Shorter days and colder weather during winter can have negative effects on our well-being, from fatigue and mood swings to depression and social withdrawal. That connection between shifting weather and emotion is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which is a subset of clinical depression. Although it can occur in any season, the condition is typically most prevalent in winter.
According to Mental Health America, the prevalence of seasonal depression is anywhere from 0-10% of the population, depending on the geographic region. Around 5% of Americans suffer from SAD, and four out of five people with the condition are women.
Many experts suggest maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle during winter to help elevate mood and decrease depression and anxiety. Reuben Chen, M.D., a board-certified physician in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation with an emphasis on sports medicine and pain management, shared some vitamin-rich food sources that can increase vitamin intake and nourish the brain, improving mood.
1. Vitamin D
Vitamin D is an important component for regulating mood. During winter, there is less sunshine, so it can be difficult to maintain vitamin D levels without ingesting vitamin-rich foods or supplements. Chen suggests a plant-based, bioavailable source of D3 in supplement form, while also stocking up on whole food sources like salmon, eggs and mushrooms that contain vitamin D naturally, or foods that are fortified with it like breakfast cereals, orange juice, tuna fish and yogurt.
2. Healthy Fats
Healthy fats from almonds, soybeans and avocado, along with omega-3 fatty acids from mackerel, anchovies and chia seeds, are known as potent brain food. Specifically, long-chain fatty acids (like DHA and EPA) improve mood, reduce symptoms of depression, and boost the hormone known as the Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which is critical for healthy brain aging.
Magnesium, which can be found in pumpkin seeds, oatmeal, brown rice and spinach, is not only essential in producing serotonin and melatonin, a hormone that regulates circadian rhythms, induces sleep, and keeps the immune system healthy, but it can also reduce anxiety. Chen suggests prioritizing chelated magnesium, as it is easily absorbed by the body and is used to improve low levels of the mineral.
Zinc can support nerve signaling in the brain, which is helpful in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety. Incorporate zinc by eating foods like red meats, legumes and chickpeas. Not only are they protein-rich, but they are also whole-food sources of zinc and can be added to many recipes to hold you over until spring.