Seasonal Affective Disorder and Your Diet

DO THE WINTER MONTHS GET YOU IN A FUNK OR GIVE YOU THE BLUES?  MAYBE THE HOLIDAYS CAN KEEP YOU BUSY AND DISTRACTED RIGHT NOW, BUT WHAT WILL HAPPEN ONCE THEY ARE OVER? LESS DAY LIGHT AND COLD WEATHER ARE LIKELY TO CREATE GLOOM AND FEELINGS OF SADNESS FOR MANY OF US. LET’S FACE IT, UNLESS YOUR SKIING, SLEDDING, OR SNOWBOARDING SEVERAL TIMES A WEEK YOUR LIFESTYLE CHANGES IN THE WINTER. YOUR PHYSICAL ACTIVITY, INTAKE OF FRESH AIR AND SOCIALIZATION TEND TO DECLINE DURING THE COLD WEATHER MONTHS.

The change in seasons can bring about a mood disorder and form of depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). It typically begins around autumn, peaks during the winter, and lasts until the late spring/beginning of summer. Depending on the severity, it can have a significantly negative influence an individual’s everyday life. Symptoms can include lack of energy, fatigue, low mood, reduced concentration, feelings of isolation and loneliness, change in sleep pattern, emotional eating, and increased consumption of carbohydrates. Now, before you call your doctor convinced that you have SAD take a few moments to read on. 

There is no single known cause for SAD, but a lack of environmental light may be a significant factor as well as a genetic predisposition, stress and altered circadian rhythm.  It is important to note that women unfortunately are three to four times more likely to suffer SAD compared to men. There are a few factors that may increase the risk of developing SAD. Factors include location, family history and history of depression. Individuals living further away from the equator are likely to experience more extremes conditions in relation to light and darkness which place that at increased risk.  Individuals who suffer from depression or have family members with SAD or another form of depression are more likely to develop SAD.  

If you are wondering what you can do to improve SAD, there are several options.  Options may include medication, exercise and eating a healthy diet. I know what you are thinking, exercise and a healthy diet are the answer to everything. Now while that is true, they do help manage and treat a multitude of things, let’s dive in further. Food is not only essential for nourishment but can also impact brain chemicals called neurotransmitters responsible for our appetite and mood.  Granted there is no magic food or recipe to prevent SAD but having a balanced and nutrient-dense diet can help prevent downward spirals in mood. 

 Ideally, you want to focus on making meals that have protein, fiber and healthy fat. The three ingredients will help full you and keep you satisfied for longer periods of time and prevent the sugar roller coaster which promotes irritability and moodiness.  

Let’s look at what nutrients you need and what foods supply them –  

  1. Lean protein has amino acids that lift your mood. They also are a good source of energy which can help overcome fatigue. Most of us do not eat enough protein. Eating more protein can prevent you feeling ravenous or hangry later in the day.  
  2. Omega 3 fatty acids help to boost mood and decrease mild to moderate symptoms of SAD. Foods such as flax seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts and salmon are easy to incorporate into meals and snacks. 
  3. Folic acid produces serotonin, a mood stabilizer, which decreases depression and anxiety.  It is found in leafy greens, oatmeal, sunflower seeds, oranges, lentils, black-eyed peas and soybeans. 
  4. Vitamin B-12 aids in nutrient absorption to help get the most benefit from what you eat. Be sure to consume clams, oysters, crabs, wild salmon, eggs, cottage cheese, yogurt, and lean beef.
  5. Vitamin D helps to boost your mood and mitigate depression.  Vitamin D tends to be low for most of us to begin with, and missing out on sunshine during the winter can further decrease your level. Make sure you drink milk, eat egg yolks, mushrooms, fish with bones and fortified cereal.
  6. Tryptophan is an amino acid that can help improve mental alertness and energy. It has a calming effect and is found in turkey, fortified dairy products, beans, soy products and bananas.  Bananas also help provide a natural carbohydrate and potassium to help fuel your body. 
  7. Avoid processed sugars – Eating foods with processed sugars contribute to the roller coaster effect. They may give you a temporary spike in energy, but it will be followed by a crash effect, leaving you feeling worse than before. 
  8. High fiber/ healthy naturally occurring carbohydrates found in whole grains, vegetables, and fruits. These foods will boost your serotonin (feel-good neurotransmitter), help you feel satisfied, prevent overeating and regulate your blood sugar level to keep cravings at bay.  An added bonus is these foods will also help regulate you if you deal with constipation. 
  9. Antioxidants such as dark chocolate and berries. Oxidative stress is a natural occurrence that releases free radicals into our bodies. Free radicals can cause cell and tissue damage, aging, and other symptoms linked to depression. Antioxidants help to lessen their damage.  Dark chocolate also has flavonoids that can increase feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin. It must be 70% cacao or more to help fight symptoms of depression.  
  10. Magnesium helps create energy, balance mood, improve sleep and reduce anxiety. Food sources include nuts, legumes, whole grains, greens, and water. 

If you are wondering about supplements, the general rule to follow is eating foods that contain these nutrients naturally is always better.  Synthetically derived nutrients are no substitute for the real deal. 

It is also important to keep in mind that diet may help in reducing symptoms for mild-moderate cases of SAD. However, diet is not the only treatment for SAD. Individuals who suffer serious forms of depression should speak to a physician to further discuss their symptoms and seek other treatment options.    

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Diane Saulle, PhD.
Diane Saulle, PhD. is a certified Health Coach and Founder of Eat Clean Be Vital Inc. The demands placed on women today make it easy to prioritize everyone & everything before ourselves. This takes a toll on how we look & feel. I provide guidance, support & accountability to women looking to reclaim their health & well-being. Focus is placed on what to eat, physical activity & personal development.
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