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While winter is a great time for quiet nights at home, one dark, quiet night after another can take its toll on a person. Before you know it, the calmness you may have felt at the start of the season looks more like the winter blues the second it hits February.

You definitely aren’t alone in this feeling. In fact, close to 20 to 35% of people have struggled with mild to severe forms of seasonal affective disorder, more commonly referred to as SAD.

As a functional medicine practitioner, it’s my job to get to the bottom of why you feel the way you do. Then, once you know the reason behind your symptoms, you can better know how to tackle the issue at hand. And when it comes to SAD, it all has to do with your happy neurotransmitter, serotonin.

Your serotonin transporter (SERT) levels rise up to 5% during the winter months, which leads to less serotonin in the brain. Therefore, the less of this happy neurotransmitter you have, the more down or sad you will feel. But knowing this, we can focus on the many natural ways to boost serotonin so you can live in more peaceful bliss this winter:

1. Add in adaptogens.

Adaptogens are herbs that help your body deal with stress. The adaptogen Mucuna prurienscontains high levels of L-DOPA, the precursor to dopamine. Another adaptogen I love is holy basil. In one study of ayurvedic medicine, 1 gram of holy basil, or tulsi, lowered depression, anxiety, and stress symptoms in just two months. These adaptogens can be found in tea, capsule, or powder forms. (Psst, here is a more detailed guide to adaptogens.)

2. Go for massage therapy.

Go ahead and treat yourself to a massage. Regular bodywork not only lowers your stress hormone, cortisol, but also boosts dopamine and serotonin.Article continues below

3. Get outside.

OK, hear me out. The last thing you probably want to do is go outside when it is freezing, but exposure to cold weather increases both blood flow and endorphins.

4. Try acupuncture.

Acupuncture has been linked to increased levels of both serotonin and dopamine. So much so, in fact, that in one study of treatment-resistant patients, depression was reduced after just one 30-minute acupuncture session.

5. Do some exercise.

While exercising might be the last thing you want to do in the cold weather, working out and getting your heart rate going is just another way to produce a rush of feel-good endorphins. Indoor HIIT workouts are a perfect solution to having to head outside for your exercise.Article continues below

6. Take St. John’s wort.

This natural herbal supplement has been used for years in Germany as an alternative to antidepressants due to its ability to increase serotonin receptors and dopamine signaling. While more research needs to be done on its effectiveness, studies have shown it may help reduce depression.

7. Supplement with vitamin D.

Your mood and hormones rely on vitamin D to function optimally. Since your sun exposure is almost nonexistent in the winter—unless you are lucky enough to live somewhere like Southern California—you are going to have to get your vitamin D from somewhere else. Focus on vitamin-D-rich foods like egg yolks and wild-caught fish, but adding in a supplement can also help, as it’s difficult to always get in enough vitamin D through food alone.

Running labs can give you an idea of where your levels are at, but ideally we are aiming for a range of between 60 and 80 ng/mL, so a good dose can be anywhere between 2,000 and 6,000 IUs per day.

8. Consider light therapy.

Mimicking the sun with lightboxes (units that emit bright light) has been shown in multiple studies to help alleviate SAD. So if you can’t get some real sun, this might be the next best thing.Article continues below

9. Stimulate your vagus nerve.

Your vagus nerve is one of your cranial nerves that connects your brain to your gastrointestinal system (known as the “second brain” in the scientific literature). Stimulating this important nerve with modalities like pulsed electromagnetic field, or PEMF, has been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve and serve to be an effective treatment for depression and can boost norepinephrine and serotonin. Deep breathing exercises and intermittent fasting have also been shown to improve vagus nerve function. Ironically, when we are talking about improving your mood during the cold, darker months, cold therapy has also been shown to improve vagal tone. Ice bath, anyone?

10. Experiment with aromatherapy.

Essential oils like lavender have been shown to stimulate serotonin production, similar to anti-anxiety medication like lorazepam. Diffuse this throughout the day at home or work, and breathe in the calm.

