Written by Lisa Dreher, MS, RDN, LDN
Is it Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Is it Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Winter is in full swing. Many of us have been dealing with negative temperatures and gloomy skies for what feels like eternity, and with that can come a gloomy mood.

While it’s normal for moods to ebb and flow, a stagnant down feeling throughout the colder months could be seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. SAD is a form of depression that surfaces in the fall and winter months, lasting until the summer. Many people who suffer from this condition express that January and February are when they feel the worst, which may actually have an evolutionary basis. These are the months when food was most scarce for our ancestors, so it may be the body’s way of trying to conserve energy, putting us into “hibernation” mode.

Another less common, but very real form of SAD, is summer-onset depression. This type can begin in the late spring or early summer and persist until winter.

Common symptoms of winter-onset SAD are fatigue, social withdrawal, carb cravings, overeating, weight gain, and lack of interest in activities that are normally enjoyed. Summer-onset SAD could be expressed as anxiety, irritability, insomnia, suppressed appetite, and weight loss. It’s important to note, though, that mood disorders can present differently in every person. Any ongoing change in your normal attitude and mood should be addressed with your physician. SAD can affect anyone, but women are at a higher risk than men.

The exact cause of SAD is unknown, but one theory behind it is that the body produces melatonin when it’s dark, and there are more hours of darkness in the fall and winter. This could increase fatigue and decrease motivation. Another reason is a drop in serotonin levels. Based on research done in Denmark, a large portion of people with SAD have 5% higher levels of SERT, or serotonin transport protein, in the winter months. SERT works to take serotonin back into the nerve cell to where it is inactive. Sunlight keeps SERT levels naturally lower, so during the winter months, some people will have lower levels of active serotonin in the brain. SAD also becomes more common the farther you live from the equator.

There are lots of things you can do to support your mood, especially if you are more susceptible to changes in mood with the changing seasons. Looking at cultures around the world, we can see that indigenous groups who live in extremely cold and dark climates get a large portion of their diet from seafood. There are many nutrients found in fish and seafood that have been attributed to antidepressive benefits, for example omega-3 fatty acids (found in wild Alaskan salmon, sardines, herring, and anchovies), vitamin D (wild-caught salmon, herring, sardines, and shrimp), and tryptophan (Alaskan King crab, and also found in turkey and chicken breast).

Other dietary changes can also make a big difference in your mood. Reducing or eliminating sugar and processed carbs like cookies, cakes, bread, crackers, and pasta will free up room for more nutrient-dense foods that will support a better mood. Nuts, seeds, berries, and a variety of colorful veggies are rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other phytonutrients that are essential for feeling your best. Even a bit of very dark chocolate may help with mood and be part of an overall healthy, anti-inflammatory pattern of eating.

Herbs and spices are another great way to add flavor and health benefits to your meals. Cloves, oregano, ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, curry, and basil are highest in anti-inflammatory properties and are a wonderful addition to any mood-boosting diet.

Some folks with depression can benefit from methylated B vitamins, such as folate and methylcobalamin. Deficiencies in these nutrients can manifest as mood changes, but they’ve also been found to increase the efficacy of some antidepressant medications.

Other supplements that may benefit SAD sufferers are St. John’s Wort and SAMe. St. John’s Wort is an herb that may be as effective for mild to moderate depression as medication, though it may take up to 8 weeks to make a difference. It’s important to note that St. John’s Wort can interact with multiple medications, such as anti-retrovirals, birth control, and antidepressants, especially SSRIs. Check with your doctor before taking it with any other prescriptions. SAMe, short for S-adenosylmethionine, is a naturally occuring compound in the body. When taken as a supplement, it can increase serotonin and dopamine to improve mood and may help St. John’s Wort work faster; look for the butanedisulfonate form in enteric-coated tablets for the best absorption.

And don’t forget about exercise! Getting regular movement supports feel-good neurotransmitters and promotes a positive mood, while providing plenty of other health benefits at the same time.

You can find some other helpful tips from our blog post on Winter Wellness, right here.

The depressive or anxious symptoms of SAD may feel overwhelming, but there are plenty of things you can do to help yourself feel better. Use these tips as a guideline to support a better mood any time of year.

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