Playing in snow

By Thomas C. Petrie
Health Impact News

You roll out of bed at 6 a.m., drag yourself into the kitchen to make a cup of coffee and THEN you glance out the window. It’s a cold December morning and you see it’s also raining lightly, (because it’s ‘warm’ at 33° F!), or sleeting/snowing, (because it’s 32° F or colder). No matter, you don’t want to go to work, that’s for sure! Lucky for my son, Bogdan, the school just called us to say, “No school today” because of the weather! So he gets to stay home and play all day… and I get to write this article!

This is the time of year that many folks—especially women, get the blues, get mildly depressed, or officially are said to be suffering from S.A.D., “Seasonal Affective Disorder.” OK, so cold, gray, dreary mornings make you down and blue? For some, this might be considered a normal reaction for a cold, dreary, morning, wouldn’t you think? I mean it’s not like everyone can be Tony Robbins or Zig Ziglar, and be persistently positive 24/7, is it?   (Like “You carry sunny weather with you wherever you go!” or if you’re trying to motivate someone, you might say, “Whatever the weather outside, I know it’s sunny wherever YOU GO!” That always gives the girls a chuckle.)

This article is intended to shed some light on this issue and will first explain some of the causes of S.A.D. and then provide some practical solutions. Interestingly, S.A.D. afflicts three times as many women as men, in other words, 75 percent of those suffering are women, so women out there should pay particular attention to this.

Let’s begin with outlining the top three likely contributors to this ailment:

  1. Insufficient daylight/vitamin D
  2. Various dietary imbalances (Overeating, eating too many carbs—especially the bad ones; inadequate consumption of dark-green leafy vegetables, other colored vegetables; inadequate consumption of other “real” foods: sweet potatoes, squashes, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, organic animal products
  3. Lack of regular exercise/poor physical fitness (now you ruined my mood!)

Insufficient Sunshine/Vitamin D

The health-conscious readers at Health Impact News are probably familiar with the link between sunshine and vitamin D but some may not know that sunshine also helps avert depression! Yes it’s true! Researchers have speculated for years that lack of sunshine during the winter months can cause S.A.D., but strangely this information has not percolated into the mainstream consciousness until recently. A recent report by Dr. Alan Stewart from the University of Georgia has found that as blood levels of vitamin D decrease so too does the incidence of S.A.D. increase.[1]

Researchers are not sure why sunshine can avert depression, but there are two unconnected factors: Daylight and UV radiation/increased vitamin D. Researchers have found that the incidence of S.A.D. increases with folks living in latitudes further north and in areas with greater cloud cover—in other words, less ultraviolet radiation. No wonder folks talk about going to Florida during the winter months; they feel better in Florida. (Whether it’s those warm, sunny 75 degree temperatures near the beach that do it, OR the increased UV radiation, I doubt those less depressed folks in Florida care for the analysis—they just know they feel better, that’s all!) But studies appear to indicate increased vitamin D levels directly influence our moods as higher D levels are associated with decreased depression.

Daylight is what helps to regulate our natural circadian rhythms which are involved in the production of hormones like melatonin and serotonin. It is good old-fashioned daylight that you get when you take a walk first thing in the morning at anytime of the year. It’s the stimulation of daylight on your eyes, it’s NOT bright sunshine or UV-B radiation that you’re getting at 8:00 am in the morning. This daylight stimulates the pineal gland, that gland just behind your forehead and this is the source of melatonin production. If you’re melatonin starved—and many Americans are—you’re likely to suffer lower quality sleep AND increased likelihood of depression. Melatonin production is also involved with quality of sleep and those lacking melatonin are more likely to suffer sleep deprivation, which can lead to eating more, which can lead weight challenges, which can, well, you get the picture, lead to more depression! So quality of sleep REALLY matters and since we spend about one-third of our lives sleeping (e.g., 8 hours per day), it should follow that this sleep be of good quality!

So the first order of business in alleviating S.A.D. is this: Get a good night’s sleep AND then, get your butt out the door in the morning and take a short walk—if just to stretch, feel strong, and know whether or not it’s raining, snowing AND if you’ll have to catch the gym on your way to work, or if you’ll have to catch it on your way home from work.

The second item is the subject of sunshine and let’s face it: You’re NOT getting any useful UV-B radiation in the winter months; it just ain’t happening. So if you have NOT gotten your vitamin D blood level checked, this would be important.


Vitamin D is made in your skin from cholesterol and this is converted to vitamin D by exposure of the skin to Ultraviolet-B radiation, but only if the sun is (a) OUT and (b) OVERHEAD. Since the sun is too low in the sky during the winter months—even if it is sunny—you’ll not get any meaningful vitamin D production during the winter months, esp. in the northern latitudes. If your 25 OH-D levels are very low, (below 30 ng/ml), you can take 50,000 ONCE PER WEEK, for 12 weeks and 5,000 per day the other days with a meal, since vit. D is fat soluble. For proper balance, take vitamin A each day, as well, same as general vitamin D supplement. Since vitamin D is stored in your fat cells, if your D is adequate because you were proactive during the sunny summer months, (e.g., you were certain to get 20-60 minutes of bright sunshine without sunblock), you’ll probably be OK. Just note, however, that this is likely in only one percent of the people and if you’ve got S.A.D., it’s highly doubtful your vitamin D is in the proper range or say, 80-100 ng/ml.

