How to Prevent and Treat Seasonal Affective Disorder
Winter is prime time for snowy sports like skiing, snowboarding, and ice skating, but it can also sap your motivation to exercise and eat well. Or do much of anything besides sleep and eat carbs—what New Year’s resolutions? If this sounds familiar, you may be suffering from the “winter blahs” or seasonal affective disorder (SAD), 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. Ahead, health experts share their go-to food and lifestyle strategies to combat SAD to help you feel more like yourself and rock those 2017 resolutions.
Fill Up On Folate
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. That’s why Abbie Gellman, R.D., a New York City–based chef and owner of Culinary Nutrition Cuisine, recommends eating plenty of dopamine-building foods.
Don’t Cut Out Carbs
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.
Gellman recommends choosing complex carbohydrates like lentils and brown rice over refined carbs. 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 hangry meltdown.
A bowl of oatmeal, for example, 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. (So it’s pretty much the happiest breakfast out there!) To get the most nutritional bang for your buck, top your bowl with nuts or nut butter for stabilizing protein and fat. For a savory option, add some spinach and top with an egg.
Eat Like an Icelander
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.) Kathy Siegel, R.D.N., a New York–based nutrition consultant at Triad to Wellness and spokesperson for Icelandic Provisions Skyr, encourages us to take a cue from Icelanders and their traditional diet. Siegel points out that 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.
So what are they doing that’s different from us? “Icelanders eat a lot of fish, which means they’re getting a lot of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D. Studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids have been highly effective in preventing and managing depression, as well as vitamin D.” In addition to upping your fish intake, Siegel recommends adding more dairy into your diet as the days get colder and shorter. “Low calcium levels have been linked to anxiety and moodiness,” she says.
Many health experts also recommend a vitamin D supplement, especially if you’re on a plant-based diet. (Here, five weird health risks of low vitamin D levels.)
Sneak In Selenium
Selenium deficiency has also been linked to depression. To avoid going overboard with supplements and risk causing more harm than good, dietitian Therese Bonanni, R.D.N., recommends incorporating selenium food sources into your day to help keep your mood balanced. “Try oatmeal with chia seeds for breakfast, hard-boiled eggs in your salad or an omelet for lunch, dairy-based snacks (you’ll get the added bonus of vitamin D too!), and grass-fed beef, poultry, or seafood with a side of brown rice or barley and mushrooms for dinner,” she says.
Celebrate Seasonal Produce
It’s easy to get hung up mourning summer berries, but winter has a lot of superfoods to offer too, says Sharon Palmer, R.D.N., of The Plant-Powered Dietitian. To fight SAD, she suggests including seasonal produce in your diet, since “studies show that high intake of fruits and vegetables helps people feel better [and experience] less depression.” Her go-to feel-good foods include colorful beets, chard, parsnips, citrus, pomegranates, persimmons, and squashes. (Get some more farmers’ market inspo for delicious winter fruits and vegetables that promote heart health.)
Try Light Therapy
Experts agree that spending time in actual daylight is best, but they also understand that’s not always possible. Julia Del Balzo, L.C.S.W., a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist in New Jersey, recommends light therapy, as it helps maintain proper melatonin rhythm in the body. “Daylight is significantly diminished in the winter months, and light therapy helps make up for what we can’t get as easily in the winter as we can in the summer,” she says. “Putting a light box—an artificial light that simulates outdoor light—in your office and turning it on for 30 minutes a day can help increase productivity and decrease symptoms of SAD.” Her pick is the Verilux Happy Light, but there are even apps with similar light box-like features.
Doctors Jaime Knopman and Sheeva Talebian, cofounders of Truly, MD, recommend making physical activity a regular part of your week. “Winter can make you want to sit at home on the couch, says Knopman, “but if you do the opposite, it could have some major benefits.” She explains that the endorphins released from a good sweat session can offset some of the effects of SAD. Doing something outside like running, walking, or biking would be ideal, she says, but if it’s not possible, you still have options. “If you run [on a treadmill] or sit on a recumbent bike, do it by the window (if that’s an option) so you can still see the sun.” Bottom line: “Try and do something outside in the sunlight hours even if just for a few minutes—walk to get your lunch, walk home, walk to the subway. While each activity may only take a few minutes, it can help.”
“I encourage proactive, not reactive, methods to combat SAD,” says Del Balzo. That’s why she recommends regular meditation to her clients. “If you know you are someone who suffers from SAD then you should already have some deep breathing, meditation, and relaxation techniques as part of your daily routine.” Sound intimidating? You don’t have to devote tons of time or create a special meditation room (though that would be kind of awesome). “Meditation apps such as Calm and Headspace make it easy for you to get in at least 10 minutes a day, every day, of zen,” she says. (Or, try this 20-minute guided meditation for beginners to get started.)
When to See Your Doctor
Of course, depression is a serious health matter, so if you’re seriously feeling down in the dumps—and if you’re also struggling with other symptoms such as feelings of hopelessness, loss of interest in things that were once important to you, or other signs of major depression such as thoughts of suicide—talk to your therapist or doctor about appropriate treatment options.