Winter is synonymous with all things warm and cozy, including comfort food. However, too often, the foods we crave in chilly weather are far from the kind we should be eating to prevent or soothe seasonal mood changes. I’m sharing this week some great tips from a recent article I came across from Prevention magazine along with other information I’ve gained over the years.
About 5% of North Americans suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and another 10% to 20% may encounter winter depression in a milder form. SAD is a form of depression that typically occurs when there is less sunlight in the winter, which can disrupt your body’s internal clock and, consequently, your mood. Side effects of winter-onset SAD include excessive sleeping, weight gain, difficulty concentrating, and cravings, particularly for sweet or starchy foods.
“People suffering from SAD, or other types of depression, often have a craving for carbohydrate-rich foods because these foods stimulate production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that affects mood,” says Gennady Musher, MD, a clinical instructor at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA and founder of the TMS Neuro Institute.
However, giving into these cravings can have unhealthy consequences. “Over time, cravings for certain foods such as bread, pasta, cookies, and crackers can lead to many added calories and unwanted weight gain,” says Jennifer Davis, RDN, the regional supervisor of medical nutrition and dietary services for Kaiser Permanente Hawaii. “These foods can also lend to fluctuations in blood sugar, contributing to mood swings.”
The good news: The healthy foods below will get you through the winter with a little more pep in your step, especially when combined with exercise, adequate sleep (aim for 7 to 8 hours), and if needed, treatment such as light therapy or psychotherapy.
(See your doctor if you have serious depressive symptoms for more than two weeks.)
SAD is most common in people who live at least 30 degrees latitude north or south of the equator (north of places such as Jacksonville, Florida, Austin, Texas, Cairo, Egypt, and Hangzhou, China, or south of Perth, Australia, Durban, South Africa, and Cordoba, Argentina). No matter where you live, though, or how dark and cold the winters, the good news is that, like other forms of depression, SAD is treatable. The more you understand about seasonal depression, the better equipped you’ll be to manage or even prevent the condition.
Do I have seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?
If some of these feelings seem to happen each year, have a real impact on your life, and improve when the seasons change, you may have seasonal affective disorder.
I feel like sleeping all the time, or I’m having trouble getting a good night’s sleep
I’m tired all the time, it makes it hard for me to carry out daily tasks
My appetite has changed, particularly more cravings for sugary and starchy foods
I’m gaining weight
I feel sad, guilty and down on myself
I feel hopeless
I’m avoiding people or activities I used to enjoy
I feel tense and stressed
I’ve lost interest in sex and other physical contact
Source: BC Mental Health
Seasonal depression can make it hard to motivate yourself to make changes, but there are plenty of steps you can take to help yourself feel better. Recovery takes time but you’ll likely feel a little better each day. By adopting healthy habits and scheduling fun and relaxation into your day, you can help lift the cloud of seasonal affective disorder and keep it from coming back.
Tip #1: Get as much natural sunlight as possible—it’s free!
Whenever possible, get outside during daylight hours and expose yourself to the sun without wearing sunglasses (but never stare directly at the sun).
Take a short walk outdoors, have your coffee outside if you can stay warm enough.
Increase the amount of natural light in your home and workplace by opening blinds and drapes and sitting near windows.
Some people find that painting walls in lighter colors or using daylight simulation bulbs helps to combat winter SAD.
Tip #2: Exercise regularly—it can be as effective as medication
Regular exercise is a powerful way to fight seasonal depression, especially if you’re able to exercise outside in natural daylight.
Regular exercise can boost serotonin, endorphins, and other feel-good brain chemicals. In fact, exercise can treat mild to moderate depression as effectively as antidepressant medication.
Exercise can also help to improve your sleep and boost your self-esteem.
Aim for 30 to 60 minutes of activity on most days. Even something as simple as walking a dog, for example, can be good exercise for you and the animal, as well as a great way to get outdoors and interact with other people.
Tip #3: Reach out to family and friends—and let them help
Close relationships are vital in reducing isolation and helping you manage SAD. Participate in social activities, even if you don’t feel like it. It may feel more comfortable to retreat into your shell, but being around other people will boost your mood. Even if you’ve retreated from relationships that were once important to you, make the effort to reconnect or start new relationships.
Call or email an old friend to meet for coffee. Or reach out to someone new—a work colleague or neighbor, for example. Most of us feel awkward about reaching out, but be the one to break the ice.
Join a support group for depression. Sometimes, just talking about what you’re going through can help you feel better. Being with others who are facing the same problems can help reduce your sense of isolation and provide inspiration to make positive changes.
Meet new people with a common interest by taking a class, joining a club, or enrolling in a special interest group that meets on a regular basis. Whatever you choose, make sure it’s something that’s fun for you.
Volunteer your time. Helping others is one of the best ways to feel better about yourself, expand your social network, and overcome SAD.
