You may jokingly claim that you suffer from the seasonal blues, but did you know that 18% of the Canadian population actually does suffer from seasonal depression or seasonal affective disorder¹, with women being more prone to it? And did you know that seasonal depression doesn’t only affect your mood, it can also have an effect on your cravings. For example, it may lead to an increased desire for sweets. Symptoms of this disorder can range from mild to severe and usually resolve in around April and May.
The lack of light during colder months can cause you to have lower serotonin (a mood-boosting chemical that regulates hunger and well-being) levels. The mechanism behind this is as follows: when light rays penetrate your eye, they are converted to electric signals which make their way to your brain and impact neurotransmitters, namely serotonin. Serotonin is also involved in melatonin secretion, which is another hormone that impacts sleep-wake cycles. Secretion thereof is inhibited during the day and stimulated at night. Lack of light can cause hormone imbalance which can lead to depression-like symptoms.
The best way to fight back against seasonal depression is light therapy. Intensity of luminosity drops from 50 000 – 130 000 lux (on a sunny summer day) to 2 000 to 20 000 lux (on a sunny winter day). Not to mention a well-lit office gets only 400 to 1000 lux of light. If you think you are suffering from seasonal depression, the best thing to do is consult an MD to obtain a clear differential diagnosis. If you are thinking of opting for light therapy, 30-minute exposure to a 10 000 lux lamp is recommended². Start doing so gradually, commencing with sessions of 10-15 minutes per day. Moreover, it is preferable to do so in the morning rather than during the nighttime.
While surefire ways to better manage the seasonal blues include getting adequate sleep, surrounding yourself with positive people and exercising, there are some nutritional tips you can follow to naturally boost your mood during short, dark and chilly days (and year-round, for that matter :)).
Omega-3 fats: Approximately 60% of our brain is made up of fat, and thus fat is required to maintain its integrity. The brain requires different types of omega-3: EPA for brain function and DHA for brain structure, which are mainly found in fatty and pink fish (mackerel, salmon, tuna, herring, etc.). Many people have diets deficient in these great fats. ‘What about plant-based omega-3″, I can hear you chiming? Unfortunately, the type of omega-3 found in plants (flaxseed, avocado, soy, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, etc.) needs to be converted to EPA & DHA by our bodies in order to be used by the brain and the conversion rate is of 10% (that’s even worse than the Canadian to American dollar conversion rate, tee hee). This means that for 10 g of plant-based omega-3 you consume, only 1 g of EPA/DHA will be produced. People with seasonal depression often resort to EPA/DHA (from fish oil or algae) supplements to improve their mood as it is thought to improve depression. I personally recommend taking 500 mg of EPA/DHA per day if you eat fish a couple times a week, or 1000 mg of EPA/DHA per day if you don’t eat fish at all (opt for an algae-based supplement if you are vegan). Studies have linked omega-3 deficinecy to depression, SAD specifically. EPA is the omega-3 fat most beneficial for seasonal depression and is found in fatty fish such as mackerel, herring, tuna, trout, salmon, etc. Plant sources of omega-3 include pumpkin seeds, walnuts, hemp seeds, ground flaxseeds, omega-3-enriched eggs (as the chicken are fed ground flaxseed), avocado, and soy/edamame/tofu. It is important to note that omega-3 from plant sources has a conversion rate of only 10% to EPA. Plus, omega-3 is thought to boost production of dopamine and serotonin.
Other healthy/happy fats: GLA: hemp
B-vitamins: B vitamins are found mainly in whole grains. Again, if for whatever reason, you are avoiding grains, your B vitamin intake may be low. What’s more, when you are physically active and/or stressed, your B vitamin needs are accrued.
Sources: wheat germ (is like a storage space for B vitamins), whole-wheat toast, etc.
Folate: Is thought to help prevent disorders of the central nervous system and mood disorders. Try having a huge bowl of greens or some steamed spinach to give your body the gift of folate, which will help increase blood flow to your brain and help your brain maintain levels of serotonin. Its a gift your body won’t even think of regifting 😉 . Edamame beans, okra and artichokes are also great sources of this little world wonder.
Vitamin B12: Is also thought to help prevent disorders of the central nervous system and mood disorders.
Carbohydrates: If you are following a no-carb or low-carb diet (not that this is generally recommended), your brain may not be too happy. Some of our bodily organs, namely the brain, cannot utilize protein nor fat and thus require carbohydrates for optimal function. Actually, one fifth of the carbohydrates we take in are used up by our noggins. Carbohydrates are also important for production of neurotransmitters
Favour the following higher fiber sources of carbs: fruits, beets, sweet potatoes (ding, ding, ding – also full of folate), parsnips and squash, whole grains like quinoa, buckwheat, bulghur, amaranth, legumes such as peas, beans, lentils and chickpeas.
Eat these less often: White bagels, white bread, white pasta, white couscous, white English muffins, white rice, muffins, white-flour based crackers, chips, white potatoes
Try to make at least half your grains whole, but if your mood has seen better days, the more whole-grains you eat, the better. Take it from me. 🙂
Dark chocolate (fine print: only 1.5 ounces) for a 2 month period contain flavonoids that can reduce stress-causing hormones. And that Mars bar you’re reaching for doesn’t count. For this beneficial effect to be exercsed, it must be 75% cocoa.
Avocadoes: Avocados contain mood-boosting folate, calming tryptophan and energizing vitamin B6
Brazil nuts: as I’ve said in a few blog posts, Brazil nuts are an incredible source of selenium (1-2 per day provide your daily required need) and studies have linked selenium-deficiencies with depression.
Bananas: the humble banana possesses vitamin B6, potassium and tryptophane, all great for upliftage.
Vitamin D: Vitamin D is utilized by almost all bodily cells and tissues. Studies are now suggesting that seasonal depression or the winter blues may be due to declining levels of vitamin D in our bodies, brought about by the darker period (find more info). Most Canadians are deficient in vitamin D most of the year, due to the far from tropical weather we experience and the sun’s tendency to play “hard to get”. To produce the required amount of vitamin D, fair-skinned individuals need to expose their hands and face to the sun for 15-20 minutes between 11h00 and 3h00 pm. Plus, this is only possible from May to September, inclusively as during the October to April months, UVB concentrations are not sufficient to trigger our skin’s production of the vitamin. And while you can get vitamin D from fatty fish, egg yolks and fortified milk/soy beverage, chances are you won’t be achieving “ninja status” (change), which is 1000-2000 IU (international units) per day.
Caffeine reduction: hold your horses when it comes to downing coffees. Caffeine may provide a temporary boost but this comes at a cost as caffeine suppresses serotonin.
Dark leafy greens: kale, Swiss chard, spinach and brocolli are sources of folate and B12, which helps boost serotonin levels.
Luckily, December 21st, the shortest day of the year, is behind us, and we know the sunshine is slowly making its way back into our lives.
Keep smiling! 🙂
2. Terman M, Terman JS. Light therapy for seasonal and nonseasonal depression: efficacy, protocol, safety, and side effects. CNS Spectr. 2005;10(8):647-63; quiz 672.