How to Avoid Seasonal Depression (SAD) with Nutrition and Lifestyle Changes 

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is marked by major depression during the fall-winter months, with relief from symptoms during the spring-summer months. [1]

About 15% of recurrent depression cases have a seasonal pattern. 

SAD is thought to be initiated by shifts in weather and daylight hours during the winter months. Another theory is that the seasonal change disrupts the hormones responsible for regulating mood and sleep patterns, including serotonin and melatonin, although the pathophysiology of SAD remains unclear. 

Common symptoms of seasonal depression include feelings of sadness, changes in appetite, sleep disruption, loss of interest in hobbies, and increased fatigue. Fortunately, there are several ways to avoid seasonal depression, starting with lifestyle and nutrition changes. Here’s how:

Vitamin D

Low levels of vitamin D are common in people with seasonal depression. [2-3]

It has been suggested that symptoms of SAD may be due to changing levels of vitamin D3, the leads to changes in brain serotonin levels. 

When vitamin D is found in sufficient amounts, it supports cognitive function, reduces neurotoxic calcium levels in the brain, and regulates multiple neurotransmission pathways. [4] Low vitamin D levels are related to less sunlight, a major source of vitamin D, during the winter months. 

In one study, people with SAD were given 400 IU, 800 IU, or no vitamin D3 for five days during late winter in a random double-blind study. Self-reported results showed that vitamin D3 significantly enhanced positive affect, and there was some evidence of a reduction in negative affect. [5]

The difficulty with sufficient sunlight exposure, and exposure to sunlight at a bandwidth of light that is not suitable for the production of vitamin D in the skin, leads me to suggest supplementation during the winter months with 1000 IU vitamin D daily. If you have vitamin D deficiency, you may take more. To learn more about sufficient levels of this vitamin depending on your skin color and location, check my article on this here.

Exercise

A review of the beneficial effects of exercise on depression concluded that regular exercise could significantly reduce the risk of depression. [6-10] In a review of intervention studies examining the effects of exercise on people with SAD, the studies consistently reported improvements of mood following trials lasting one week to eight weeks, with most trials involving forms of aerobic exercise. [11]

To prevent seasonal depression, I recommended doing aerobic exercise outside in natural daylight, especially before noon. Exercise boosts serotonin and endorphin levels. Exercise outdoors with sun exposure increases vitamin D. If you can’t exercise outside due to the weather, indoor aerobic activity is still effective at releasing brain chemicals that boost your sense of well-being.

Bright light therapy

Adverse changes in circadian rhythms are an integral part of seasonal depression. Dysfunction of the circadian rhythm may underlie the pathophysiology of SAD. Bright light therapy is effective in treating seasonal affective disorder and is well-tolerated. [12-18]

The current strategy for initiating treatment with Bright light therapy for people with SAD has been summarized by Pail et al. [19-21] In general, bright light therapy is best performed early in the morning using a device known as a lightbox with 10,000 lux of white cool fluorescent light, that is shown in the face for 40 minutes. [22]

The therapeutic effects of bright light therapy appear to require the eyes. The gaseous molecules such as carbon monoxide and nitric oxide found in eye blood vessels may be affected by bright light therapy through blood-borne hemoglobin and bilirubin photoreceptors when exposed to light in the eye.

You can buy a lightbox with 10,000 lux that is also UV-free to prevent skin cancer on Amazon here: https://amzn.to/349azvo

Selenium

Selenium deficiency has been linked to mental health. [23-27]

In a study by a team of researchers from the Federal University of Espírito Santo in Brazil, high selenium intake was associated with a lower prevalence of depression. [24] Selenium intake can be increased by taking selenium supplements. However, I do not recommend this since studies have found that both high and low selenium levels have been linked with oxidative stress and inflammation. These explain the connection between selenium levels and depression. [28]

Foods rich in selenium are the preferred way to ensure sufficient mineral levels. Foods rich in selenium include bananas, lentils, sunflower seeds, brown rice, Brazil nuts, and mushrooms.

Healthy carbs

Carbohydrate craving is common in people with SADBecause of cravings for carbohydrates, the type of carbohydrates consumed is crucial. A dietary pattern that includes fruit, vegetables, lentils, beans, and whole grains is rich in healthy carbohydrates that will both reduce carbohydrate cravings and reduce depression. Therefore, choose your carbohydrates wisely. Resist simple carbs such as sweet desserts, sugary cereals, white rice, white pasta, and pastries. Instead, choose complex carbohydrates such as whole fruits, vegetables, legumes, seeds, nuts, and whole grains.

Socialize

Feelings of isolation can increase depression. Whether you meet in person, connect via video conference, or exchange messages, socialize with family and friends regularly to prevent feelings of isolation. Interacting with others helps improve your mood, reduces anxiety, and aids relaxation. Socializing improves mental health and has physical health benefits, such as helping build a more robust immune system. In all Blue zones where more people live beyond 100 years than any other place in the world, people are connected in close-knit relationships on top of other health-promoting habits. [29-30]

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Dr. Galit Goldfarb

References 

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