Winter Depression and Weight Gain

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), otherwise known as winter depression or the winter blues, affects 4-10% of the population, occurring most commonly in women (1). Winter depression is characterized by severe mood changes as well as changes in energy and appetite, resulting in depression, fatigue, low libido, increased carbohydrate consumption, and thus weight gain.

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So, what is winter depression? To be diagnosed with winter depression, the above mentioned symptoms will only occur in the fall and winter seasons. In the spring and summer months, those symptoms recede and in some individuals, may be replaced by manic (excitement of psychotic proportions manifested by mental and physical hyperactivity, disorganized behavior, and elevation of mood) characteristics during the summer months.

Winter depression can also vary in severity from individual to individual. In fact, there are two sub-categories of winter depression, which are characterized by milder symptoms (1). First, there is a sub-syndral form of winter depression in which the symptoms of winter depression are milder although still clinically relevant. In addition to sub-syndral winter depression, there is seasonality, which is the mildest form of winter depression. Seasonality is characterized by reduced performance of an individual in the winter months as compared to the summer.

What causes winter depression? Some researchers and clinicians believe that shorter days and drops in the temperature serve as an evolutionary reminder that it is time to gather food for the winter, a time of the year in which individuals are less active. Although this hypothesis is difficult to test, we do know that changes in daylight affect our general mood and behavior (2). Other, more substantive theories surrounding winter depression include low serotonin and high melatonin levels.

Serotonin and melatonin are both chemical messengers (neurotransmitters) that are made in the brain. Serotonin production in the brain affects emotions and behavior. Serotonin is converted to melatonin in the brain in response to darkness. Melatonin is thought to be a key regulator of circadian rhythms. Individuals with winter depression have higher levels of melatonin, possibly due to shorter daylight hours in the winter, and subsequently have reduced serotonin levels (1). Decreased serotonin levels are known to induce hyperphagia (overeating) and cravings for carbohydrates as well as depression.

So, how do you treat winter depression? The most common treatment for winter depression is light therapy (1). Although the way in which light therapy works is not fully known, research has shown that light therapy (usually 2 hours/day) suppressed the production of melatonin. Furthermore, light therapy is beneficial in up to 70% of individuals suffering winter depression. Additionally, there are little to no side effects associated with light therapy. The only negative aspect of light therapy involves the amount of time each day that is required for treatment. To address this issue, a research group in Switzerland asked if patients exposed to natural light (during a morning walk) can obtain the same benefits of artificial light therapy. Indeed, the people exposed to natural light reported reduced symptoms of winter depression, including less time sleeping, increased activity, and less carbohydrate consumption.

In addition to light therapy, other treatments for winter depression have been examined, including ingestion of L-tryptophan and St. Johns wort ( Hypericum perforatum ). In one study, individuals suffering from winter depression we're given the serotonin precursor, L-tryptophan (2 grams), two to three times per day or subjected to light therapy. Winter depression symptoms we're reduced with both treatments similarly (3).

Because consumption of St. Johns wort may relieve depression in some individuals, researchers asked, Could it also be used to treat winter depression? Two studies comparing St. Johns wort (900 mg/day) with light therapy determined that both equally aided in reducing the symptoms associated with winter depression, including reduced depression, fatigue, and anxiety (4). Although St. Johns wort has been used in many traditional medicines for excitability, anxiety, and depression, a cautionary note concerning St. Johns wort is warranted. Specifically, St. Johns wort interacts with other common drugs such as: warfarin, ciclosporin, HIV protease inhibitors, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, and oral contraceptives thereby affecting drug metabolism.

Metabolism of medications is the way in which your body breaks down ingested drugs before they can be eliminated from the body. When a drugs metabolism is inhibited, toxic levels of that drug could build up in your body in a relatively short amount of time. In addition to interacting with other drugs, the purity of many natural medicines including St. Johns wort is always questionable and contaminants often lead to other undesirable effects.

So, what should you do if you suffer from winter depression? First, seasonal affective disorder is a serious problem. If you believe that you may have winter depression, contact your physician immediately. As mentioned previously, light therapy works in most individuals and produces virtually no side effects whereas St. Johns wort interacts with other medications, which can lead to other serious problems. Finally, some foods are thought to contain depression-fighting components.

Observational studies indicate that individuals who consume foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids are less likely to develop depression (5). Specifically, population studies found that countries that consume more fish have less overall depression and infrequent fish consumption increases your chances of developing depression by 31% (5). Although the ways in which omega-3 fatty acids protect against depression are not fully understood, some researchers believe that they may enhance neuronal signaling. So, what foods contain omega-3 fatty acids? Certain omega-3 fatty acids are found in walnuts, soybeans, and green, leafy vegetables while others are found in fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and herring.

Foods containing folic acid, a compound that may be involved in neurotransmitter (chemical messengers in the brain) synthesis or neuronal signaling, may also help fight depression (6). Because folic acid levels may be reduced in some individuals suffering from depression, consumption of foods that are high in folic acid such as green vegetables and egg yolk may improve symptoms in depressed individuals.

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