Nutrition and Seasonal Affective Disorder

Have the dark, drizzly days got you feeling down? Are you experiencing less energy this time of year than your normal, vibrant self? You aren’t alone. It is estimated ~20% of the population suffers from the condition Seasonal Affective Disorder – otherwise known as SAD.  It is a condition that can trigger depression symptoms to appear in the winter months.

SAD may cause low motivation, tiredness, changes in appetite, cravings for foods high simple carbohydrate (aka “comfort foods”), and unwanted weight gain.

Common treatment interventions for SAD includes light therapy, medication, and counseling. However improved dietary changes can also be a powerful solution to help boost your mood. The following recommendations will help alleviate SAD and reduce cravings:

Complex Carbohydrates
It might sound appealing to gravitate towards your favorite comfort foods to make you feel better, and temporarily, they do. But in the long run, intake of simple carbohydrates will cause you to feel worse. Eating foods high in refined or “simple” carbohydrates (i.e., white bread, white rice, desserts, etc) releases “feel good” neurotransmitters in the brain – serotonin and dopamine. However this also causes blood sugar levels to spike, then plummet after a surge of insulin, which causes unpleasant side effects including irritability, headaches, and fatigue. Large intake of these foods also contributes to weight gain. Instead, choose high fiber complex carbohydrate foods that promote healthy energy, stabilized blood sugar, and can decrease cravings for foods containing sugar, fat, and salt.
Food Sources: whole grain bread, brown rice, oatmeal, beans and lentils, popcorn, and whole fruit.

Omega-3 Supplements
It is no surprise that including Omega-3s will benefit your health, but recent studies has proven its effectiveness of changing the chemistry of our brains. Research has found that omega-3s can help maintain appropriate levels of dopamine and serotonin in the brain – two important neurotransmitters that ultimately impact our mood and emotions. Including omega-3s in the diet (either via supplementation or food sources) correlates with reduced rates of depression.
Supplements: Aim for at least 1000mg EPA and 500mg DHA daily.
Food Sources: Recommend 2-3 servings of fish per week – salmon, sardines, mackerel, tuna, walnuts, and flaxseed.

Vitamin D
The “sunshine” vitamin as it is known, becomes scarce in the short days of winter and since we spend more time indoors. Our bodies utilize the UV rays from the sun to create the sufficient Vitamin D we need. There is growing research that deficiency of Vitamin D can be a contributing factor of SAD as well as depression. Get outdoors during the daytime! Try to get at least 15 minutes of sun exposure per day. There are limited number of foods that naturally contain Vitamin D, so supplementing is key to achieve the recommended intake for health.
Supplement: Look for Vitamin D3 1500-2000IU per day.
Food Sources: Fatty fish including salmon, tuna, sardines, rainbow trout), fortified milk and egg yolks 

SAD, depression, or any other medical condition can only be diagnosed by a physician or medical professional. It is highly recommend to seek appropriate medical treatment if you feel you have this condition.

Source: Ilardi, Stephen S. PhD. The Depression Cure. Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2009.

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