Third Space Medical nutritionist Sarah Carolides shares the shopping list that’ll give a lift to those feeling low with Seasonal Affective Disorder
There are benefits to the dark and the damp of mid-winter; namely, the fact that it’s perfectly acceptable to curl up under a blanket with a book and a hot drink. But while cashmere socks, candles and fairy lights make many of us feel cosy and happy, others find winter a true struggle.
The winter blues are a thing. It’s called winter depression or ‘seasonal affective disorder‘ (SAD) and although the causes are still unknown, the most promising hypotheses look to a lack of light and disrupted neurotransmitters. Serotonin is a brain chemical required to make us feel happy and its production requires light. Equally, a closely related neurotransmitter – melatonin – requires darkness. In fact, melatonin is made from serotonin and during the dark months of winter more serotonin is converted into melatonin, further reducing the supply of your “happy” neurotransmitter. Which is a bummer. Moreover, low vitamin D levels also affect mood and most of our supply comes when our skin is exposed to sunlight. No wonder then, that so many of us feel the gloom when winter sets in.
Thankfully, though we cannot control the weather, diet can help you to cope with SAD, especially when combined with light and exercise.
Red Meat, Poultry, Dates, Spirulina, Bananas, Peanuts, Butternut Squash, Brown Rice
Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin and it’s one of the eight essential amino acids, meaning that you have to eat it to benefit. Gratifyingly, it’s found in some of the ingredients above. The problem is, tryptophan can’t get to the brain quickly, which hampers your ability to turn it into serotonin and prop up your moods in winter. This is where the complex carbs like the squash and rice come in. When combined with the tryptophan-rich ingredients they’re able to speed up delivery to your brain and have you smiling in no time.
Tuna, Salmon, Mackerel, Sardines, Beef Liver, Egg Yolks, Mushrooms, Fortified Cereal
Vitamin D is the only vitamin your body can make. The problem is, it does need sunlight to do it, and that is in short supply in Northern Europe through winter. During this time many of us see daylight only through our office windows. There aren’t many good food sources of vitamin D in food, so you need to pick wisely with the shopping list above. Stock up your kitchen and combine them with as much sunlight as possible to see your vitamin D levels – and the benefits to your mental health – shine. That means escaping the office during the day when it’s light and showing a bit of skin. Wrapping up in a big coat and hat defeats the point. Little running shorts and a vest on the other hand… You’ll just have to move quickly!
Spinach, Swiss Chard, Kale, Avocados, Dark Chocolate, Kefir, Almonds, Black Beans
Magnesium is a mineral that’s essential for a balanced mood and energy. If you are feeling tired and sluggish, both mentally and physically, in the winter, then this is a nutrient you need to double down on; in particular, on the leafy greens, pulses, nuts and grains – plus a few others – exemplified above. Just make sure that your grains are whole (as if you needed reminding!) because the refined versions remove the nutrient-rich bran, which lowers magnesium content substantially. Which is enough to put you in a bad mood.
Anderson JL, Rosen LN, Mendelson WB, et al (1994): Sleep in fall/winter seasonal affective disorder: effects of light and changing seasons. J Psychosom Res. 1994 May;38(4):323-37.
Benny Peiser (2009) Seasonal affective disorder and exercise treatment: a review, Biological Rhythm Research, 40:1, 85-97.
Gloth FRM, Alam W, Hollis B (1999): Vitamin D vs broad spectrum phototherapy in the treatment of seasonal affective disorder. J Nutr. 1999 Jan 3(1):5-7.
Kirkland AE, Sarlo GL, Holton KF (2018): The Role of Magnesium in Neurological Disorders. Nutrients. 2018 Jun; 10(6): 730.
Logan AC (2004): Omega-3 fatty acids and major depression: A primer for the mental health professional. Lipids Health Dis. 2004; 3: 25. doi: 10.1186/1476-511X-3-25 Open Access
Nussbaumer B, Kaminski-Hartenthaler A, Forneris CA, et al (2015): Light therapy for preventing seasonal affective disorder. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015 Nov 8;(11):CD011269.
Roecklein KA, Rohan KJ (2005): Seasonal Affective Disorder – An Overview and Update. Psychiatry (Edgmont). 2005 Jan; 2(1): 20-26.