It isn't coincidental that the winter blues kick in when the days begin to darken and sunlight becomes scarce –our mood is intricately tied to exposure to sunlight. Our levels of serotonin (the hormone associated with mood elevation) rise when we're exposed to bright, natural light –emphasis on the “natural” part.
Seasonal affective disorder, commonly known as SAD, is a form of depression directly correlated to sunlight deprivation that affects around 10 million Americans every year, the vast majority of sufferers being women. SAD typically begins in the fall when days get shorter and we have less exposure to natural sunlight. It lasts through the winter and can greatly affect the quality of our lives.
According to The Mayo Clinic, some of the symptoms you may experience include:
- Depression the majority of the day, most days
- Loss of interest in favorite activities
- Low energy
- Difficulty sleeping, or oversleeping
- Changes in appetite or weight
- Experiencing feelings of sluggishness, agitation, hopelessness, worthlessness or guilt
- Thoughts of death or suicide
- Low energy
Aside from exposure to sunlight, one surprising reason SAD may occur is because of the connection from our gut to our brain. This revelation is at the forefront of emerging science in terms of mental health and neuroplasticity, but for thousands of years ancient forms of medicine such as traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and Ayurveda have linked our heads to our guts. And now there is proof – in fact, it is estimated that up to 90% of our body's serotonin is made in the digestive tract, or what is referred to as the enteric nervous system or our “second brain.”
The bidirectional communication between the central nervous system and our gut bacteria is referred to as the gut-brain axis. A 2015 study from the California Institute of Technology found that some types of gut bacteria are important for the production of peripheral serotonin, a lack of which has been directly linked to mental health issues. There's also strong evidence that gut irritations can signal the central nervous system (CNS) and trigger mood changes.
Related: Turmeric Ginger Latte recipe
Here are five key actions you can adopt today to leverage the health of your gut and improve your mental health and stave off SAD in the process.
- Ditch the processed foods. Refined, processed sugar (which includes glutenous breads) are well-known contributing factors in the degradation of brain function and mental health. Processed sugars also drastically crowd out beneficial gut flora, leaving your body without the good bacteria it needs to produce serotonin. The result is an increased risk of Alzheimer's, depression and other mental health issues.
- Get in your exercise. Regular physical activity has been found to work better than antidepressant drugs and builds brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), a protein found in and outside the brain. In fact, it’s one of the most powerful strategies available to prevent and treat depression and boost mood. Turmeric is also aBDNF builder, so be sure to enjoy some turmeric lattes this winter!
- Bone up on D. Vitamin D is not actually a vitamin but a hormone your body creates when exposed to sunlight. It plays an important role in mood regulation and can help reduce symptoms of depression. While the sun is the preferred way to get this micronutrient there are supplements that can help you meet your quota.
- Be creative. Serotonin, anandamide, and endorphins are all potent reward chemicals that are produced at various times, including when we're activating the creative centers in our brain. Do a puzzle, paint a picture or write a poem –these are all activities that will help improve your mood.
- Stock up on sleep. There is a strong correlation between sleep and depression. By design, we are supposed to go to sleep when the sun sets and wake up when the sun rises. When we move too far from this pattern, we begin to disrupt biological and neurochemical patterns and cycles that dictate mood, cognition, memory, digestion and mental health