The American Psychology Association and the Center for Disease Control estimate that seasonal affective disorder (aka SAD, seasonal depression or "winter blues") impacts 5-14% of Americans, hitting those north of the 37° latitude harder than those to the south of that boundary. The reason location makes a difference is largely due to the shorter days. It turns out sunlight has a big impact on neurotransmitter production including that of serotonin, our happiness chemical (this explains why "happy lamps" are effective treatments of SAD).
I have this wild theory most Northerns experience some level of SAD. I think we are under-diagnosed and therefore under-reported. Personally, my seasonal depression is mild that I hardly notice until suddenly I'm giggling about nothing come spring when the clouds in my mind lift.
This winter is likely to be more challenging than years past because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Honestly, I'm worried about us! Our safe social outlets are going to be more limited than in years past, which is often the saving grace of our long winters. So it's important to me to get this information into as many people's hands as possible, and why I'm hosting a virtual class to further the conversation on this topic.
Most of my clients don't come to see me to get a prescription to move south, so it's my job to find other things they can do in their daily lives to prevent and treat seasonal depression. I take a “food first” approach in my work as a functional nutritionist. and am often putting together a list of healing “superfoods” for my clients to bring into their meal plan. While these items are going to vary from one individual to the next, these are my top 5 picks for seasonal depression prevention that are often making the list:
- Everything in the produce department: Only 11% of the American population is getting the recommended “5-a-day.” This department is your medicine cabinet! In addition to being packed with vitamins, minerals and fiber, fruits and veggies contain these magical compounds called phytonutrients that reduce inflammation, support your immune system and feed your brain. Good stuff can be found in every color of the rainbow, from starchy tubers to leafy greens. Go for as much color as possible – these pigments are evidence of nutritional superpowers. If you have the option between a white potato and a purple, red or yellow potato, grab color. Colorful food also is nourishment for your visual pleasure! Work these ingredients into every meal, aiming to fill half your plate with a colorful variety of yum.
- Fermented foods: Approximately 90% of serotonin is produced in the gut by the community of bacteria and yeast living in and on your body (aka your microbiome). Bolster the diversity and population of that community with live fermented vegetables, like kimchi and sour pickles; miso, tofu and tempeh; kombucha and yogurts. Probiotic supplements are also a good option, but they don’t add nearly as much flavor to your day!
If you think of your microbiome as a pet, fiber is pet food. Partner ferments with beans, flax and chia seeds, artichoke hearts, avocados, berries and winter squash to keep your microbiome robust and healthy.
- Cold water fatty fish: There’s a good acronym for the best options: SMASH. Salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines and herring are highest in mood-boosting omega-3 fats and lowest in environmental contaminants like mercury. Aim for 3 servings a week. Fish oil supplements have shown promise in preventing and treating depression – have a chat with your nutritionist or nutrition-minded health care provider for a dose that matches your needs…and make sure you’re getting access to a safe, third-party tested product.
- Mushrooms, liver and vitamin D: Low vitamin D status is related to depression and seasonal depression. The bummer is, this “sunshine vitamin” is not readily available to us this far north from approximately Labor Day to Memorial Day because the UV-B rays we need to make vitamin D in our skin does not penetrate our atmosphere. Vitamin D is also not abundant in our food system – double bummer! Mushrooms are a good option and, if you enjoy offal, grass-fed liver is another good option. You need to eat both of these foods frequently (i.e. several times per week each) to get your vitamin D needs met, though. For convenience and efficacy, this is one supplement I recommend to everyone who comes to see me for nutrition coaching.
- Acts of kindness. This is a superfood for the soul: there is no single thing you can do to lift your mood that will work better than doing something nice for someone else. The COVID-19 pandemic has put a lot of distance between our loved ones and us. Take a moment and write down 3 things you can do for the people in your life that would bring a smile to their hearts. Write letters, make playlists, deliver soup…now go do them!
Want to learn more? Join Jesse for a virtual class for a food-first approach to SAD prevention. Learn more here.