Feeling Sad? Tips for beating the winter blues

For many of us, the darker nights and limited daylight hours can make us feel a little more sluggish, but for some people the change of season can trigger the onset of more severe symptoms of low mood or depression, fatigue and anxiety.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (Sad) is thought to affect one in 15 of us between the months of September and May in Ireland. This seasonal form of depression can range from simply a case of the ‘winter blues’, to completely debilitating symptoms of anxiety and depression.

:: What causes Sad?

There is no known single cause, although lack of daylight seems the most obvious. As humans, we thrive on daylight and need it to trigger and balance neurotransmitters and hormones that affect our sleep quality and mental health. With limited exposure to daylight, this careful balance gets upset and for some people can have a profound effect on mental and physical health.

It is thought that other contributing factors could be stress, disrupted body clock, low levels of serotonin or biological predisposition.

The most popular treatment is light therapy, using Sad-specific ultraviolet light. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can also be helpful.

:: So what does nutrition have to do with it?

Whether you have a mild case of the winter blues or more severe forms of seasonal depression it is important to optimise your nutrition to help support and nourish your body and brain.

:: Vitamin D: Living so far north, most people in Ireland would do well to supplement with vitamin D during the autumn and winter months, and this could be especially important for those struggling with Sad.

Sometimes known as the ‘sunshine vitamin’, vitamin D is not generally found in the diet but instead is produced in the skin in response to sunlight. Low vitamin D is linked to low mood. Choose a supplement that contains vitamin D in the form of D3 (cholecalciferol) as this is the form that is naturally produced in the skin in response to sunlight.

:: Eat some healthy fats every day: Oily fish, nuts and seeds contain fats that are essential for cognitive function. Aim to eat oily fish two to three times a week and a handful of nuts and seeds every day. Some people find a fish oil supplement with good levels of EPA and DHA can support mood.

:: Eat good quality protein: Our bodies need essential fats and protein for the formation of neurotransmitters like serotonin to help support mood, so aim to have some protein-rich foods like eggs, meat, fish, chicken, nuts, seeds, dairy products, pulses, houmous, etc. with each meal.

:: Cut sugar: Although low mood can leave us cravings sugary foods and refined carbohydrate, this is not a good choice for supporting mood. Choose healthier snacks like a handful of nuts, a couple of oatcakes with nut butter, or some natural yoghurt instead.

:: Boost serotonin: Serotonin is the body’s feel-good neurotransmitter, levels of which can be low in those suffering from Sas. 5-HTP (5-Hydroxytryptophan) is a natural precursor to serotonin, which is formed in the body from the amino acid tryptophan, found in oats, milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, red meat, eggs, fish, poultry, sesame, chickpeas, almonds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, buckwheat and peanuts.

:: Boost magnesium: This mineral, found to be worryingly low in Western diets, is essential for balanced mood and energy production, so if you’re feeling down and sluggish then this is one nutrient that you definitely need to get more of in your diet. Found in dark green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds, it is also available as a supplement. The best form is magnesium citrate.

:: Exercise outdoors: Exercise is a well-known natural anti-depressant, especially if you exercise outside to maximise your exposure to daylight.

This blog post first appeared in The Irish News on Saturday 17 November 2018.