11. Get in an infrared sauna.

I love saunas, and for good reason! Just 15 minutes a day of infrared sauna use for a month was shown to decrease depression in a randomized controlled trial. Article continues below

12. Drink more tea.

Cozy up to the fire with a warm cup of organic tea. Green, black, and white tea contain a compound called L-theanine. L-theanine was shown to improve neurotransmitters like glutamate, which are out of balance in depression. Alternatively, you can supplement with L-theanine on its own. 



The Proof that Noise Hurts and Silence Heals

The value of silence is felt by everyone at some point in their life. Silence is comforting, nourishing and cosy. It opens us up to inspiration, and nurtures the mind, body and soul. Meanwhile, the madness of the noisy world is drowning out our creativity, our inner connection and hampering our resilience. Science is now showing that silence may be just what we need to regenerate our exhausted brains and bodies.

Studies show that noise has a powerful physical effect on our brains, causing elevated levels of stress hormones. Sound travels to the brain as electrical signals via the ear. Even when we are sleeping these sound waves cause the body to react and activate the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with memory and emotion, leading to the release of stress hormones. So, living in a consistently noisy environment will cause you to experience extremely high levels of these harmful hormones.

Interestingly, the word noise is said to come from the Latin word nausia, (disgust or nausea) or the Latin word noxia, meaning hurt, damage or injury. Noise has been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, tinnitus and loss of sleep. We’ve all experienced the detrimental effects of noise pollution. Excessive noise can be a major affront to the physical senses and today, more and more people are identifying as highly sensitive and unable to function in chaotic and noisy environments. But now science has the proof not only that noise hurts, but also that silence heals.

Noise and stress

Studies show that noise causes stress hormones to be released in the brain.

The Effects of Silence

In 2011, the World Health Organisation (WHO) examined and quantified its health burden in Europe. It concluded that the 340 million residents of Western Europe (about the population of the United States), were losing a million years of healthy life every year, due to noise. WHO also said that the root cause of 3,000 heart disease deaths was due to excessive noise. A study by Professor Gary W. Evans from Cornell University, published in Psychological Science, charted the effects of airport noise on school children near Munich’s airport. The study showed that children exposed to noise developed a stress response which actually caused them to ignore the noise. He found that the children ignored both the harmful noise of the airport, along with other more everyday noises, such as speech.

This study is among the strongest, probably the most definitive proof that noise–even at levels that do not produce any hearing damage–causes stress and is harmful to humans. – Professor Gary Evans.

Scientists didn’t actively set out to study the effects of silence, but instead discovered its benefits by accident. Silence first began to appear in scientific research as a control or baseline, against which scientists compare the effects of noise or music. Physician Luciano Bernardi studied the physiological effects of noise and music in 2006, making a startling discovery. When the subjects of his study were exposed to the random stretches of silence in between the noise and music, they experienced a powerful effect. The two minute pauses were far more relaxing for the brain than the relaxing music or the longer silence that was in place before the experiment started. In fact, Bernardi’s ‘irrelevant’ blank pauses became the most important aspect of the study. One of his key findings was that silence is heightened by contrasts.

The brain responds to silence

The brain recognises silence and responds powerfully.

Many meditation teachers and practitioners can attest to this, and spiritual teachers advise students to take frequent meditative pauses throughout the day. Though we may think of silence as a lack of input, science says otherwise. The brain recognises silence and responds powerfully. Later research by a Duke University regenerative biologist, Imke Kirste, discovered that two hours of silence per day prompted cell development in the hippocampus, the brain region related to the formation of memory, involving the senses.

Taking Time to Switch Off

According to the Attention Restoration Theory, when you are in an environment with lower levels of sensory input, the brain can ‘recover’ some of its cognitive abilities. With our digital world, our brains get less time to switch off. We are constantly processing enormous amounts of information. Research has shown the constant attention demands of modern life is placing a lot of stress on our prefrontal cortex–the part of the brain responsible for making decisions, solving problems and more. When we spend time alone in silence, our brains are able to relax and release this constant focus.

