How can we protect ourselves from the winter blues? As the short days and long nights of winter wear on, many of us experience low spirits. Between 4 and 6 percent of people suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, known as SAD: a depression that comes and goes with the seasons. Along with physical exercise, light therapy, and time outdoors, one of the most impactful ways to beat the winter blues is by activating the power of food as medicine for mental health. Research shows that what we eat can prevent or even reverse symptoms of depression.
What makes food so powerful in supporting both physical and mental well-being? It’s the activity of the phytonutrients they contain. Phytonutrients, sometimes called phytochemicals, are chemicals produced by plants that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. As a result, phytonutrients provide a host of benefits, including enhancing immunity, repairing DNA damage from exposure to toxins, and reducing the risk of cancer and heart disease. Moreover, certain types of phytonutrients may help to reduce harmful inflammation in the body and brain, and support the growth of new brain cells even as we age.
Using Food to Fight the Winter Blues
When it comes to ways to beat winter blues, research finds that particular diets and foods with supportive phytonutrients play a major role in supporting mental health. A 2014 review study on the relationship between diet and mental health in children and adolescents found numerous potential biological pathways and mechanisms by which diet quality influences mental health—and specifically teen depression symptoms.
Hence, studies have shown that the risk of depression is 25 to 35 percent lower for people who eat a diet high in vegetables, fruits, grains, and fish. In addition, a study done with adolescents found that the impact of nutrition on depression was even more significant: Teens who ate a low-quality diet had an 80 percent higher risk of depression when compared to teens who ate a better-quality diet. Moreover, avoiding processed foods and sugar contributes to the positive impact.
Yet another study, this one of more than 12,000 Australians, found that people who increased the servings of fruits and vegetables that they ate reported that they were happier and more satisfied with their life than those who did not. And the groundbreaking “SMILES trial” found that food actually helped reverse symptoms of major depression. For three months, one group of study participants ate a modified Mediterranean diet, with more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and low-fat dairy, and less sugar, fried food, and processed foods. The other group continued eating their usual unhealthy diets while attending social support groups. After three months, 8 percent of the latter group no longer met the criteria for major depression. But a full one-third of those who changed their diet experienced remission from major depression.
The Best Foods to Beat Winter Blues
A 2018 study isolated the nutrients that help prevent depression, as well as supporting recovery from depressive disorders. Furthermore, they looked at the top foods to eat daily, as these foods provide the highest doses of these nutrients.
The Top 12 Nutrients for Mental Health
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Potassium Selenium
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin B6
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin C
The Foods That Fight Depression
- Bivalves, such as oysters and mussels
- Various seafoods
- Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli and cauliflower
- Leafy greens
- Organ meats
Scientists are continuing to zero in on the best foods to help children, adolescents, and adults maintain mental and physical health. For example, in September 2019, the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research began officially recommending omega-3 supplements as an adjunctive therapy for major depressive disorder.
The Microbiome: Our ‘Belly Brain’
Recent research has revealed the connections between mental health and gut health. It’s a fascinating example of the mind-body connection. Some 100 million neurons are embedded in the walls of the gastrointestinal tract, and the vast majority of the information carried by the nervous system travels from the gut to the brain, rather than the other way around.
“Diet helps shape our mental health from the inside out—or, from the bottom up,” says Jeffrey Zurofsky, Culinary Program Director at Newport Academy. “That’s because about 95 percent of serotonin, one of the hormones involved in mood and emotion regulation, is produced in the gastrointestinal tract. That’s why it’s sometimes called ‘the second brain’ or ‘the belly brain.’”
Serotonin levels in the brain help regulate mood; in fact, one the causes of SAD is low serotonin activity. Therefore, the health of our microbiome—the collection of microbes in our gut—has a direct impact on our emotional well-being. Researchers have found that people with healthy microbiomes are less likely to suffer from anxiety and depression. And what we eat is a primary factor in regulating gut health.
“Microbiota may influence the development of brain regions involved in our response to stress and control stress-related conditions such as anxiety and depression,” writes Jane Foster, author of the article “Gut Feelings: Bacteria and the Brain” in the journal Cerebrum. In one study, participants who took probiotics to balance the levels of microbiota for 30 days had fewer symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression than the control group.
More Ways to Beat Winter Blues
As we’ve seen, nutrition has significant benefits for mental health—however, it’s only one of the ways to beat winter blues and prevent SAD. An integrated approach to mental health includes multiple components. Evidence-based clinical modalities, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, help realign the neuropathways in the brain and re-pattern disordered thinking. Experiential therapies, such as art therapy and Adventure Therapy, are particularly helpful for teens and young adults, who benefit from nonverbal approaches to processing experiences and emotions.
No matter how the seasons affect mood for you or your loved ones, it’s important to treat your body well all year round. That means eating foods proven to enhance well-being, as well as making physical exercise and time in nature part of your regular routine. Engaging in activities such as yoga, hiking, and winter sports can make a big difference in mood and motivation for teens, young adults, and older adults as well.
In addition, don’t hesitate to reach out for help if you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms such as trouble sleeping, a sense of hopelessness, changes in appetite or weight, trouble concentrating, low energy, loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyable, and lack of self-esteem. These are all warning signs that may indicate SAD or another type of depression. An expert mental health professional can assess these symptoms and help develop an effective seasonal depression treatment plan—in wintertime or anytime.
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