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Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is characterized by depressive episodes that are associated with seasons. The depression typically starts by the end of fall or early winter and lasts until the beginning of summer.
SAD can cause a lack of energy, low mood, and feelings of isolation, loneliness, and disappointment, ultimately affecting your self-esteem. However, various measures can help you manage the symptoms of SAD.
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
SAD (1) is a type of depression that occurs when there is a season change. It is also known as the “winter blues,” and people in cooler regions tend to be affected the most.
By and large, SAD occurs during the transition from fall to winter, but it can also occur less commonly in the spring and summer. About 10%–20% of Americans struggle with SAD, and it is four times more likely to affect women than men. (2)
Common Symptoms of SAD
Some symptoms of SAD include:
- Feeling depressed on most days
- Low energy
- Lack of interest in activities that you normally enjoy
- Sleeping problems
- Moodiness (agitation, irritation, sluggishness)
- Change in appetite (increase or decrease)
- Weight gain or loss
- Issues concentrating
The Role of Diet in Overcoming SAD
No magic foods will help fight SAD, but structuring meals to be balanced and nutritious can help prevent mood swings.
A side effect of SAD is a change in appetite, which normally means an increase in appetite. (3) Most individuals experience increased cravings of carbohydrates and sugary foods when going through their “SAD” months.
Focus on creating meals that have protein, fiber, and healthy fat. The combination of these three nutrients will keep you full and satisfied and will prevent blood sugar crashes, which result in moodiness.
Foods such as fish, nuts, seeds, dark chocolate, Greek yogurt, berries, bananas, green tea, eggs, spinach, mollusks, and shellfish have been known to help battle SAD. (4)
Eat More of Seeds and Nuts
The University of Pittsburgh found that omega-3 fatty acids can help combat mild to moderate symptoms of depression. (5)
Walnuts and flax seeds have some of the highest content of omega-3s. Overall, the higher amounts of omega-3 you have in your diet, the less likely you are to exhibit symptoms of mild to moderate depression.
Other sources of omega-3 include salmon, canola oil, chia seeds, and spinach.
Is Dark Chocolate Really Good for Your Mood?
Yes, dark chocolate can uplift mood but not all dark chocolates. (6) It must be at least 70% cacao to be effective in reducing signs of depression.
However, many products can have tons of sugar and processed ingredients. The goal is to prevent a blood sugar crash. Therefore, the lowest sugar content and portion control are key.
Read the back of the label and check the recommended serving size to prevent overeating.
ALSO READ: Is Dark Chocolate Good for Health? Explained by a Dietitian
The Effects of Meat Products on Your Mood
There is not any research to attest that certain meats can positively influence one’s mood, but turkey contains tryptophan and melatonin, which is why people experience tiredness after consuming it. Those who battle with SAD have reported that turkey makes them feel more relaxed and calm. (7)
Higher amounts of protein may help lift your mood because it fights against blood sugar crashes. Plus, many people do not get enough protein in their day-to-day lives.
If you aim to have a protein source at every meal, then you are less likely to feel ravenously hungry later. Many times after overeating, individuals can feel sadness or anxiety. (8) Overall, focus on whole food protein sources to keep you full.
Is Compulsive Eating of Sugary Products Also a Sign of SAD?
While it is normal for people to reach for “comfort foods” when they are stressed or sad, compulsive eating is not a medical sign of SAD.
Rather, a symptom of SAD is increased appetite and overeating. (9) Sugary foods release serotonin in the brain, which gives you a “high.” When people are feeling down, this is the quick fix for that serotonin. (8)
Many dietitians use food-emotion logs to help track patterns of food options and emotions. You can try this at home for a few days to track your eating habits and then look for any patterns of emotionally driven eating.
A way to combat the overeating of carbohydrates is to be conscious of cravings. By portioning whole grain options such as popcorn, you are less likely to have a sugar crash or overeat.
When you are aware of your actions, you are better able to address them. Remember, it is all about progress. Do not get upset with yourself if you made an emotionally driven food choice because it is not always bad.