Researchers found that silence helps new cells to differentiate into neurons, and integrate into the system, and that when we experience silence, our brains are able to work at better understanding our internal and external environments. We can make sense of our lives and gain perspective, something that is vital for our overall wellbeing.

Silence relieves stress

Silence relieves stress and tension in the brain and body.

While noise creates stress, silence relieves stress and tension in the brain and body. Silence is replenishing and nourishes our cognitive resources. Noise makes us lose our concentration, cognitive powers and causes decreased motivation and brain functioning (as backed up by research into the effects of noise), but studies show that spending some time in silence can amazingly restore what was lost through exposure to excessive noise. The ancient spiritual masters have known this all along; silence heals, silence takes us deeply into ourselves, and silence balances the body and mind. Now science is saying the same thing.

The healing benefits of nature and stillness are well documented, but now we can add to this quest for health and wellbeing, the nourishment of our brains. The simple yet ancient experience of silence could be just the healing balm we need to quell our crazy modern lifestyle.

Silence is an empty space. Space is the home of the awakened mind. – Buddha


Sugar is harmful to your mental health, but there are ways to still satisfy your sweet tooth.

Is it time to ditch sugar?

It’s no secret that sugar can wreak havoc on your body if you’re indulging in a little too much of the sweet stuff. Still, 75 percentTrusted Source of Americans are eating too much of it.

The harmful effects it can have on your physical health are well-studied, which is why we talk so much about reducing sugar to lose weight and lower the risk of disease.

While ditching the sweet stuff can result in a physically healthier you, it’s the impact sugar has on our mental health that’s worth taking a second look at.

1. Sugar leads to highs and lows

If your idea of coping with stress involves a pint of Ben and Jerry’s, there’s a good chance you know exactly what a sugar rush is.

While most people can get through a rush and subsequent crash with minimal discomfort, there’s an entire group of people who pay a big price for eating too much sugar.

That’s because consuming a large amount of processed sugar can trigger feelings of worry, irritability, and sadness — which can be a double whammy if you also deal with depression or anxiety.

But why does sugar cause such a problem?

After eating too much sugar, your body releases insulin to help absorb the excess glucose in the bloodstream and stabilize blood sugar levels. That’s a good thing, right? Not necessarily.

Here’s why: A sugar rush makes your body work hard to get back to normal levels.

This roller coaster of ups and downs can leave you feeling nervous, foggy, irritable, jittery, and drained.

If you have anxiety or depression, those symptoms are likely ones you already deal with on a daily basis. Sugar will exacerbate them.

2. If it doesn’t cause anxiety, it sure makes it worse

If you deal with anxiety, then you know how disastrous it can be to binge on sugar.

The powerful high and subsequent crash can make you feel irritable, shaky, and tense — all side effects that can worsen your anxiety.

But that’s not all. Sugar can also weaken your body’s ability to respond to stress, which can trigger your anxiety and prevent you from dealing with the cause of the stress.

There’ve been a few studiesTrusted Source that have looked at the connection between sugar and anxiety, but they were both done on rats. While the findings did show a definite link between sugar intake and anxiety, researchers would like to see more studies done on humans.

3. Sugar can increase your risk of developing depression

It’s hard to avoid reaching for the sweets, especially after a difficult day. And when you’re dealing with depression, sometimes food can serve as a form of self-medication.

But this vicious cycle of consuming sugar to numb your emotions will only make your symptoms of sadness, fatigue, and hopelessness worse.

Overconsumption of sugar triggers imbalances in certain brain chemicals. These imbalances can lead to depression and may even increase the long-term risk of developing a mental health disorder in some people.

In fact, a 2017 studyTrusted Source found that men who consumed a high amount of sugar (67 grams or more) each day were 23 percent more likely to receive a diagnosis of clinical depression within five years.

Even though the study just involved men, the link between sugar and depression is also evident in womenTrusted Source.

4. Withdrawing from sweets can feel like a panic attack

When it comes to quitting processed sugar, many people recommend going cold turkey. But if you have a history of panic attacks, that might not be a good idea.