Various Dietary Imbalances

There are three major dietary imbalances that should be addressed when trying to alleviate S.A.D.:

  • Excessive intake of refined carbohydrates. By this we’re referring to white sugar, corn syrup/high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), and refined flour products like cakes, cookies, bagels and pasta. The main reason we want to minimize our consumption of refined carbs is because they deplete essential vitamins and minerals—all of which we need to keep our mood positive and secondly because excessive consumption of refined carbs can cause weight gain which can lead to depression if associated with candida overgrowth, regular inactivity or fatigue.
  • Insufficient intake of healthy fats and fatty acids. Studies show that lack of essential fatty acids—like Omega 3’s, can lead to depression. (Postpartum depression is significantly linked to lack of Omega 3 fatty acids, for example. This is likely one of the major reasons women have S.A.D. more…they have babies and each child is likely to lead to a 1-2% loss of Omega 3 fatty acids from the mother’s brain with each pregnancy if proper attention is NOT paid to her diet! [2] Sources of these essential fatty acids are naturally raised and organic animal products, such as eggs, chicken, beef (e.g., grass-fed beef) as well as cold-water salmon (and other fatty fish). Flax seeds, walnuts and other unroasted nuts and seeds, like pumpkin and sunflower seeds are good sources of these FA’s. Flax seeds (at 55 percent Omega 3 oils), are the best plant source.

One of the healthiest fats one can eat is coconut—not only because it enhances immune function, but because it also enhances cognitive functioning—even in Alzheimer’s patients! Studies reported in the Journal of Neurobiology of Aging [3] and others [4] show substantial improvements in cognitive functioning by just modest doses of coconut oil! Coconut oil is a source of super healthful Medium Chain Triglycerides or MCTs. Want to boost your mood easily? Try just one tablespoon of coconut oil per day on salads or with your morning oatmeal, or other foods.

Healthy, cold-pressed oils are also beneficial, but NOT those that are typically G.M.O. like canola, cottonseed, soy or corn oils! These instead, must be avoided as much as possible. Besides, these are mass-produced “cheap oils” and are typically so refined that most valuable nutrients (like Iodine and vitamin E), are destroyed while the structure of their essential fatty acids is often damaged.

  • While dietary changes have not received sufficient attention for their role in reducing S.A.D., this is wrong as insufficient intake of dark green leafy vegetables (and other colored veggies) and also insufficient intake of super healthy foods like beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds can go a long way to providing essential vitamins and minerals that can, in turn, make us feel more alive, energetic AND much less depressed—regardless of weather. Also, the healthier a person is—in other words, the less they’re suffering from some kind of health ailment, the less likely they’ll be depressed.

Exercise Matters in Fighting S.A.D.

Many studies are showing that exercise fights depression at least as good as standard (SSRI) medications for this condition. Besides simply making people feel better, studies show that exercise increases chemicals in the body that improve our mood.

If studies show exercise relieves depression better than drugs, then why is it not promoted more? Good question! Researchers have found that just a brisk 30-45 minute walk can produce a substantial improvement in symptoms and in a relatively brief period of time—briefer than S.S.R.I.s or psychotherapy! [5] The other thing that exercise does is provide immediate positive feedback. After a brisk workout—walk or something at the gym, you have immediate feedback: You feel better about yourself and this is one of the most important tools in fighting depression or S.A.D.: improved self-esteem.

Finally, it should be noted that feeling down and depressed might very well be a function of working long hours for less pay than we deserve; but this subject is way too big to tackle in this article. Just the same, we recognize that in our culture today, people DO have reasons to be depressed that have nothing to do with the quality of their diets or whether or not they get sufficient sunshine exposure. But these are questions that I can’t answer so I’ll stick with what I can answer and I hope this brief article has provided you with some useful insights into the S.A.D. question. Please don’t hesitate to pop me an e-mail if you have any further comments or questions.

About the Author

Thomas C. Petrie is a graduate of Cornell University with a Bachelor’s degree in Nutrition and a minor in Biochemistry. He is a Nutritionist for the Total Health Foundation in Albany, NY. He has been a guest on local radio and TV. He currently works with the Schachter Center for Complementary Medicine in Suffern, New York and Wellness-Springs in Highland Mills, New York.


[1]      Stewart, M.D., Alan, et al., Possible contributions of skin pigmentation and vitamin D in a polyfactorial model of seasonal affective disorder, Medical Hypotheses, 18 Sept., 2014

[2]    Andrea Yates, from Houston, TX, would be an extreme example, (suffered ever worsening P.P.D. with each of her five pregnancies, but her doctors failed to advise her to eat more omega 3 fatty acid-rich foods like walnuts or cold-water fish). It behooves every pregnant woman to be sure she is NOT deficient in Omega 3 fatty acids before getting pregnant and to be sure her diet is rich in foods containing these nutrients. .

[3]    Reger, Mark A et al., Effects of beta-hydroxybutyrate (from Coconut), on cognition in memory-impaired adults. Neurobiol Aging, 2004 Mar;25(3):311-4.

[4]   Costantini, Lauren, C., et al., Medium chain triglycerides.  Alt Med Rev 2002, 7:418-420. Vogel, Janet L., et al., Hypometabolism as a therapeutic target in Alzheimer’s disease. BMC Neurosci. 2008 ;9 Suppl 2:S16. 2008 Dec 3.

[5]   British Journal of Sports Medicine April 2001; 35:114-117