Nutrition / Food

Can Your Diet Help Fight Seasonal Affective Disorder?

What you eat plays a role in your mental well-being.

During the fall and winter months when the days are short and the weather is gloomy, some people find that their mood is affected. When these winter blues become serious and turn into a type of depression, it is called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Those with SAD experience changes in mood, energy levels, and difficulties with functioning during the colder months. Less often, SAD can also occur in spring or early summer. Although the specific cause of SAD is unknown, much of it has to do with the lack of sunlight. This can cause your serotonin levels to drop and also cause a disruption in your circadian rhythm, which can all trigger depression. SAD tends to occur more commonly in females than males and is more likely to affect younger adults.

When it comes to mood disorders such as SAD, there are a number of ways to treat your symptoms. But, one simple way to help with how you feel is to take a look at your diet. “Making some modifications to your diet is a way to help control mood,” says Registered Dietitian Carol Aguirre MS, RD/LDN. “Foods won’t necessarily cure [the issue], but choosing the right foods may make you feel better and these conditions easier to handle.”

If you’re someone who suffers from depression in the winter months, it may be helpful to take a look at your diet. The science is growing, but there seems to be a connection between what we eat and how we feel. We spoke with some expert psychologists and dietitians to get the lowdown on how changing your diet may be able to help with SAD.

Is there a connection between diet and mood disorders?

There is a growing body of research supporting the connection between diet and mood disorders. “Recent studies show that a Western diet—one that has a high intake of red and/or processed meat, sweets, butter, refined grains, high-fat dairy products, etc. and a low intake of fresh fruits and vegetables—is associated with an increased risk of depression,” says Clinical Psychologist Dr. Carla Marie Manly. “A healthy diet that includes high intakes of fresh fruit, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, fish, whole grain, olive oil, etc. along with a low intake of animal-based products is associated with a decreased risk of depression.”

The mechanisms underlying the relationship between diet and mental health aren’t perfectly clear yet. But, evidence suggests that it may be related to chronic inflammation, oxidative stress, and the health of our gut microbiome, according to Registered Dietitian Carrie Walder. Our brains require a substantial amount of energy and nutrients from food to function. So, it would make sense that we would need a healthy, balanced diet to keep our mental health at its best.

Research is limited when it comes to the direct connection between SAD and diet. However, our knowledge of how different foods can affect mental health can help guide you during the winter months. “Because the type of diet that is protective against mood disorders, in general, is a healthy one, there is absolutely no harm in eating more of the foods that support good mental health overall,” says Walder.

What foods can help with SAD?

Turkey and Other Lean Proteins

“Most lean sources of protein are good for beating depression, but turkey has the edge due to its higher levels of a chemical called tryptophan,” says Registered Dietitian Dina Khader, MS, RD, CDN, MIfHI. Tryptophan stimulates serotonin production in the brain, which can help keep your mood and energy levels up.

Foods High in Omega-3s

Many studies demonstrate the link between Omega-3 deficiencies and depression, as well as to SAD specifically. “Omega-3s appear to help maintain healthy levels of the brain chemicals serotonin and dopamine,” says Aguirre. “Low levels of serotonin relate to depression, aggression, and suicidal tendencies. Meanwhile, dopamine is a feel-good chemical that the brain releases in response to pleasurable experiences, such as eating or having sex.”

Because our bodies cannot make Omega-3 fatty acids on their own, we must eat foods rich in the nutrient. “Oily, fatty fish (mackerel, herring, salmon, sardines, anchovies), flaxseed, hemp, and walnut oils are good sources of Omega-3s,” says Aguirre.

Foods High in Vitamin D

Research shows that low levels of vitamin D are linked to SAD. Since sunlight can be scarce in the winter months, it can help to load up on foods high in the nutrient. Good food sources of vitamin D include certain fatty fish (salmon, tuna, sardines, rainbow trout), fish oils (like cod liver oil), fortified milk, and egg yolks, says Aguirre.

Probiotic-Rich Foods

Believe it or not, your gut health can play a role in your mental well-being. “Include foods that support a healthy gut and diverse microbiome, such as unsweetened yogurts, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso (fermented foods), and fiber-rich plants, such as legumes, onion, garlic, berries, vegetables, etc.,” says Walder.

Dark Chocolate

Dark chocolate with 80 percent cocoa or higher can also help with mood. “Participants in one study were given a dark chocolate mixed drink every day for a month,” says Aguirre. “Results showed significantly improved mood, which researchers linked with a high polyphenol content.” These antioxidant-filled micronutrients have been shown to positively affect anxiety and enhance calmness.

What foods can make SAD worse?

Alcohol

When the days are short and the nights are long, it’s tempting to reach for a glass of wine to boost your spirits. “You might think [that] alcohol will take the edge off and relax you. But having a few drinks can actually make you feel more on edge,” says Aguirre. “Alcohol can also dehydrate you, which can negatively affect your mood.”

Coffee

Although coffee can be a great pick-me-up when you’re feeling tired, it, unfortunately, can mess with your mental state. “Caffeine is a stimulant that can produce jittery feelings,” says Aguirre. “It can amp up your anxiety levels and make it harder for you to sleep at night.”

Refined Carbohydrates

Not all carbs are created equal. Complex carbohydrates may be able to help fight SAD. But eating simple, refined carbohydrates can have the opposite effect. “Foods like doughnuts, white rice, and white bread, quickly raise blood sugar levels, triggering a spike in insulin,” says Aguirre. “The flood of insulin, in turn, causes all that blood sugar to be rapidly metabolized. That sudden drop in blood sugar—aka a ‘sugar crash’—can cause fatigue, headache, and irritability—not good when you’re already struggling with the fatigue that comes with SAD.” Good snacking alternatives include popcorn, whole wheat pretzels, oatmeal (steel-cut), legumes, and whole grains, such as bulgur wheat, brown rice.

Soda and Sugary Foods

Research shows that eating a diet high in sugar increases your risk of depression. “Excess intake of these foods contributes to chronic inflammation. [It] can lead to spikes and crashes in blood sugar, affecting our energy levels and mood,” says Walder.

Foods With Trans Fat

Studies have found that those who eat a diet high in trans fat are more likely to suffer from depression. Artificial trans fats are often found in shortening, margarine, frosting, snack foods, and pre-packaged desserts and bread. “They can increase brain inflammation, leading to moodiness and irritability,” says Khader.

Not eating enough, not eating regularly, or cutting out whole food groups can make you feel tired, irritable, and disrupt brain chemistry (through lack of essential nutrients). All of this can have a detrimental effect on mood. If you’re suffering from negative moods during the cold and dark months, try adjusting your diet to help improve your mental well-being.

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