supplements are available. Read the instructions for your magnesium supplements. You may need to take them throughout the day.

Vitamin D: the role of Vitamin D on seasonal depression is not completely understood. However, it’s thought to help regulate the process of tryptophan converting to serotonin. Roughly 70% of the population have inadequate levels of Vitamin D. It’s common for doctors to recommend Vitamin D to people who experience seasonal mood changes. 

B6: an essential vitamin for the metabolism of amino acids and starch, B6 is needed for tryptophan to efficiently convert to serotonin. Good food sources of B6 are turkey, grass-fed beef, pistachios, tuna, pinto beans, avocado, chicken breast, blackstrap molasses, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, fish, liver, and potatoes. B6 supplements are available. 

Chromium: a mineral that helps keep blood sugar levels stable. Studies show that chromium supplements are effective in treating symptoms of seasonal depression such as cravings for sweets and carbohydrates, weight gain, fatigue, and the sensation of having a heavy feeling in the arms and legs. I’ve experienced winter days where my body felt so heavy that it was hard to get out of bed. On those days, my body could have benefited from chromium. Chromium-rich foods include egg yolks, whole-grain products, high-bran cereals, coffee, nuts, green beans, broccoli and meat.

5 HTP: an amino acid that is a precursor to serotonin. Supplementation of this amino acid may be useful in treating depression

SAM-e: a compound that is synthesized naturally in the central nervous system when folate and vitamin B12 levels are adequate, SAM-e is involved in the methylation of neurotransmitters, amino acids, proteins, phospholipids, and other neurochemicals. Supplementation may be useful as a treatment for depression

So, now that you have a better understanding of how the body creates serotonin and melatonin, the next thing to figure out is how to keep your body fueled to help this process flow smoothly.

Fuel your body to stabilize hormones

  1. Hydration

Perhaps the most obvious way to fuel your body is to stay hydrated. Our bodies are made up of close to 60% water and our brains are made up of nearly 70% water.  Water is an essential ingredient in all cell activity. Studies have shown even slight dehydration can have a significant impact on mood and cognitive functioning. It’s needed for tryptophan to be transported across the blood-brain barrier, meaning dehydration limits the amount of tryptophan available to the brain. Being hydrated also helps regulate your blood sugar. 

Most nutritionists recommend eight 8-oz glasses of water per day. These days there are devices and apps that can help you keep track of how much water your drink to help you stay well hydrated. 

2. Stabilize blood sugar

If you have strong cravings for sugar and carbohydrates in the winter, pay attention! Controlling carb and sugar cravings and keeping blood sugar levels stable throughout the day is key to managing the winter blues. A charity called Food for the Brain found poor blood sugar balance to be the single-biggest factor contributing to mood disorders in patients at their clinic, the Brain Bio Center. Why might this be? The brain is the most energy-demanding organ and uses half of the sugar energy in the body. The brain functions best on an even supply of glucose. Eating sugar and simple carbohydrates overloads your system and sends you into a cycle of sugar rushes and crashes. These rushes and crashes can cause a variety of symptoms such as fatigue and insomnia, and are associated with an imbalance in the mind, including depression and anxiety. In addition, processed sugars and refined carbohydrates use up mood enhancing B vitamins and divert chromium from supporting the proper functioning of insulin. 

Sugar and carbohydrate cravings, particularly in the winter months, is common for people with Seasonal Affective Disorder. Studies have found that people with SAD may have an exaggerated response to sugar consumption. One study showed that a meal of cookies stimulated people with SAD, but sedated people without it. Another showed that people with SAD secreted more insulin in response to a glucose load than people without it, indicating that the sugar rush and crash cycle may be more dramatic for those with SAD. Given this, it’s particularly important that people with SAD pay attention to balancing their blood sugar levels.

So, where to start? First, we’ll look at the recommended amount of daily sugar consumption and think about where we may be taking in excess sugar. Second, we’ll look at foods and ways of eating that promote stable blood sugar levels. 

We may think sugar consumption in moderation makes sense, but do we really know what a moderate daily amount of sugar is? The American Heart Association recommends a daily maximum of around 25g of added sugar for women and 37.5g for men (exact recommendations are based on daily calorie intake). The World Health Organization recommends a daily intake of around 25g of sugar for both men and women (5% of daily calorie intake). To give this some context, it means I can max out on my daily recommended sugar intake with a single 8 oz. glass of lemonade! Below is a sugar chart to help you start to think about where sugar may be hidden in food.

