As we enter the time of year where daylight hours can feel non-existent, the “winter blues” sets in for many people. This can include feelings of sadness, decreased motivation, difficulty concentrating and changes in appetite. If you experience any of these symptoms during the winter, you may be experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as SAD (finally an acronym that makes sense).
You’re not alone, and the good news is that there are strategies to help you reduce symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, including Seasonal Affective Disorder nutrition. There are key mood-boosting foods to keep in your kitchen during the long winter months.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression that people experience during certain times of the year, most commonly during the winter months. To be diagnosed with SAD, an individual must meet the criteria of depression that coincides with a certain time of the year for at least 2 years.
Symptoms of SAD include:
- Low energy
- Hypersomnia (AKA sleeping too much)
- Weight gain
- Craving sweet and starchy foods
- Social withdrawal
SAD can begin at any age, but is most common between the ages of 18 to 30.
How Many People are Affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Multiple population studies estimate that the prevalence of Seasonal Affective Disorder is anywhere between 1-10%, with prevalence being higher in people that live in northern latitudes. Interestingly, Seasonal Affective Disorder is more common in North America than Europe, nearly twice as high! The reason for this discrepancy is currently unknown, but living in urban areas is a possible factor.
There are also certain risk factors for SAD. Women are more likely than men to experience SAD, as well as individuals who have a family history of depression.
What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?
The causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder are unknown, but current research in this area has found 3 biological relationships that helps us make sense of why certain symptoms occur:
1) Overproduction of melatonin
Melatonin is a hormone which regulates sleep. Increased hours of darkness leads to increased production of serotonin, causing people with SAD to feel sleepier than usual. This causes people to feel out of step with their circadian rhythm, also known as your biological clock.
2) Trouble regulating serotonin
Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter (a type of chemical messenger within the brain), involved in the regulation of mood. One study found that people with SAD have more serotonin transporter protein in the winter months than the summer months (nearly 5% more!). Translation? More serotonin transporter protein means less available serotonin, resulting in lower mood.
3) Low Vitamin D
People with SAD may produce less vitamin D, which is significant because vitamin D is believed to play a role in regulating serotonin. For more information, check out this previous blog post about vitamin D deficiency and whether you need a vitamin D supplement.People with #SAD may produce less #VitaminD - an important nutrient for the regulation of mood Click To Tweet
What Should I Eat to Manage Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?
The 3 biological relationships mentioned above are most certainly the most science-y part of understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder, but they’re important in understanding why certain nutrients are relevant in managing symptoms! Seasonal Affective Disorder nutrition is an emerging area of research, but there are certain foods that can help.
The following are the top 5 relevant nutrients in managing SAD, including food examples.
It is important to note that while nutrition may help relieve symptoms, nutrition will not cure Seasonal Affective Disorder. You may have heard of other methods for treating SAD such as light therapy, psychotherapy and medications. If you want to more information regarding these treatment options, please talk to your doctor. It’s best to take a holistic approach to treating SAD which includes medical treatment along with nutrition therapy, regular exercise, yoga and meditation.
Complex Carbohydrates for Seasonal Affective Disorder
Just because cravings for foods high in carbs is a common symptom of Seasonal Affective Disorder, doesn’t mean they should be completely eliminated. This is because carbohydrates help produce serotonin, the neurotransmitter than is lower in people with Seasonal Affective Disorder, resulting in lower mood. Your body is craving those carbs for a reason!
Instead of going for refined carbohydrates like white bread and candy, try beans and lentils, whole grains and starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes, squash or parsnips. These are all great sources of complex carbohydrates, with additional benefits from fiber which keeps us fuller longer and curbs cravings.
Vitamin B6 & Tryptophan
A key vitamin related to carbohydrates is Vitamin B6, also known as pyridoxine. It is one of the eight B vitamins that helps in converting carbohydrates into fuel the body can use. As you may have already guessed from its role with carbohydrates, Vitamin B6 is important in the production of serotonin.
If you avoid animal products, you can still get vitamin B6 from legumes such as beans and lentils, spinach, carrots, brown rice, bran, sunflower seeds, wheat germ, oats, bananas and whole grain flour.
All of these foods are also rich tryptophan, which may ring a bell as it is commonly associated with the post-Thanksgiving turkey coma. Tryptophan is an amino acid that is a precursor to serotonin – another source to boost serotonin levels and boost mood!
Vitamin D & Omega-3s
Being exposed to less sunlight makes getting food sources of vitamin D, also known as the “sunshine vitamin” even more important. When vitamin D is low, we may feel depressed or experience decreased mood.
Great food sources of vitamin D include fortified milk and milk alternatives, eggs and oily fish such as salmon and Arctic char. Fish is also an excellent source of omega-3s for brain health. Omega-3s also help decrease cortisol levels, a common stress hormone.
The Bottom Line on Nutrition for Seasonal Affective Disorder
For people with Seasonal Affective Disorder, the symptoms that are experienced are valid and not anything to brush off. If you would prefer a more personalized approach, a registered dietitian can help support you in meeting your nutrition goals. If you feel that SAD is affecting your daily life, do not hesitate to reach out for support to your doctor who can determine appropriate treatment options for you.
A big thank you to my intern, Jacqueline Vykoukal, for writing this amazing article.
Have you ever experienced the “winter blues”? Share in the comments. I’d love to hear from you!