How you can use food to combat seasonal depression
This time of year, the sun is setting earlier, we start to layer up, leaves are falling, and mood can often follow suit – it’s common to feel a little off as winter approaches. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is the official term for depression related to the change in seasons, but you don’t need the diagnosis to feel some form of winter blues. Seasonal changes can cause energy levels, motivation and patience to plummet. Why is it that time of year can bring less-than-good vibes with it, and how do we fight this sadness so that we don’t fight ourselves (and those around us!)?
Goodbye sun, goodbye serotonin
There’s a reason you might be starting to feel a little blue. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin, aka “the happy neurotransmitter,” that may trigger depression. Serotonin gives us those joyful, calm, excited feelings and is manufactured by our bodies, but we need particular nutrients in order to produce it.
The goal is to keep it level, even with external factors causing it (and us) to get low. In the summer, sunlight promotes vitamin D synthesis from the skin, but when you’re not exposed to sunlight during the winter months, the body needs Vitamin D from other sources. Low levels of Vitamin D has been associated with various mood disorders, including depression and seasonal affective disorder.
Stressed, well past September
The fall can be a stressful time – maybe you’re getting the kids established in a new routine for the new school year or you’re working forward end-of-year goals at work, all while looking ahead to the busy holiday season. Stress, too, can decrease serotonin and deplete your body of B and C vitamins, both of which help create serotonin. Stress also decreases immunity and disrupts your sleep. Without proper sleep, your cortisol stays high, meaning increased sweets cravings and weight gain. So this time of year, if you’re stressed, you’re also likely sick, tired and bummed out.
So how can you cope with seasonal mood swings?
Keep an eye on that sugar, honey
A dietary key to unlocking your happiness and mental health in the winter is keeping your blood sugar stable. Think steady rolling hills, rather than peaks and valleys. This will keep you feeling satisfied and less moody.
Eating sugar or refined carbohydrates (white bread, white pasta, pastries, cookies, etc) lead to a flood of serotonin, making you think you’re happy, but it’s short lived. You will end up feeling even worse and crave more sweets to get that high. To avoid that vicious cycle, limit refined and processed foods, focus on protein with every meal and snack, and eat every 3-4 hours. Prevent your hangry self by bringing high-protein snacks with you (hard-boiled eggs, unsweetened yogurt, a handful of nuts) and preparing meals in advance.
Exercise causes changes in your brain that improve serotonin production. It also decreases anxiety and depression, and it doesn’t take a big time commitment to make a big difference! Start small and celebrate every success, especially when you are feeling down. This will increase your motivation and keep you coming back for more.
Noodle on necessary nutrients
Paying close attention to your nutrient intake this time of year can help stave off feelings of autumnal sadness. To boost your body’s ability to get those good vibes going optimize for foods that contain Tryptophan, Vitamins B, C and D, and Omega-3 fatty acids.
These nutrients all work in tandem to help your system function at its best: tryptophan is the precursor for serotonin, and in order to convert tryptophan to serotonin, your body needs adequate amounts of Vitamin C and B Vitamins. We mentioned earlier how mood boosting Vitamin D is synthesized from exposure to the sun, but it is also found in foods. Omega-3 is an essential nutrient that has been proven to help with depression and brain health – essential nutrients are those that our bodies need, but don’t create.
To make sure these nutrients are a part of your daily diet, stock up on:
- Tryptophan: eggs, fish, poultry, dairy products, whole grains, nuts and seeds, legumes
- Vitamin C: bell pepper, kiwi, orange, broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts
- B Vitamins: eggs, legumes, meat, poultry, whole grains, nuts
- Vitamin D: salmon, tuna, milk, eggs, mushrooms, dairy
- Omega-3: salmon, chia seeds, walnuts, flax seed, grass-fed dairy and beef
Boost your mood with these recipes
To make it even easier to use diet to combat seasonal dips in mood, we’ve pulled together our favorite seasonal dishes, all of which are great sources of the nutrients essential for serotonin production.
Gluten-Free, Low-Carb Cabbage Pizza
We’ll start with one of our favourite recipes already featured on the website – gluten-free, low-carb cabbage pizza.
Walnut crusted white fish with roasted broccoliPreparation time: 20 min.
- 6 walnuts (~¾ oz)
- 5 oz white fish (cod, catfish, pollock, ...)
- ½ tsp paprika (dry)
- 1 whole eggs (~1 ¾ oz)
- 1 ½ tsp coconut oil (~¼ oz)
- ½ cups broccoli (chopped) (~1 ½ oz)
- ½ tsp salt
- ½ tsp black pepper
- ⅓ lemon (~½ oz)
- Preheat oven to 450°F (230°C).
- Wash and chop broccoli. Put baking paper on baking dish, spread broccoli on it and place in the oven for 20 minutes.
- Meanwhile, use a food processor or blender to chop the walnuts until they have the consistency of bread crumbs. Transfer to a bowl and add seasonings (pepper, salt, paprika; optional).
- In a separate small bowl, whisk the egg.
- Fill bottom of a large cast iron skillet or pan with oil and heat over med-high heat.
- Once oil is hot, dip white fish in egg, coating both sides. Then place it on the ground walnut mixture and coat both sides.
- Add fish to the hot skillet or pan and cook for 3 minutes on each side.
- Remove broccoli from the oven and transfer it to a plate.
- Transfer the fish from the skillet or pan, to a baking dish (you may use the same baking dish that was used to cook the broccoli). Cook it in the oven for 10 minutes until firm and flaky.
- Serve fish and broccoli on a plate and squeeze some fresh lemon on top. Enjoy!
Oats with orange, yogurt & walnutsPreparation time: 5 min.
- ½ cups Greek yogurt, plain (low-fat) (~5 oz)
- ⅓ cups rolled oats (uncooked) (~1 ¼ oz)
- 3 walnuts (~½ oz)
- 1 orange (~5 oz)
- ¼ tsp cinnamon
- 2 tsp ground flax seeds (~¼ oz)
- Peel orange and cut into small pieces.
- In a bowl, combine yogurt with oats, flax seeds and cinnamon. Add orange pieces and crumble walnuts on top.
- Et voilà!
Smoked salmon breakfast wrapPreparation time: 10 min.
- 1 100 % whole grain tortilla (~1 ½ oz)
- 2 whole eggs (~3 ½ oz)
- 2 oz smoked salmon (slices)
- 1 cups salad arugula (rocket) (~⅔ oz)
- 1 oz hummus
- 1 tbsp coconut oil (~½ oz)
- a tiny bit of salt
- 1 tsp black pepper
- Spread hummus on tortilla, top with arugula and smoked salmon, and set aside.
- Heat pan to medium-high and add oil.
- In the meantime, crack the eggs in a bowl, add salt and pepper, and beat with a fork so the mixture is consistent.
- Pour the mixture in the pan. Constantly stir the mixture with a spatula so it never sticks to the pan.
- Once the eggs cooks to your taste (or after about 4 minutes), add them to the tortilla.
- Wrap the tortilla(s) and eat now or take to-go.