If you’re anything like up to 20 percent of Americans, wintertime can make you feel pretty lousy. Known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), American Family Physician defines SAD as a kind of depression that’s related to the season. While it’s possible to have a summer version, most people are more familiar with the feelings of fatigue, apathy, irritability, and social seclusion that coincide with gray skies.
While a lack of sunshine for months on end can be dreary for anyone, if you’re continually down in the dumps, it’s worthwhile to examine if you have one of these two pervasive nutrient deficiencies. They could be exacerbating your symptoms.
Known as the sunshine vitamin, we synthesize vitamin D through our skin, so it would make sense that cloudy winter skies, staying inside, and long-sleeved clothing would lead to deficiency. However, this is hugely problematic, as studies show that low vitamin D levels have been associated with depression and a slew of chronic health conditions. But it’s not only during the winter months that we’re not soaking up the rays. In fact, vitamin D deficiency is an epidemic, with over one billion people worldwide suffering from low levels of this important nutrient year-round.
Luckily, this is an easy deficiency to remedy. If you can’t spend more time in the sunshine, load up on fatty fish, pasture-raised meats, sea vegetables, and organ meats, which are all naturally high in vitamin D.
It’s also possible to supplement your way to sufficiency, though you’ll want to take some precautions — because it is possible to overdo it on vitamin D (been there, done that). Before you start supplementing, get your baseline blood levels measured so you know how much is appropriate to take.
Blood serum ranges between 50-70 ng/mL are generally recognized as “optimal” in functional medicine, though you’ll find conventional lab ranges skew much lower. If you begin supplementing, plan to get your vitamin D levels re-checked every three to six months until you are in optimal range.
Essential fatty acids
It’s likely you’ve heard about the importance of omega-3s in a healthy diet. That’s because omega-3 fats are naturally anti-inflammatory, which means they help the general health of the body. Unfortunately, they’re also in short supply on the typical American plate.
Ideally, we want our omega-6-to-omega-3 ratio to be about 1:2. In today’s modern diet, however, some of us are trending much higher, about 20:1, or even up to 40:1 in favor of omega-6. This crazy discrepancy leads to countless pro-inflammatory conditions around the body, including mental disturbances, which include SAD.
An imbalance of omegas is so intricately linked to mental health because the brain is over 60 percent fat. Many of our most critical feel-good hormones depend on fats, such as cholesterol, to function appropriately. And our good friend vitamin D? Its backbone is made up of fat, which means if we’re not getting adequate, good-quality dietary fats, we’re not able to make some of the most important hormones and neurotransmitters for regulating our mood.
While not as easy as popping a pill, it’s still possible to positively influence your essential fatty acid composition by cutting out processed foods and hydrogenated oils, and replacing them with dietary choices like fatty fish, nuts, and seeds.
Supplementing with a high-quality fish or cod liver oil can also be incredibly helpful for anyone suffering from SAD. Pro tip: cod liver oil also contains naturally-occurring vitamin A and D, so it’s covering you in more ways than one.
Still feeling down?
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that there are other nutrients, including B vitamins, magnesium, zinc, and protein that can also contribute to feeling blue. If you’re still experiencing SAD symptoms after upping your vitamin D and fatty acid intake, it’s time to visit a holistic practitioner who can run more lab work and get to the true root of your seasonal sadness.