[Important after a year of turmoil]
This month is the autumnal equinox. The days will start getting shorter and darker. But so might your mood. (Especially coming off a year of lockdowns, social isolation, and economic turmoil.)
Indeed, these seasonal impacts have long been a major feature of ancient medical traditions in China, India, and elsewhere—as they influence your biological clock, your physiology, and your mental health. Even colonial physicians in early America factored climate and weather in their medical considerations!
But in our modern era of electricity, artificial lighting, and technology, mainstream medicine has put these seasonal considerations aside. (After all, modern medicine is one of the biggest users and abusers of high-tech approaches.)
Ignoring these implications, however, has consequences. In fact, two major new studies have found that people whose sleep patterns go against their natural body clocks are substantially more likely to experience depression and low mood.
The good news is, these studies also show that two nutrients you’re (hopefully) already taking can help END these seasonal changes and BOOST your mood. Even during the shorter, darker days…
What truly influences your sleep patterns
We live in a society that’s geared toward morning people. For instance, standard working hours of 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. mean that many people need to wake up between 6:00 and 7:00 a.m., or earlier, to get to work on time.
But what if you’re a night owl?
Well, according to two studies of about 1.3 million people conducted by U.K. and U.S. researchers, you might be at risk for major depression.
In fact, scientists have previously discovered more than 340 commonly recognized genetic variations in the so-called “clock gene” that affects our biological clocks. And that these genetic variations influence your tendency to sleep at certain times.
So, in the first study, University of Exeter scientists expanded on this theory.1 They found that genetics account for between 12 to 42 percent of people’s sleeping preferences. Meaning it was external factors (like shift work and exposure to light) that were more likely to determine when subjects went to bed and woke up—not their genes.
The researchers then looked at questionnaires from just over 451,000 adults, which revealed whether the respondents considered themselves morning people or night people. Those respondents also underwent seven tests measuring their mental health and well-being.
Lastly, the researchers measured sleep patterns in more than 85,000 people via physical-activity monitors on their wrists.
The researchers ultimately discovered that the people whose sleep wasn’t aligned with their natural biological clock “genes” were more likely to experience anxiety, depression, low mood, and reduced well-being.
The morning lark versus the night owl
The second study, which included the data from the Exeter study, looked at the sleep patterns and biological clocks of 840,000 people.2 About one-third of the people said they were morning larks, 9 percent were night owls, and the rest were somewhere in the middle.
Overall, the average sleep schedule entailed going to bed at 11 p.m. and waking up at 7 a.m. (for those who slept eight hours).
The researchers found that for the people who didn’t adhere to this schedule (and therefore who may experience declines in their mental health, according to the first study), simply going to bed one hour earlier, and waking up one hour earlier could slash their risk of having major depression by 23 percent.
Why? Well, some research suggests that getting more light exposure during the day (by waking one hour earlier) results in hormonal influences that impact mood.
And on the psychological front, being a night owl can sometimes be depressing in itself. In fact, study author Iyas Dahlas even said, “We live in a society that is designed for morning people, and evening people often feel as if they are in a constant state of misalignment with that societal clock.” 3
So adjusting those sleep and wake times even just slightly may help those people feel more aligned with and connected to others.
Of course, if you have the ability to “work from home”—which has grown in popularity, especially with the pandemic panic—you might also be able to adjust your work hours in a way that’s more in tune with your natural biological clock…and that feels right for you.
There are also dietary steps you can take to lower your risk of depression—even if you can’t change your sleep schedule…
There’s nothing fishy about depression
Research has linked the omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil with a reduced risk of depression before. But a recent study found that a whopping 68 percent of American adults and 95 percent of children don’t get enough omega-3s, as recommended by U.S. Dietary Guidelines. (And those guidelines are way too low anyway, according to the latest research).4
This is particularly depressing news, so to speak, in light of a new study from King’s College in London.
Prior studies have shown that depression is associated with higher levels of inflammation. And in the recent study, British researchers postulated that the omega-3s in fish oil (EPA and DHA) exert anti-inflammatory effects on the brain. (It’s thought that omega-3s easily pass through the blood-brain barrier and into brain cell membranes.)
