Combat the Winter Blues

Monday, December 22, 2014
By: Linda J. Dobberstein, Chiropractor, Board Certified in Clinical Nutrition

Although it is known as “the most wonderful time of the year,” December can be a challenging time for many. Many of us face bitter cold temperatures, cloudy, gloomy skies, and the shortest days of the year. It’s a time when individuals struggle with the weather, stress from the holiday season, year-end work related concerns, and often invisible wounds that make getting through the holidays painful at best. The winter blues may be stacked on top of it all and make the season feel unbearable.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

The winter blues, aka Seasonal Affective Disorder, is a type of depression that occurs during the same season each year. Many people experience it as the winter blues, but it can happen in other seasons including the summer. There may be feelings of sadness, moodiness, anxiety, irritability and/or loss of interest in activities. Oftentimes there is weight gain and cravings for carbohydrates.

The cause for SAD or winter depression is not entirely understood, but it is certainly related to a challenged biological clock from decreased light exposure. It is also related to serotonin problems. There are also some other curious things being discovered that may play a role in who develops the winter blues.


Serotonin has been studied for a long time in understanding depression, including how it plays a role in the winter blues. Researchers have analyzed tissues samples taken from the hypothalamus of the brain (limbic system) in postmortem humans. They found that there were minimal levels of serotonin in the hypothalamus during the winter months of December and January compared to other months of the year. During other times of the year, serotonin levels were higher. Researchers feel that this decrease in hypothalamic tissue levels of serotonin that were not attributable to dietary factors, is a driving factor in the development of SAD and leads to the increased desire for carbohydrates and weight gain. Researchers found fluctuations of neurotransmitter levels for other seasons in the same brain region leaving many questions for future studies, but clearly noted serotonin imbalances in the winter season.

Another study published just last month, looked at patients with untreated, un-medicated SAD using a resting state functional MRI and graph theory. Graph theory uses data to develop hypotheses to model networks in the brain. The study found that in patients with SAD, the visual areas of the brain were hyper-connected or almost up-regulated too well in the occipital cortex of the brain. The researchers described the resulting effect as “abnormal intrinsic processing during rest that primarily affected visual areas and subsequently changing whole brain networks.”

Another recent study also showed the eye’s pupil response to light is dysfunctional in those with SAD. What this means still needs to be teased apart and put into practical, clinical purposes. However, it appears that there is a potential connection for those with visual processing disorders, autonomic nervous system response, and SAD. For individuals who struggle with brain balance between hemispheres and/or different lobes, it may be how their occipital lobes fire in response to visual stimulation that may cause them to be more susceptible to SAD. Visual processing is the not same a visual acuity. If you struggle with brain balance and SAD, this may provide an interesting therapeutic approach. Functional neurologists, neuropsychologists, biofeedback specialists, and behavioral optometrists may help you shed some light into this arena. Optimizing BDNF activity, reducing brain inflammation, working on brain and eye movement exercises with fundamental nutrients for the brain may go a long way in optimizing brain balance and reduce over-activity and dysfunction.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D status plays a foundation role in seasonal challenges and SAD. There are several reasons why the vitamin plays such a directive role in SAD. These include the seasonal fluctuations of sun exposure, low vitamin D is linked with gene signals and inflammation associated with depression, and lack of vitamin D affects the production of both serotonin and dopamine. Earlier in this article, we saw that a lack of hypothalamic serotonin appears to be involved in the development of SAD. The hypothalamus is a storage tank in the brain for vitamin D and elements that help it work in the brain. Without adequate vitamin D, serotonin levels can falter which leaves the hypothalamus stranded without adequate neurological signaling molecules. The consequence is a struggle with managing the body’s circadian clock rhythm and getting in sync. 

Other Pieces of the SAD Puzzle: Thyroid, Methylation Defects, Melatonin, and PhosphatidylSerine

There is another piece of the puzzle with serotonin. Serotonin is needed for proper thyroid hormone function. While there is no research linking thyroid, SAD, and low serotonin together, theoretically, it seems to correlate since lack of serotonin is linked with SAD. Insufficient and imbalanced serotonin also negatively impact the thyroid. Adequate serotonin is essential to activating thyroid cells. The winter season and season changes are definite challenges for many people with thyroid problems.

The other complex piece of the puzzle may be linked to methylation defects. Methylation defects reflect a genetic inability to activate and use vitamin B6, B12, and folate. These nutrients are needed for the formation and activation of serotonin. Mood disorders and energy difficulties are linked with these methylation defects. No specific studies confirm that SAD is linked with methylation defects, but theoretically it makes sense.

Melatonin provides another route of support for those suffering with SAD and disrupted body clocks and rhythms. Research published just this week found that melatonin produced an anti-depressant effect in animals suffering from SAD. Melatonin supplementation positively influenced the circadian clock dysfunction and improved serotonin function in the brain.

Research published last month studied the winter blues in the elderly. A double-blind placebo-controlled trial was done to assess the influence of phosphatidylserine (PS) and its natural components on the daily functioning, mental health and emotional well-being in the elderly. The study was divided into a placebo group, an elderly group diagnosed with SAD and another elderly group struggling with Alzheimer’s disease with cognitive and mood concerns. The results clearly showed very positive benefit in the two groups that received PS versus the control group that received nothing. The elderly who received PS demonstrated significantly improved memory and prevented the “winter blues” in a pre-post comparison. The patients who had Alzheimer’s disease and took PS were found to have stabilized daily function with only 3.8% deterioration. The placebo group experienced 17.9% deterioration in daily function. No side effects were observed with the use of the PS. Both groups of elderly that used the 300 mg of PS combination found that memory, mood, and cognition improved and prevented the “winter blues.”

Nutritional support with compounds such as vitamin D, phosphatidylserine, melatonin, methylated B vitamins, and serotonin supporting nutrients (curcumin, quercetin,and DHA) may help individuals struggling with the winter blues. These compounds can certainly be used with the light box therapy that is traditionally used for SAD support. The winter blues don’t have to be part of the winter season. Take charge of the blues before they take charge of you!

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