Hard to resist! Take it easy on added sugar.

Sugar chart:

Recommended daily sugar intake: 25g

  • Arizona Iced Tea (16 oz): 48g sugar
  • Yoplait Original 99% fat free, Lemon Burst (6 ounces): 31g sugar
  • Simply Lemonade (8 oz): 29g sugar
  • Motts Apple Sauce (1 small serving cup): 22g sugar
  • M&M’s milk chocolate (32 pieces): 18g sugar
  • Sweet Baby Ray’s Honey Barbecue Sauce (2 tbsp): 15g sugar
  • Quaker instant oatmeal, cinnamon (1 envelope): 13g sugar
  • Bertolli Vineyard Marinara (1/2 cup): 12g sugar
  • Nutri-Grain cereal bar (single): 12g sugar
  • Panera Bread Bistro French Onion Soup (1 bowl): 12g sugar
  • Whole Foods peanut butter cookie (single): 11g sugar
  • Krispy Kreme donut (single): 10g sugar
  • Granola bar (1 oz): 8g sugar
  • Heinz Ketchup (1 tbsp): 4g sugar
  • Skippy Peanut Butter (2 tbsp): 3g sugar

There are some tricks that can help you limit your sugar and keep it in moderation. The first trick is to figure out what type of added sugar you value. For me, I really love to have a peanut butter cookie and dark chocolate. In order to indulge in these splurges, I have to cut out sugar where it’s not needed, for example, in marinades, dressings, ketchup, and sauces. If I have toast, I make it whole grain and I switch out the jelly for no sugar peanut butter or almond butter. Juices and sodas are another big source of sugar. These can be switched out for water with lemon or fruit. You can even start to decrease the sugar you drink by simply watering down your juice. 

When you start to pay attention to the amount of sugar you’re consuming, you make better choices. When I started looking at the grams of processed sugar in what I was eating, I realized I was making some bad choices. I switched flavored yogurt for plain with really good fruit like pineapple, I cut out my granola bars when I realized that I could eat my favorite peanut butter cookie and consume less sugar than my “healthy” granola bar.  

Sugar is addictive, so you crave it even past the point of it adding flavor to your food. Once you start to cut back, some of your old sugary favorites may even start to taste bad. That’s how you start to make low sugar a lifestyle change, especially if you’re a foodie. 

Another trick is to switch out sweet for savory the next time you’re craving a snack. Savory snacks can have their own set of problems, but if you’re a real sugar fiend like me, this trick can help. Even better if you can snack on veggies and fruits, but let’s be real, there are going to be times when that doesn’t cut it! 

Finally, there are foods you can eat that help the body maintain steady blood sugar levels. Oatmeal, nuts, legumes, and many vegetables are good sources of soluble fiber and can slow the release of sugar into the blood. 

With all of this being said, I know it’s hard. There are days when I feel desperate and I give in to my cravings. That’s when another trick comes in handy: plan your meals ahead. When you’re hungry, it’s too easy to purchase to-go food that is loaded with extra sugar. If you have a meal packed, or some healthy snacks handy, it can really help. 

One final note on sugar and carbohydrates: when you do give in to your cravings, keep Wellness Tip #1 in mind and Be Kind to Yourself. If you’re anything like me, winter can be a big challenge. Do the best that you can and accept when you make poor choices. If you’re going to have a donut, you better enjoy it!

Plan ahead and have healthy food available.

3. Eat more plants

We all know we should eat more plants: vegetables, fruits, beans and grains. It can be tough to incorporate plants into our diet, especially if we’ve grown up on meals where meat is the main course.

Why should we eat more plants? Plants are great for your health, weight, and disease prevention – including mental health. If you eat a typical Western diet, you’re probably not fitting enough plants into your meals.

To get the full nutritional benefits of plants, start thinking of plants as full meals rather than sides. An all-plant salad or soup is a great place to start, but you can do so much more with plant-based meals.

There are some great recipe sites out there with plant-based meals. It can be overwhelming to know where to start if you don’t have much experience eating or making plant-based meals. If you truly don’t know where to start, a meal kit delivery is a great option. Try the vegetarian versions of Hello Fresh or Green Chef, or dive in head first with a vegan meal kit like Purple Carrot.

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