What You Should Eat to Combat Seasonal Affective Disorder

Woman eating a snack and looking out the window

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Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that strikes around the same time each year, and usually begins and ends during a specific season. Affecting millions of Americans every year, SAD is often referred to in milder cases as the "winter blues," given it most commonly hits as the seasons shift to colder months. However, it can also affect individuals in summer.

The most common symptoms of SAD include general sadness, anxiety, fatigue, reduced energy, irritability, heavy limbs, lack of interest in activities, additional sleeping and a loss of concentration.

"As some people experience negative biochemical effects from less daylight, given our bodies were originally designed to rise with the sun and retreat to caves at nightfall, the loss of daylight hours can throw internal rhythms out of whack," explains Samantha McKinney, a registered dietitian at Life Time.

Often these internal rhythms and our circadian clock, which synchronizes with solar time, are connected to a host of bodily functions such as heart health, asthma, blood sugar control, sleep patterns, and even pain perception and behavior, adds Mckinney.

A widespread screening method for SAD is the Season Pattern Assessment Questionnaire (SPAQ), first developed in 1984. Although this self-administered tool has been open to much discussion as to its validity, research has found it to be consistent and with re-test credibility.

However, its lack of specificity can also misclassify people as suffering with seasonal depression. Therefore, McKinney recommends seeking help from a mental health professional if you suspect you may be experiencing a more severe case of SAD.

How Hormone Shifts Affect SAD

More prevalent for young people and women, there is also an increased likelihood of developing SAD if you suffer from an existing mood disorder, live in high altitudes, grey regions, and currently experience anxiety or panic disorder, among others factors.

Aside from these factors is how our body might react to a shift in hormones. "Underlying hormonal changes are certainly powerful influencers over our mental health as well," says McKinney, and any change in specific hormones can cause our mood to drop.

To illustrate this, a study conducted on perimenopausal and early postmenopausal women, whose hormones were disrupted due to major changes in the body, found the TE+IMP hormone treatment to prevent clinically significant depressive symptoms to a higher degree than in test subjects taking the placebo.

In the case of SAD, whenever your circadian rhythm and sleep are impacted (both of which are tied to mental health), hormones such as cortisol, testosterone, melatonin, and appetite regulators like leptin can shift, explains McKinney. "These have a widespread impact on how we feel and function day to day and can create challenges with energy levels and mood, as well as influence the choices we make with nutrition and exercise."

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

How Nutrition Can Re-Balance Hormones

Incorporating more nutrients into your diet can help rebalance certain aspects of mood for SAD suffers, as nutrients have the ability to help our brains and body function optimally. This is largely apparent when certain foods impact our neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers of the body.

"Hormone balance relies heavily on sufficient nutrient status, with macronutrients providing calories through protein, fat, and carbohydrates, and micronutrients through vitamins and minerals that are critical for us to function," explains McKinney. "I often refer to macronutrients as analogous to fuel and micronutrients as parts to the engine, given you can’t function well without both."

Aside from this, an equilibrium of macronutrients may also play an important role in glycemic control, which can positively impact hormonal health.

Samantha McKinney, RD


Hormone balance relies heavily on sufficient nutrient status, with macronutrients providing calories through protein, fat, and carbohydrates, and micronutrients through vitamins and minerals that are critical for us to function.

— Samantha McKinney, RD

Macronutrients to Add to Your Diet

When you begin to shift your eating patterns, look at the change as what ingredients you're adding, not what foods you're taking away. This promotes a healthy relationship with food. The following macronutrients are things to add to your diet, for the sake of hormonal balance and relief in seasonal affective disorder:

Foods High in Omerga-3 Fatty Acids

"Salmon and walnuts help the brain utilize serotonin more efficiently, which produces a potent antidepressant effect," states Mckinny. Source your omega-3 fatty acids from wild caught fatty fish, and add a helping of flax and walnuts to your food when it's possible.

High-Fiber Foods

Carbohydrates should ideally come from high-fiber, whole food sources. "For example, carbohydrates found in beans and lentils (due to their fiber and protein content) will have a much healthier impact on your blood sugar than highly refined carbohydrates, such as white bread or sugar," says McKinney. The latter can throw your sugar levels off.

Dark Leafy Greens

Dark greens such, as spinach and chard greens, are rich in micronutrients and have been shown to improve positive mood.

Protein

McKinney suggests checking your protein intake, upping it if necessary. "Prioritizing protein can keep blood sugar even and prevent detrimental or exaggerated rises and drops that can wreak havoc on your hormones," she explains. To incorporate additional protein into your meals, look to ingredients like chicken, beans, and eggs.

Micronutrients to Add to Your Diet

Just like it's important to add balancing macronutrients to your diet, adding certain micronutrients can also aid in easing your Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Vitamin D

It has been suggested that lower levels of vitamin D are evident in people experiencing depression.

"Vitamin D, which the body produces less of in sun-starved winter, can (not only) reduce inflammation, but also elevate you feel," says McKinney.

"However," she continues, "although some foods contain vitamin D, they’re not typically sufficient for repleting levels to ideal target ranges." Therefore, in many cases, optimizing vitamin D levels might require supplementation with a vitamin D3 and vitamin K2 combination.

If you feel as though your vitamin D consumption is low, consult a health care professional regarding what supplement plan may be best for your body.

Magnesium

This mineral is closely tied to the function of the nervous system and brain, and to avoid its depletion (such as with stress), McKinney suggests a supplementation with a chelated version that's more easily absorbed. "I recommend taking it in the evening since it's an important mineral for relaxation."

In terms of food, beans, legumes, dark leafy vegetables, and pure cocoa can provide additional magnesium

B-Vitamins

"Anyone low in Vitamin B12, folate and Vitamin B6 may experience changes in brain chemical and function," explains McKinney. If you want to add a supplement to your diet, her advice is to take a high-quality, capsule-based multivitamin with efficacious doses of activated B-vitamins.

Meals to Try

It's time to put knowledge into practice! Add these mood-boosting ingredients to your meals to revamp your winter diet and optimize your hormone levels:

A Word From Verywell

Remember, you are not alone in experiencing the winter blues or a more severe case of SAD. Although in some cases SAD can be self-managed, in more severe and life-disrupting circumstances you should consider seeking help from a mental health professional. They are equipped with the knowledge and expertise to offer helpful coping tools and suggest evidence-based treatments to combat SAD.

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8 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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