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Can Your Diet Fix Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

by Matt Weik, BS, CSCS, CPT, CSN

Unless you’re a fan of the cold, when the colder months roll around, you’re probably dreading the months ahead like the plague. We’re talking about shorter days with less sunlight. This causes many things to happen, like not allowing people to get enough natural vitamin D from sunlight. But it also has the potential to create Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD.

When the colder months and weather hit, a lot of people tend to feel a shift in their mood. Some may call it the “winter blues.” What exactly does this mean?

Well, with the drop in temperature, many people start experiencing a severe mood shift that impacts their daily lives (and not in a good way). This is where the signs of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) can be felt.

In this article, we are going to take a deeper dive into the topic and talk in detail about what exactly SAD is and everything you need to know about it. Also, you may be able to take the nutrition tips from below to help reduce the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

SAD, also known as major depressive disorder (MDD) with a seasonal pattern, is typically a type of depression related to seasonal changes. It often occurs during the fall and winter months when there is typically less sunlight and the temperatures drop.

Studies show that SAD affects 0.5-2% of people in the USA. It mostly affects young adults and women, most notably those who stay farther north of the equator.

There are two types of Seasonal Affective Disorder — Summer-pattern SAD and Winter-pattern SAD. Studies show that summer-pattern SAD occurs in around 10% of the cases.

Symptoms of SAD

You can start witnessing the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder in late fall or early winter, or the end of spring. Here are a few common symptoms of both patterns:

  • Difficulty in sleeping
  • Depression or sadness
  • Feeling irritated
  • Lack of energy
  • Poor concentration
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Change in appetite
  • Feeling worthless

Moreover, winter-pattern SAD additionally includes overeating, weight gain, lack of interest in social activities, fatigue during the daytime, and more. And summer-pattern SAD may consist of restlessness, weight loss, violent actions, loss of appetite, and more.

What Are the Causes of SAD?

The factors as it relates to SAD may differ from person to person. However, below is the most common cause of Seasonal Affective Disorder.

What is the key component? Sunlight.

Sunlight is the biggest influencing factor. Decreased exposure to sunlight can affect hormones, sleep, and mood patterns. As per studies, people with SAD face difficulty in regulating their biological clock.

Apart from that, abnormal levels of serotonin and melatonin can also disrupt the circadian rhythm. People with SAD have a high amount of melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleep.

Who is at Risk of SAD?

Unfortunately, SAD can affect anyone. However, people who live in areas where there are long winter nights and less sunlight are at a higher risk of experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder.

For instance, people living in Canada or Alaska are at a higher risk as compared to the ones living in the sunny state of Florida (which makes a great case for vacationing down south for the winter).

That said, the condition is more common in women than men and mostly affects younger adults between the age of 18-30. In addition to that, people with a family history of SAD are also at a higher risk.

Finally, people with various mental health conditions are at a higher risk of SAD. As per studies, 25% of people with bipolar disorder and 10-20% of people with a depressive disorder suffer from SAD.

How to Manage SAD?

Here are a few things that you should include in your diet apart from exercise and meditation to help better manage the symptoms of SAD:

1.      Complex carbohydrates

Studies show that carbohydrates produce serotonin, which is low in people with SAD and can cause people to crave carbohydrates.

Now, instead of going for refined carbohydrates like candy and white bread, you can try adding items like sweet potatoes to your diet. This helps to keep your body fuller and deal with intense cravings.

2.      Vitamin B6

Vitamin B6 helps to produce serotonin. And this amazing vitamin can be easily found in dairy products like milk and cheese and animal products like tuna, salmon, and more.

In case you are on a vegan diet, you can try adding carrots, lentils, brown rice, and more to your diet. This helps to improve serotonin levels and boosts your mood.

3.      Vitamin D and omega-3

Vitamin D, also known as the sunshine vitamin, is super important. If you have a low level of Vitamin D or become deficient, you are more likely to feel depressed.

You can try adding items like fortified milk, oily fish, and even vitamin D supplements. Apart from that, adding more fish to your diet (thanks to it being rich in omega-3 fatty acids) can help decrease cortisol levels.

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