Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that affects up to 10 percent of the U.S. population during the dark and cold months of late autumn and winter. In my Manhattan-based psychotherapy practice, I see a dramatic uptick in the number of patients who complain of SAD— a condition that features feelings of sluggishness and lack of motivation— starting around the middle of November. Rather than recommending medication, which they may become dependent on, I work within the realm of nutrition, exercise and traditional talk therapy to help these patients endure seasonal challenges.
If you suffer from SAD, know that nutritional options are available to you. By incorporating a variety of food groups into your diet, you can maximize your brain’s inherent capacity to ward off sadness and cultivate a sense of well-being and contentment.
Foods that are rich in the following have been shown to remedy seasonal depression:
1. Omega 3 fats
Omega 3s enhance the brain’s capacity to produce serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that researchers have linked mood regulation, and a deficit of serotonin leads to depression. During the wintertime, when serotonin production tends to slow down, foods rich in Omega 3s help rev its production. Omega 3 fats can also improve overall brain functioning and ward off intellectual sluggishness. Think of them as high-octane fuel for our brains. Great sources of Omega 3s include cold-water fish such as trout, salmon, mackerel and sardines, as well as flaxseeds, chia seed and walnuts.
Another way to increase serotonin levels is by eating foods that contain tryptophan, the chemical from which serotonin is made. In addition to producing serotonin, tryptophan works with two other hormones, noradrenalin and dopamine, to lift mood, promote relaxation and help deal with stress. Foods that contain high levels of tryptophan include lean chicken, turkey, brown rice, milk eggs, nuts bananas, peas, pumpkin and spinach.
3. Vitamin D
In addition, several studies have found a correlation between depression and low levels of vitamin D. Also known as the sunshine vitamin, vitamin D is naturally produced when we are out in the sun. Because we tend to hibernate inside during the winter months, we need to supplement our vitamin D intake through our diet. Foods high in vitamin D include egg yolks, fortified dairy products, fortified cereals, beef liver and cod fish oil.
4. Whole, unprocessed foods
In addition to adding key food groups into your diet, it’s important to subtract foods that cause a spike and corresponding crash in your blood sugar levels. Diets high in processed foods— those that contain high levels of simple sugar and white flour— will cause your mood to rise to unnatural heights and fall rapidly to uncomfortable depths.
To avoid these unpleasant mood swings, eat foods made from whole grains, legumes and the freshest fruits and vegetables you can find. In addition, you can stabilize your blood sugar, and therefore your moods, by eating smaller, protein-rich meals several times throughout the day. Think lean chicken rather than white pasta, and omelets instead of sugary cereal. During snack time, avoid chips and other fat, salty or sugary foods and opt instead for yogurt, nuts and seeds.
Remember, too, that comfort isn’t synonymous with happy and healthy. While fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and pistachio ice cream may promise comfort in the moment, these foods will drop you like a brick shortly thereafter. Delay the instant but short-lived gratification you’ll get from eating comfort food for the more stable and longer-lasting pleasure you will get from making more solid food choices.
Instead of languishing in your seasonal depression, use these winter months to make healthy diet and lifestyle choices. You will feel better emotionally, and welcome the spring in a happier and healthier frame of mind and body.
Paul Hokemeyer, Ph.D., JD, is based in New York City, where he maintains a private clinical practice and serves as the senior clinical advisor for the treatment center Caron Ocean Drive in Boca Raton, Fla. A licensed marriage and family therapist, he is a clinical member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapists and a certified clinical trauma professional. Follow him on Twitter at @drpaulnyc.