The researchers looked at 22 people diagnosed with major depression. Participants took either 3,000 mg of EPA or 1,400 mg of DHA daily for 12 weeks. DHA and EPA were measured in the blood before and after treatment, and the participants’ depression symptoms were also assessed.
Results showed that both DHA and EPA were associated with significant improvements in mood. In fact, the EPA group had an average 64 percent drop in depression symptoms. And the DHA group’s response was even better, with a 71 percent decrease in symptoms.
The researchers noted that it’s unlikely these amounts of DHA and EPA can be obtained by eating oily fish alone—so they suggest fish oil supplementation. But like others, they don’t really know how to gauge your supplement intake according to your consumption of fish, or lack thereof.
So, to take advantage of these anti-inflammatory effects yourself, I recommend finding a high-quality brand you can trust. Then, here are my supplementation recommendations, based on diet:
- If you eat fish every day…there’s no need to take fish oil supplements.
- If you eat fish four to six times a week… supplement with 1 to 3 grams of fish oil daily, containing 400-950 mg of EPA and 300-700 mg of DHA.
- If you eat fish one to three times a week… take 4 to 5 grams of fish oil supplements daily, containing 1,400-1,800 mg of EPA and 1,000-1,300 mg of DHA.
- If you don’t eat any fish… take 6 grams of fish oil daily, containing 2,000 mg of EPA and 1,500 mg of DHA.
D is for depression
As bad (and sad) as the American deficiency in omega-3s may be, there’s another widespread deficiency that may also be putting people at risk of depression. And it’s in a nutrient you need to be particularly concerned over, starting around this time of year…
I’m talking about Vitamin D.
Vitamin D has a long-established and well-known benefit for mood. And now, a large new study from The University of Leipzig in Germany found that higher vitamin D levels are associated with reduced symptoms of depression.6
The researchers linked this beneficial effect to the vitamin’s influences on three specific markers of inflammation: C-reactive protein (CRP), interleukin 6 (IL-6), and total white blood cell (WBC) count.
The study analyzed data from 9,640 men and women, ages 18 to 80 years, during August 2011 to November 2014. In addition to a battery of clinical and medical assessments and lab tests, participants’ symptoms of depression during the prior week were measured.
Ultimately, higher concentrations of CRP, IL-6, and WBC were associated with greater symptoms of depression. But vitamin D may be able to help…
Scientists believe vitamin D is active within brain regions that influence mood, as it can increase the serotonin synthesis that’s altered in depression. In other words, D helps naturally increase levels of serotonin, the feel-good hormone. (This is something antidepressant drugs can’t even do! Instead, those drugs trap abnormally high levels of serotonin in the synapses between brain cells, by interfering with normal re-uptake of serotonin into brain cells.)
Vitamin D also protects brain cells from degeneration. And it modulates immune-system responses that may lead to inflammation and mood alteration.
Of course, you already know that from October to March, in latitudes north of Atlanta and Los Angeles, your body is unable to synthesize enough vitamin D from the sun. That makes supplementation especially important during this time of year.
So, I suggest you celebrate the autumnal equinox by making sure you’re adequately supplementing with vitamin D. As always, I recommend taking 250 mcg (10,000 IU) of D daily, along with adequate amounts of fish oil. You’ll likely find yourself staying healthier and happier as the days shorten, the air becomes crisper, and the leaves begin to fall.
1“Using Mendelian Randomisation methods to understand whether diurnal preference is causally related to mental health.” Mol Psychiatry (2021).
2“Genetically Proxied Diurnal Preference, Sleep Timing, and Risk of Major Depressive Disorder.” JAMA Psychiatry. 2021 May 26:e210959. doi: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2021.0959.
4“Long-chain omega-3 fatty acid serum concentrations across life stages in the USA: an analysis of NHANES 2011–2012.” BMJ Open 2021;11:e043301.
5“Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids protect against inflammation through production of LOX and CYP450 lipid mediators: relevance for major depression and for human hippocampal neurogenesis.” Mol Psychiatry. 2021 Jun 16.
6“Inflammation and the Association of Vitamin D and Depressive Symptomatology.” Nutrients. 2021 Jun 8;13(6):1972.