For a positive start to 2018, be aware of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Published Dec 31, 2017 at 9:00am

The time change means shorter days, cooler weather, and, for some, seasonal depression.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is thought to be from changes in brain chemicals triggered by less light and more darkness. Light therapy and exercise, as well as prescription medication, are all used to combat SAD, and some diet choices may have subtle effects on depression and mood as well.

While not a replacement for other therapies, these seven diet suggestions may give you a little mood boost during the winter. 

The winter “blahs” or seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that’s related to a change in seasons. Its main cause is the change in light that impacts circadian rhythm (aka sleep cycle), melatonin levels, and levels of the mood-regulating neurotransmitter serotonin. These changes can also impact levels of cortisol, everyone’s favorite stress hormone. 

Other SAD symptoms may include changes in appetite (hello, pasta cravings), irritability, fatigue, oversleeping, and a feeling of heaviness in the limbs. 

To fight SAD, include seasonal produce in your diet. High intake of fruits and vegetables help people feel better. Produce like colorful beets, chard, parsnips, citrus, pomegranates, persimmons, and squashes are good options. 

Pleasure-inducing brain chemical dopamine plays an important role in mood. The folate in dark leafy greens like spinach and kale, and also in oranges, enhances the production of dopamine. 

Part of the reason we crave carbs during the darker months has a lot to do with the seasonal dip in serotonin and the fact that carbohydrates are needed for normal serotonin production. A few other key nutrients in serotonin production are tryptophan, an amino acid that’s a precursor to serotonin, and vitamin B6.

Choosing complex carbs like lentils and brown rice over refined carbs is the recommendation. They break down more slowly, which helps keep you full longer (and less prone to overeating) and promotes stable blood sugar to keep you from getting a hunger meltdown.

A bowl of oatmeal will help you start your day off strong by giving you slow digesting complex carbs and filling fiber plus some vitamin B6 to keep your energy up. Oatmeal also happens to contain tryptophan. To get the most nutritional bang for your buck, top your bowl with nuts or nut butter for stabilizing protein and fat. 

It’s important to get more vitamin D from your diet when you’re exposed to less sunlight. D is called the “sunshine vitamin” because the body synthesizes it via sunlight exposure. Nutritionists encourage us to take a cue from Icelanders and their traditional diet.

Studies have shown a very low prevalence of anxiety, depression, and seasonal affective disorder among
the country’s population, even with their long, dark winters.

Icelanders eat a lot of fish, which means they’re getting a lot of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D. Omega-3 fatty acids are highly effective in preventing and managing depression, as well as vitamin D. Try and fit fish into your meal rotation at least twice a week. Fish to eat would be higher-fat, cold-water fish like salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel, and anchovies.

Some plant-based foods like flaxseed, canola oil, and walnuts also contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids. In addition to upping your fish intake, adding more dairy into your diet as the days get colder and shorter may be beneficial. Low calcium levels have been linked to anxiety and moodiness as well. Many health experts also recommend a vitamin D supplement, especially if you’re on a plant-based diet. 

Zinc is involved on over 300 different processes in the human body, so it makes sense that zinc affects brain health in some form. An inverse relationship between zinc levels in the body and depression has been documented. Lower zinc levels are more likely to lead to higher depression rates. The effect of increased zinc intake on depressive symptoms isn’t exact, but it likely doesn’t hurt to get a few zinc rich foods in each week, like oysters and other shellfish, lean beef, yogurt, whole grains, and beans. 

The gut-brain axis is communication between intestines and the brain via the nervous system, and its role in disease development and progression has become the focus of recent research – including the gut’s relationship to depression and anxiety. Try eating things like yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh, kombucha, and other fermented foods and foods with active live cultures. 

We all love our sweets, especially chocolate. Here’s validation for anyone who tends to reach for chocolate when down: eating chocolate improves mood and decreases stress. And, the effect is thought to be a combination of science and psychology.

Flavonoids in the cocoa plant appear to be reasonable for increasing blood flow in the brain, as well as having a protective and anti-inflammatory effect on neurons. Researchers’ think that the simple pleasure of eating chocolate boosts mood. Finding pleasure in a piece of chocolate stimulates areas of the brain that play a role in depression treatment. Choosing darker chocolate with less added sugar is the best choice. Limit to around 1-ounce per fat or a few times per week, and remember to account for those extra calories. 

If sugary or starchy foods are what you reach for when sad or stressed, there’s a reason. The digestion of carbohydrates stimulates the production of serotonin, the neurotransmitter that regulates mood and is the target of many antidepressant drugs. Consumption of lower-glycemic foods, or ones that don’t create spikes in blood sugar (high-fiber complex carbs like whole-grains, vegetables, beans), are associated with lower rates of depression. Choose to eat more vegetables, including starchy ones like sweet potatoes, whole grains, beans, fruit, and low-fat dairy for the carbohydrate source at meals and snacks. 

Try to eat less processed foods. French fries may sound good, but eating fried and processed foods, as well as foods made with refined grains and added sugars, may not only hurt your waistline but also your mood. Several studies suggest that higher intakes of nutrient-dense, whole foods like whole grains, fruit, eggs, vegetables, fish, and some meat may reduce odds of developing depression.

One possible reason behind this is inflammation, something that appears to play a role in most brain-related ailments like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Those French fries and less healthy foods trigger low-grade inflammation within the body contributing to the development of many chronic diseases, while healthier, less processed foods act as anti-inflammatories in the body.

Focus on choosing still in or close to their natural state like vegetables, beans, whole-grains, unsaturated oils, nuts, and fish, as well as minimally processed versions like nut butters, canned beans, and frozen unsweetened berries. While not always the best indicator, looking for ingredients list with five or fewer items is often a good place to start. 

This year try a warm and easy cookie for a new dessert. These fruit and fiber packed cookies are great for on-the-go mornings paired with a glass of milk, latte, or yogurt. 

Oatmeal Breakfast cookies: 

3 cups dry old-fashioned or thick-cut oats

1 cup white whole-wheat flour or regular whole-wheat flour 

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon 

1/2 teaspoon baking soda 

1 large egg 

1/3 cup canola oil 

1 cup packed light brown sugar 

1/4 cup low-fat milk 

1 teaspoon almond extract or vanilla extract 

1/2 cup raisins or any dried fruit 

1/2 cup sliced almonds (optional) 

1/3 cup mini chocolate chips (optional) 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and line 2 large sheet pans with parchment paper or silicone baking mats. Stir oats, flour, cinnamon, and baking soda in a medium bowl. In a large bowl, beat egg and whisk in the oil, sugar, milk, and almond or vanilla extract. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and stir just until moistened, adding raisins and half of the almonds towards the end of mixing.

Drop scant ¼ cup scoops of dough onto the pans at least 2 inches apart, sprinkle remaining almonds on top, and pat gently with waxed paper to flatten lightly. Bake until golden around the edges and set in the middle, about 16 minutes. Cool completely and store in an airtight container for up to 1 week, or freeze for up to 1 month. 

Enjoy your New Year!