Nutrition for Winter – SAD, or the blues

can vitamins help? maybe.

Seasonal Affect Disorder (SAD), or the winter blahs, has been around for a long time.  It’s dark and cold outside.  It’s been snowing since Thanksgiving.  No wonder we’re depressed.  Photo therapy, using UV rays that mimic summer sunlight, is an effective intervention.   The idea that diet might have some effect is rather new, and not as obvious as getting more light in your life.  You might make different food choices in winter compared to summer, but is that a cause or effect?   Certainly different foods are available in summer vs winter.  Are we depressed by a lack of fresh berries, tomatoes and peaches?  Not likely.  Perhaps winter depression causes different food choices, and not the other way around?  If so, self-medicating with comfort foods could lead to more depression if you gain unwanted weight.

What to do?  There is no proven food or nutritional remedy for SAD, although there are some encouraging hints from research.  Omega-3 fats affect brain and nerve function, and are linked to improved mood in some recent studies.  For example, one study concluded that an omega-3 supplement was most beneficial for patients with depression, who did not also have anxiety disorders. Many other studies suggest a connection, but it’s hard to draw a solid conclusion about SAD, since these studies look at different types of patients, different types of depression and different doses of omega-3 fats.

Vitamin D is another possible SAD link.  It makes sense, because sunlight and light therapy can improve vitamin D status.  Research comparing high doses of vitamin D to light therapy for depressed patient indicated that the vitamin D was more effective at reducing SAD symptoms  (NOTE: this study used an extremely high dose of vitamin D in a controlled research setting. Don’t try this at home).  Other studies have linked lower blood levels of vitamin D to increased depressive symptoms.

So will vitamin D and omega-3 supplements cure your winter blues?  Keep in mind, there are many other nutrients that affect brain function, particularly B-vitamins.  An unbalanced diet, heavy on sugar-sweetened foods, caffeine or alcohol can set you up for mood swings.  An extremely low calorie diet can also affect your brain.  Anorexics or people who are starving lose brain function.  Many herbal diet products contain stimulants that can affect brain function.  The message: your brain is sensitive to all kinds of nutrition and diet factors.  Focusing on just one isn’t likely to be very helpful.

The best winter nutrition fix for SAD is a low sugar, balanced diet, with plenty of vegetables and whole grains.  Avoid caffeine or alcohol overloads.  Stay hydrated.  And, despite the cold, snow and clouds, get out and do something physical, even if “out” means going to a gym.  You’ll feel a whole lot better if you keep up exercise routines in winter.  Taking a vitamin D or omega-3 supplement  might be helpful, but neither will cancel out the adverse effects of a junky unbalanced diet and a sedentary lifestyle.

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