It’s fall in Montana and the next 6 months will be relatively cold and dark — the time of year when something called seasonal affective disorder (SAD) can surface. The constellation of SAD symptoms which range from irritability, lethargy, and oversleeping, to depression can be combatted in many ways. Standard treatment includes light therapy, talk therapy, and medication, but for those with mild SAD or the occasional “winter blues” — such as myself — a few nutrition and lifestyle tweaks can improve winter outlook.
An individual’s dietary pattern has been shown in observational studies to be connected to mood. The common diet profile of people reporting depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders includes excessive simple carbohydrates and added sugars, and a reliance on highly processed foods. While much of the research into mood and nutrition focuses on specific nutrients, it is clear that a diet comprised of whole, unprocessed foods, healthy fats, quality protein, low-glycemic index carbohydrates, and limited added sugar is beneficial for mental health. One of the likely reasons the dietary pattern detailed above is beneficial for mental health (and for health in general) is that it is anti-inflammatory. Specific foods help us fight inflammation via high antioxidant, mineral, or essential fatty acid content. The superstar anti-inflammatory foods include: dark leafy greens (kale, spinach, beet greens, chard, bok choy), cruciferous vegetables (broccoli sprouts, broccoli florets, cauliflower, brussel sprouts), blueberries, beets, sources of omega-3 and monounsaturated fats (salmon, walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds, avocado, olives), and potent anti-inflammatory herbs (turmeric, ginger, cinnamon). Granted those foods should be part of a healthy diet all year, but placing extra emphasis on these foods during the winter should help guard against “the blues”. Although it is important to get most of your nutrients from food, in the winter, I do supplement with omega-3s and vitamin D.
Omega-3s are beneficial for heart health, brain function, and have been shown to help alleviate moderate depression in some people. One of the best dietary sources of omega-3s are fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, trout, and herring. However, with increasing concern over heavy metal contamination in seafood, taking a fish oil supplement is a good alternative to frequent fish consumption. While more research needs to be done on the exact link between depression/SAD and fish oil supplementation, it is evident that an adequate intake of omega-3s is beneficial for mood. In order to ensure adequate omega-3s eat one serving of wild-caught Alaskan salmon each week and also take an omega-3 supplement that’s been purity tested for mercury, other heavy metals, and contaminants.
Because I live in the north, most of the year there is no way to obtain adequate vitamin D from the sun — so I take a vitamin D supplement. Vitamin D deficiency effects an estimated 1 billion people worldwide (especially in the far northern and southern hemispheres) and is tied to many health issues including osteoporosis, heart disease, infectious disease (including the common cold and the flu), some cancers, multiple sclerosis, and mental health challenges. Additionally, vitamin D has been found to play an outsized role in mood regulation in people suffering from SAD.
In addition to dietary shifts and supplements, there are several lifestyle adjustments we can implement to elevate winter mood. Exposure to bright light, particularly blue light, has been shown to be beneficial in treating SAD. The best source of blue light is daylight. Although blue light can be introduced indoors with artificial lighting, most physicians recommend trying to get as much time outdoors, especially in the morning, as possible. Getting outside in the morning or over lunch for a walk or jog is a great way to increase exposure to blue light while also working on another vital lifestyle variable — exercise.
Exercise and physical activity are central to emotional regulation. Regular physical activity has been shown to be at least as effective at alleviating depression as antidepressant drugs, with some research showing exercise has greater effects long-term. Given the host of additional benefits to physical activity as well as the lack of side effects, exercise is the most important lifestyle change one can make to defend themselves against the winter-blues. Double the benefit by layering up, braving the cold, and exercising outside — it’s energizing and invigorating.
Although winter is not my favorite time of the year, I try to cultivate a positive attitude and be grateful for what this season does bring — the chance to experience glistening new snow, to curl up with a blanket and some tea to read a good book, or to see the joy on my daughter’s face while sledding. Although it’s trendy right now, incorporating concepts of hygge really does pay off, and not just for me. It’s worth noting that many of the world’s happiest countries happen to be geographically positioned to be most affected by SAD, yet their populations thrive. Four of the top five happiest countries are nordic countries (Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Finland) and while there are undoubtedly many explanations for their general happiness, their cultures prioritize diet and lifestyle patterns for optimal mental health year-round.
Winter might be dark and cold, but it need not have that effect on mood.