Fall has always been my favorite season – back to school time, beautiful autumn leaves, cooler weather that lets you snuggle up in sweaters. The trees are gorgeous colors of red, orange, brown, yellow and purple and then all of a sudden…it’s all gone. The trees are bare, the air is chilled and the sun seems to only be working part-time. You wake up and it’s dark. You leave work and it’s dark. It feels like it’s always dark and for many people, their moods darken as well. It may be harder to concentrate on work or school. Nothing feels fun anymore. The cravings for sweets and starches are making your waistline depressed as well. If you begin to feel similar changes as winter comes on, you are not alone. The good news is that there are ways you can help yourself to deal with this seasonal condition and diet is one of them.
Note: Seasonal Affective Disorder, or any other medical condition can only be diagnosed by a physician or medical professional. If you think you may have this condition, please seek appropriate medical treatment.
1. What is SAD and Whom Does It Affect?
Winter-onset depression, or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), is a real medical condition that affects about 4 to 6 percent of people in the United States and another 10-20% of people may have a mild form of SAD. That is over 20 million Americans. SAD is much more common in women than in men. It usually doesn’t affect people until adulthood and the risk decreases as people get older. SAD is also more common in people who live in northern regions where winter is harsher and lasts longer. SAD is a real type of Major Depressive Disorder, an actual medical condition. It is not the same as just “feeling down” or having the “winter blues”.
2. What are the Symptoms of SAD?
Not everyone who has winter depression experiences the same symptoms. There are, however, some common symptoms that the majority of people who have had SAD have reported. These symptoms include irritability and anxiety, difficulty concentrating, a tendency to oversleep, fatigue, low energy, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, weight gain, and appetite changes that specifically include cravings for starches and sweets. Some people report physical problems such as headaches, aches and pains, and feelings of guilt and even hopelessness. Other than the change in season, there are usually no other precipitating factors for the symptoms. The symptoms begin about the same time each year and alleviate as spring approaches. There may be a genetic predisposition for SAD as it tends to run in families.
The main treatments for SAD are light therapy, psychotherapy, and medication but stress management, exercise and diet can also be helpful. In this article, we are only looking at the nutritional aspect of helping SAD. Please discuss any other treatments with your physician.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, or brain chemical, that is essential to our feeling of well-being. Low levels of serotonin have been associated with depression, anxiety, overeating and many other symptoms. When there is less light in the wintertime, our levels of serotonin decrease. We can boost our serotonin levels back up by exposing ourselves to more light, indoors and out, exercising regularly and making smart food choices. You may be feeling more tired but reaching for more caffeine is not the thing to do. Caffeine can suppress serotonin so look for other beverages besides coffee or energy drinks.
Instead of drinking too much coffee, have a few cups of tea. Tea has less caffeine than coffee but enough to help with an alert state of mind. Black, green and oolong tea also contain an amino acid called theanine which works with caffeine to improve focus and attention. Drink 5 or 6 cups of tea a day for maximum benefits. Skip those store-bought energy drinks which have been found to cause damage and learn to make your own natural energy drinks. Check out 5 Homemade Natural Energy Drinks to Fuel Your Workout and How to Amp Up Your Homemade Energy Drink with Superfoods.
b. Omega-3-Fatty Acids
Omega-3-Fatty Acids have been found to influence our moods and help with symptoms of depression. They also help us maintain healthy levels of serotonin and another brain chemical, dopamine. High levels of omega-3- fatty acids are found in flax seeds, walnuts, hemp, chia and seaweed. Read about Plant-Based Foods with the Highest Omega-3 Fatty Acids and 5 Creative Ways to Use Flax in Your Breakfast and then try these recipes: Raw Vegan Pizza with Red Pepper Flax Crust, Super Flax Green Bean Fries, Kidney Bean-Walnut Burgers, Walnut and Oat Brownies, Oatmeal Cranberry Chocolate Chip Cookies, Raw Hemp Chia Seed Bars, Easy Seaweed Salad and Kelp Noodles in Peanut-Miso Sauce
c. Folic Acid
Folic acid can boost our moods by helping our bodies create serotonin. High amounts of folic acid can be found in leafy greens, sunflower seeds, oranges, oats, lentils and beans. Dark green, leafy veggies such as asparagus, arugula, Brussels sprouts and spinach are high in folate, a B vitamin that can help depression by raising our levels of norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine. Read Tips for Cooking Greens So They Taste Real Delicious, 5 Ways to Get Anyone to Love Brussels Sprouts, 10 Delicious Ways to Eat Lentils, and 10 Ways to Cook Beans with Global Flavors for a huge number of amazing recipes and ideas. Also see 5 Ways to Cook With Oats, All the Way from Breakfast to Dinner and then make these Sunflower Seed Butter Oatmeal Cookies.
You may be tired of people worrying about your protein intake but it is important to make sure you are getting a good amount. Proteins contain important amino acids such as tyrosine which can positively affect the levels of norepinephrine and dopamine in our brains. Not only will that help our moods but the protein will help increase energy and fight fatigue. We can get healthy, plant-based protein from food including tofu, tempeh, legumes, nuts, and quinoa. For inspiration, see Quinoa is a Great Protein Source! Try It In These Recipes, 5 Tips for Making Amazing Tempeh Dishes, and Cooking with Tofu + 10 Delicious Recipes.
e. Good Carbs
The cravings for starches may be strong; our bodies want foods that will increase serotonin but we have to be stronger. Simple, processed and refined carbs such as white bread, white rice and white flour will just raise blood sugar, increase insulin and then leave us to crash and burn. Choose healthy carbs such as fruits, veggies, legumes and whole grains. Check out Carb up! Here Are The Healthiest Carbs You SHOULD Be Eating and then try these Whole Grain Banana-Date-Flax Muffins that are also oil- and sugar-free
f. Limit Sugar Intake
The cravings for starch may only be matched by the cravings for sweet but again, indulging in too many sweets will only cause our blood sugar to spike and crash. Try to stay away from sugar or at least really limit it during the winter months. Find out about other ways to sweeten your food in Sweet! The Healthiest Alternatives to White Sugar. If you’re wondering how you can get through the normally-sugar filled holidays without the sweet stuff, you must read 3 Healthy Sugar Substitutes for All Your Holiday Treats.
Low levels of some vitamins are associated with depression. Vitamin B12 is one of them and vegans, especially, need to be sure they get enough vitamin B12 since it occurs most often in animal foods. Buy non-dairy milks and cereals that are fortified with vitamin B12 or take a supplement. Our levels of vitamin D may also be low since we get that vitamin from sunlight. Again, most of the vitamin D people get from food comes from animal foods so again, buy fortified plant-based foods or consider taking a vegan D3 supplement. Educate yourself on the subject with these super-informative articles: The Importance of B Vitamins for Your Health and The Best Plant-Based Sources to Eat, B Vitamins: How to Get Them in a Vegan Diet, and Meeting Vitamin D Needs on a Vegan Diet. If you need assistance when it comes to buying dietary supplements, get help by reading Vitamin B12 Supplements: Which Type is Best and Vitamin D Decoded + Vegan Supplement Options.
Nutrition is always a good place to start when trying to get your mood back into balance. SAD is a real and serious condition that may require medical treatment but it’s always empowering to help ourselves as best we can.
Image Source: Oatmeal Cranberry Chocolate Chip Cookies