Tip #4: Eat the right diet
Eating small, well-balanced meals throughout the day, with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, will help you keep your energy up and minimize mood swings.
Aim for eating more of the following foods:
Oily fish such as salmon is filled with brain-healthy nutrients and has been shown to lower the incidence of depression. “Salmon, tuna, and trout are great sources of vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids, both of which can influence mood,” says Musher.
Just 3-ounces of salmon (about a palm-sized serving) provides 112% your daily value of vitamin D. Both vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids play a role in serotonin production and function, and deficiencies in either have been linked to depressive symptoms.
Try this: Typically, home chefs bake salmon topped with lemon slices, but you can get creative with other winter citrus fruits, too! Cook your filet topped with orange slices and rosemary sprigs, or with grapefruit slices and lemon juice.
Even though it’s difficult to resist, say, a hot sandwich or cheesy pasta dish in the winter, at least fill half of your plate with leafy greens at every meal.
“Leafy greens such as spinach, lentils, and broccoli are rich in folate, which plays a role in the functioning of the nervous system, especially in the formation of neurotransmitters,” says Tracy Oliver, RDN, an associate professor of nutrition at Villanova College of Nursing. Folate also aids in the production of dopamine, which enhances activity in the positive reward center of the brain. For this reason, Oliver says “Folate deficiency is thought to be relatively common in those with depression.”
Try this: For a meal that’s both warming and rich in folate, go heavy on the spinach and broccoli in your favorite crustless quiche recipe. You can also make quiche cups in a muffin tin (instead of a baking dish) for a quick winter meal that’s easy to take on the go.
While you should avoid too many foods filled with blood-sugar-spiking, refined carbohydrates during the winter months (and really, year round, as well), whole grain carbohydrates may actually help ease the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. Many grain products such as pastas, breads, and rice are fortified with folate, the same helpful B vitamin found in leafy greens.
“Whole grains also help stabilize blood sugar and combat the sugar crashes we feel after consuming highly processed or refined carbohydrates and sugar-rich foods,” says Oliver. In other words: Eating your whole grains may mean fewer mood swings, even on days when you do indulge in sugar cookies or another sweet treat.
Try this: Set aside time weekly to make whole wheat pasta or brown rice and store in a resealable container in your refrigerator. Throughout the week, stir the pasta or rice into your favorite winter soups and salads to bulk them up.
This cheerful yellow fruit may just make you feel cheery, too. “Bananas are a great source of potassium and vitamin B6, and provide the mood-regulating amino acid, tryptophan,” says Musher.
Stress can deplete your levels of potassium, deficiencies of which have been linked to depressive symptoms. Vitamin B6 is necessary for normal brain function and the production of neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine, plus the hormone melatonin (all of which can benefit your mood). Meanwhile, tryptophan is an essential amino acid naturally found in both plant and animal proteins that the body converts into serotonin.
Try this: For a satiating winter breakfast, top toast with cream cheese, banana slices, strawberry slices, chopped nuts (such as walnuts), and a drizzle of honey. (For even more ideas, don’t miss these 5 delicious things you can do with overripe bananas.)
Not only do they make a good midday snack when your energy is low, but nuts could also make you feel happier in the winter.
“Nuts boost your serotonin levels and can act as mood stabilizers,” says Musher. In a study published in the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Proteome Research, researchers compared a group of 22 patients with metabolic syndrome who ate a nut-enriched diet for 12 weeks with another group of 20 patients who did not eat nuts. They found that consuming a 1-ounce daily serving of mixed nuts was linked with higher levels of mood-boosting serotonin.
For an extra mood boost, include pistachios in your nut blends: Just 1-ounce of these nuts provides 25% your daily value of mood-boosting vitamin B6.
Try this: Replace pine nuts with pistachios in your favorite pesto recipe for a budget-friendly, winter-blues-busting sauce for whole grain pasta. One of our favourites is a 150-calorie avocado, mango, and pistachio salad!
This fermented dairy beverage offers 25% of the daily recommended intake of mood-boosting vitamin D. It can also make your gut happy, thanks to its probiotics. “Probiotics in fermented food can improve gut bacteria, and are associated with improvements in depression and anxiety,” says Musher.
Research concurs: A 2017 review in the Annals of General Psychiatry found that probiotics may have positive results on depressive symptoms. (However, the research is still preliminary, and more studies are needed to determine what the most beneficial dose and duration of probiotic treatment might be). In the meantime, probiotics fall into the “doesn’t hurt, might help” category, according to Harvard Medical School—plus, they may benefit you in other ways, such as improving immune function and absorption of nutrients.
Try this: If you’re not a fan of drinking kefir straight, use it as an ingredient in a delicious salad dressing. Simply whisk some with lemon juice, salt, pepper, garlic, and herbs such as dill and chives. Chill before serving.