Fall, with its crisp air and beautiful colors, is many people’s favorite time of year. But for others, the season marks the beginning of a seasonal depression. Known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), seasonal depression has been linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain, prompted by shorter daylight hours and less sunlight in colder months.
Typically, symptoms begin to set in around fall and peak during the winter. Symptoms of SAD are similar to those of other forms of depression, with similar notable symptoms such as fatigue, irritability, feelings of hopelessness, lack of concentration, changes in appetite, and social withdrawal.
Much like other forms of depression, treatments for SAD revolve around more than just prescription medication. Although diet and a sedentary lifestyle are not technically risk factors for developing SAD, we know that the foods we eat can regulate certain genes, impacting how those genes are expressed, which could affect health. Similarly, exercise and movement can help boost certain neurotransmitters that improve our mood and energy levels. Treatments for SAD may include medications and talk therapy as well as exercise and eating a healthy diet.
Believe it or not, what we eat plays a significant role in determining whether we may be at greater risk for depression. For example, diets low in certain nutrients ‒ like vitamin D and omega-3 fats ‒ have been found to contribute to increased risk for developing SAD. People who have a diet high in refined carbohydrates and those who are not very physically active may develop worse symptoms, which are more difficult to treat.
Five Lifestyle and Diet Tips to Address Seasonal Affective Disorder
Before implementing any diet and lifestyle changes, speak with your healthcare provider. If you’re experiencing symptoms of depression that are disruptive to your daily life, seek out professional support from a mental health practitioner.
1. Make sure you’re getting enough vitamin D
Data shows that taking 1,500 IU of vitamin D in addition to taking an antidepressant was more effective than just antidepressants alone. Foods like fatty fish, eggs, fortified milk, and supplements are good sources of vitamin D. Increasing your exposure to sunlight is also helpful, but it’s recommended that you wear appropriate skin protection while doing so.
2. Increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are major building blocks of the brain. They play an important role in normal brain function, and they’re critical to brain development throughout our lives. Omega-3 is especially important when it comes to managing depression, including seasonal depression. You can increase omega-3 fats in the diet by eating walnuts, flaxseed, wild salmon, sardines (or other fatty fish), grass-fed beef, soybeans, and enriched eggs.
Fish oil contains two type of omega-3 fatty acids ‒ eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) ‒ and is a popular supplement extracted from fatty fish. Since most people don’t get the recommended amount of omega-3 from their diet alone, fish oil supplements offer a straightforward way to address SAD and other forms of depression.
3. Limit your intake of refined carbohydrates
Refined carbohydrates make up a large portion of the standard American diet (which, ironically, also has the acronym SAD). These refined carbohydrates and highly processed foods contribute to inflammation, weight gain, fatigue, and depression. In fact, people with SAD often crave junk food and “comfort foods,” which are typically heavy in refined carbohydrates. This only worsens the cycle of fatigue and weight gain.
By replacing refined carbohydrates with complex carbohydrates ‒ think whole grains and fiber-rich foods like brown rice, quinoa, farro, steel-cut oats or groats ‒ you reduce the glycemic load of your meals and minimize any blood sugar spikes that can worsen inflammation and depression.
4. Focus on real, whole, and nutrient-dense foods
What does this mean, exactly? It’s important to eat a well-balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and lean proteins, not just to minimize systemic inflammation but also to maintain gut health.
Did you know that up to 90% of the serotonin we produce is actually produced in the gut? Serotonin is the key hormone that stabilizes our mood, contributes to a sense of well-being, and promotes feelings of happiness. Low levels of serotonin can lead to depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. By maintaining a well-balanced diet, you can help ensure a healthy gut microbiome.
5. Exercise at least 30 minutes per day, five days a week
Physical activity has been found to reduce the risk of mortality, regardless of body weight, and regular aerobic exercise has been shown to boost mood and reduce depression. This is true for both major depression and seasonal affective disorder.
In a first-of-its-kind study, new research from the U.K.’s University of Kent and University of Reading actually found that the combination of fruit and vegetable consumption and exercise increase levels of happiness.
Finding the Balance
As with most things in life, there is no single pathway to dealing with depression. While SAD can be relatively mild for some people, it can be more severe in others. Either way, it’s important to consult with your doctor regarding any and all forms of depression.
My training with the Institute for Integrative Nutrition (IIN) helped me realize that health is not just about what we’re eating and how much exercise we get. Emotional and mental well-being is just as important as physical health. Our physical and mental health are in our power ‒ and that power often comes in the form of the lifestyle choices we make, with diet or exercise or both!