ALSO READ: How to Beat Your Sugar Addiction
Recommended Vitamins for People With SAD
Here are some vitamins that can help improve your symptoms:
1. Folic acid
Folic acid is most commonly known for being vital for women in their childbearing years for the growth and development of the fetus. (10) There is also some research to support that folic acid can help the body produce serotonin. (11)
Serotonin is the chemical in the body that is considered a natural mood stabilizer, which helps reduce depression and anxiety. Common food sources of folic acid include leafy greens, oatmeal, oranges, lentils, and any fortified food source.
2. Vitamin B12
Low levels of B12 have been linked to depression, although researchers are not sure about the mechanism. (12) B12 is the vitamin that aids other nutrients in the body to be absorbed.
B12 is commonly found in animal products such as milk, meat, yogurt, and eggs. Those who are vegans should be on a B12 supplement all year long to ensure maximum nutrient absorption.
3. Vitamin D
The body can absorb vitamin D through food intake and synthesize it upon sun exposure. Researchers have not found an optimal amount of time to be exposed to the sun. (13) There is a rule that suggests at least 10 minutes a day.
In the winter months, heavy cloud coverage can make it difficult to get enough sunshine. Light therapy, paired with a vitamin D supplement, may help reduce the signs and symptoms of SAD. (14) However, it is best to consult a doctor before starting a vitamin D supplement because it is a fat-soluble vitamin.
Foods such as mushrooms, milk, egg yolks, and fortified foods can help you reach your recommended daily intake of vitamin D.
ALSO READ: What is Vitamin D? How Much You Need, Sources and More
Add Green Leafy Vegetables and Healthy Fats to Your Winter Diet
Leafy greens and healthy fats should always be included in a balanced diet. The United States Department of Agriculture recommends 2–3 cups of leafy greens a day. (15) Leafy greens include broccoli, kale, Swiss chard, spinach, and collard greens. Healthy fats include olive oil, nuts, and seeds.
Lifestyle Changes to Decrease the Effect of SAD
The power of routine is fantastic to help battle SAD.
1. Stay physically active
Make sure that you are physically active at least 60 minutes a day. This may seem like a lot, but it can include walking, biking, swimming, or anything that will get your heart rate up.
When choosing your activity, do not pick an activity that you don’t enjoy. Exercise is about honoring your body, and it can raise the levels of serotonin and dopamine naturally, which will fight against SAD.
2. Create mini-goals for yourself
Create mini-goals for yourself, such as “make my bed every day” or “read 15 minutes before I go to sleep.” Doing so will not only fill your life with healthy habits but also will create satisfaction that you were productive today.
3. Consume a balanced diet
Have a balanced meal that has protein, fat, and fiber. Try cooking your own food as well; there is strong research suggesting that if you cook the food you eat, then you will develop a healthier relationship with food. (16)
4. Fix your eating schedule
Inconsistent mealtime and mindless snacking can lead to blood sugar fluctuations that can make you moody and irritable and can lead to a binge.
5. Share a meal with someone
The last key to mealtime is to share a meal with someone without distractions. In today’s world, it is easy to get lost in being very busy or saying that you do not have time. Make the time to share a meal with someone and talk about your day. The human connection will help fight against those “winter blues.”
Get Professional Help
At any stage of depression, you must consult a mental health professional for some much-needed counseling and guidance – that is what they are there for!
In the words of Brene Brown, “do not use comparative suffering to downplay your own struggles.” Comparative suffering is when a person minimizes their own struggles because someone “has it worse” than them. It is strongly advised to seek professional help if you are ever sad, struggling, or just having a bad day.
A strong network of people around you that support you can help with SAD as well. Remember to never be ashamed of reaching out for help or discussing your struggles with others. Everyone has their own battles, and the more you are open about your own struggles, the more you can connect with other people and seek the help you need.
The seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that is more than just “winter blues.” The symptoms of SAD can impede your daily life and thus have an overwhelming effect.
However, small measures, such as daily exercise, balanced meals, creating a support network, and doing something every day that brings joy to you, can help fight the symptoms. It is vital to reach out to professionals who are there to help if you feel you are depressed.
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