Withdrawing from sugar isn’t pleasant.

It can cause serious side effects, such as anxiety, irritability, confusion, and fatigue. This has led experts to look at how the withdrawal symptoms from sugar can resemble those of certain drugs.

“Evidence in the literature shows substantial parallels and overlap between drugs of abuse and sugarTrusted Source,” explains Uma Naidoo, MD, who’s considered the mood-food expert at Harvard Medical School.

When someone misuses a drug, like cocaine, they go into a physiological state of withdrawal when they stop using it.

Naidoo says that people who are consuming high amounts of sugar in their diets can similarly experience the physiological sensation of withdrawal if they suddenly stop consuming sugar.

That’s why going cold turkey from sugar may not be the best solution for someone who also has anxiety.

“Suddenly stopping sugar intake can mimic withdrawal and feel like a panic attack,” Naidoo says. And if you have an anxiety disorder, this experience of withdrawal can be heightened.

5. Sugar zaps your brain power

Your stomach may be telling you to dive in and drink your way out of that jumbo cherry Icee, but your brain has a different idea.

Researchers at UCLA found that a diet steadily high in fructose from sugary items such as soda slows down your brain, which can hamper memory and learning. The researchers discovered that genes in the brain could be damaged by fructose.

This may impact memory and learning and could even lead to Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and heart disease.

The main sources of fructose in the American diet include cane sugar (sucrose) and high-fructose corn syrup. This is an important distinction, since the researchers were focused only on fructose.

Granted, their study was done on rats. But what they discovered is worth considering when it comes to your diet — and brain health.

If you’re craving sweets, here’s what to eat instead

Just because you’re ditching processed sugar doesn’t mean you have to deny yourself the pleasure of sweet-tasting food. In addition to being a doctor known as an expert on food and mood, Naidoo is also a chef.

Here are a few of her favorite low- or no-sugar recipes.

sugar and mental health

Chef Uma’s chai tea smoothie



  1. Add all ingredients to your blender. Blend until smooth.
  2. Enjoy.

Chef Uma’s tips

  • If you don’t have the spices, brew a cup of chai tea using tea bags or whole leaf tea. Use it instead of the almond milk.
  • For a thinner smoothie, add almond milk for creaminess.
  • Avocado adds creaminess and is a healthy fat to boot!

Chef Uma’s chocolate dipped strawberries



  • 2 16-oz. containers of strawberries with the stems on
  • 1 10-oz. bag of dark chocolate chips
  • 1 10-oz. bag of milk chocolate chips


  1. Wash the two containers of strawberries, then air-dry.
  2. Use a double-boiler method to heat the chocolate.
  3. Remove from heat.
  4. Gently stir the chocolate to a smooth consistency.
  5. Quickly dip strawberries in melted chocolate. Dry on sheet pan.
  6. Set in fridge for 5 to 10 minutes.

Chef Uma’s tips

  • Always air-dry or towel-dry the strawberries before dipping them in the melted chocolate. Water will damage the chocolate.
  • If the chocolates form a thick mixture, you may need to add 1/2 cup more of milk chocolate chips to help create a smooth consistency for dipping.
  • The flavanols, methylxanthines, and polyphenols found in dark chocolate help boost mood, lower anxiety, and fight inflammation.
weet potatoes

Chef Uma’s oven-roasted sweet potatoes with red miso paste



  1. Preheat oven to 425ºF (218ºC).
  2. Create a marinade by mixing the olive oil, salt, pepper, and red miso paste.
  3. Peel and cut sweet potatoes into equal-sized pieces or discs.
  4. Toss the sweet potatoes in the marinade.
  5. Place sweet potatoes on a sheet pan in a single layer.
  6. Roast for about 20 to 25 minutes, or until potatoes are tender.

Chef Uma’s tips

  • You can substitute white miso paste for less of an umami flavor.
  • It may be easier to coat all the potatoes with the marinade if you put both in a Ziploc bag, then toss around.
  • Sweet potatoes are a healthy source of fiber and phytonutrients.


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