Before we dive into a list of nutritional must-haves for the winter months, let’s take a look at the science behind feeling SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder).
Is seasonal depression all in my head?
Yes and no. Maintaining a positive, sunny outlook can do wonders to help fight the winter blues but the long-month lows you feel can be a direct result of a very real form of depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Essentially, the lack of light during the winter season interferes with levels of serotonin, a mood-enhancing chemical, in the brain. What’s more, the shorter days and longer nights throw a major wrench in our natural sleep-wake cycle. Both add up to feelings of lethargy and irritability which can push you deeper into the couch and further away from the snippets of winter sunlight you desperately need.
How can you dig yourself out of the hibernation hole?
Put your hands up and slowly step away from the doughnuts. Craving starchy foods and sweets is a prime symptom of seasonal blues but consuming these items will do nothing to help get you back to feeling your best.
While researchers continue to cite exercise and outdoor winter activities as prime cures for combating SAD, such efforts are hopeless if you lack motivation to simply get out the door. Thus, it all starts with diet. Trick your body into thinking it’s a bright, warm summer day out by filling it with these serotonin-boosting nutrients.
Essential fatty acids such as omega-3 are good to work into your weekly diet during the depths of fall and winter. On top of aiding overall brain and heart health, studies show that cultures consuming foods rich in omega-3 have far fewer cases of depression.
It just so happens that this prime nutrient is found in a delicious assortment of fatty fish including salmon and herring. Eating the same slab of salmon week after week can get boring so try mixing it up. Sprinkle on a bit of Cajun dry rub seasoning part way through cooking or marinate the fish in teriyaki sauce for a bit of added food flair.
Those with more culinary courage at hand can try out converting leftover salmon into salmon cakes or burgers; a much healthier, seasonally-sound alternative to heavy red meat dinners.
In addition to certain types of fatty fish, several variants of grains and seeds will do the trick. More specifically, flax, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and soy are rich in omega-3. The best part about these mood-boosters is that they’re easy to integrate into the foods you normally eat. Switch out that whole milk for soy milk on your cereal or add walnuts and pumpkin seeds to your favorite trail mix blend.
While the latter three items are naturally tasty, flax seeds don’t exactly top the list of delicious snacks. Therefore, figure out ways to hide them in other foods you enjoy. Ground flaxseeds can be seamlessly worked into a batch of breakfast muffins or whole-grain pancake mixes, even piled on top of yogurt with honey or mixed into a smoothie.
Perhaps the most obvious nutritional piece to add to your wintertime diet, vitamin D can also be one of the hardest to come by. In the summer, your body naturally gets its full dose of the vitamin by producing it when exposed to the sun. However, as our sunlight rations gradually decline in the fall and winter, our D-o-meter goes down as well.
Foods rich in vitamin D aren’t exactly plentiful. Supplements tend to be the best route for boosting your levels and lifting your mood, but there are a few diet add-ons you can keep an eye out for as well.
Cod liver oil. Sounds appetizing, right? Fortunately, the vitamin-D-rich sustenance comes in pill form and even flavored varieties these days.
Milk is probably one of the most commonly thought of sources of the nutrient. What you might not know is that either skim or whole will do the trick. Those who aren’t a fan or are intolerant of the creamy liquid should peruse the grocery store for certain kinds of orange juice fortified with vitamin D. Some variations of mushrooms as well as eggs, shrimp, and tuna are also known to contain at least decent levels of the vitamin as well. Finally, fatty fish make the list. Double the reason to rotate salmon into your diet.
That’s right. Select kinds of carbohydrates are actually recommended to help improve the side effects of seasonal blues. Emphasis on the word “select” of course. Diving into a buffet of white bread, cakes, and other pastries will get you nowhere fast. In fact, these types of simple carbs are engineered to give you a quick rush and then leave you feeling crashed. Hence where the term “food coma” comes into play.
Instead, introduce high-quality carbohydrates into your eating routine. These foods metabolize slower than their heavily-refined cousins and tend to stabilize blood sugar levels thus preventing major mood swings. Good carbs include whole grain foods, lentils, beans, and sweet potatoes.
Sounding too bland? A stubborn sweet tooth is hard to ignore. Especially when your mood dips lower than low and a scrumptious treat seems to offer instant gratification. Fight the urge to dip into the candy jar by pairing up whole grain, mood-stabilizing dishes such as oatmeal with naturally sweet ripe strawberries and raspberries. Add agave nectar or a smidge of honey to antioxidant-rich blueberries and boil lightly for a tasty alternative to maple syrup on your pancakes.
Speaking of substitutes, sweet potatoes cut into slices and baked in a bit of olive oil can curb the urge to chow down on French fries or other greasy carbs. Add a sprinkle of cinnamon or cayenne, depending upon which end of the spice spectrum you fall.
Introducing the B family. These hard workers help to produce energy in cells throughout your entire body. While the B group contains a great number of individual vitamins, B6, B12, and folic acid are by and large targeted as mood boosters, essential for good brain health during times when depressed feelings are more common than others.
Where are these B vitamins found? Leafy greens are an excellent source, especially when it comes to folic acid. Traditionally labeled with the “yuck factor” by those with a younger pallet, greens are widely accepted as quite satisfying superfoods for adults.
Aside from cooking up a batch of spinach or sautéing broccoli, you can try adding a small handful of greens into a smoothie. Combined with bold fruits such as mango or raspberries as well as a bit of honey and natural juice, greens are hardly noticeable yet can provide a much needed boost on winter mornings. This is especially so during times when the urge to crawl back in bed is strongest.
Add leafy greens to a can of regular soup for a B-charged meal or switch out your sandwich’s nutrient-lacking iceberg lettuce for a layer of uncooked baby spinach.
Whole wheat bread or pasta will also boost your B levels. Consumed in proper portions, these meal fillers offer great sources of B6 and folate (the term for folic acid naturally found in food) while also helping you steer clear of mood-crashing white starches and other bad carbs.