Hello, friends! Welcome or welcome back. I hope you’re healthy and well today (and all days, really). We’re more than half-way through October and November 3rd of this year brings the end of daylight saving time. While many of us are excited about pumpkins, cider, and Halloween, many others are starting to fight off seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

More than the blues

Fall and winter are hard for many of us in the north because we’re stuck inside more often and the gloomy weather (I swear it seems like sometimes there’s no sunshine for a month at a time) but for those with SAD it’s more than just the winter blues. SAD is not it’s own diagnosis but rather more of a specifier for depression that tells us that depression is cyclical and is affected by the change of seasons. Some people’s depression is also worsened in Spring and Summer, though that’s less common. If you’re trying to figure out if what you’re feeling is a healthy adjustment to changing seasons or an issue that you should address with a doctor and/or therapist, here are some common symptoms of SAD:

  • feeling fatigued most of the time
  • persistent feelings of depression, feelings of guilt or hopelessness- more times sad than not for at least two weeks
  • changes in sleep or appetite

Research

SAD is more common in young adults and in women and while we’re not entirely sure yet of the interplay between diet and mental health, several studies are showing that there is a connection. In the most helpful article I found (a study from 2008 published in the Psychiatry Journal of India), there is strong evidence that people with depression are most likely to have several vitamin deficiencies.

It’s kind of a “which came first- the chicken or the egg” type question: are people more susceptible to depression because they’re nutrient deficient or does depression often cause deficiencies because many of us skip meals or aren’t consistent about nutrition when we’re in a depressive episode. I would guess that the truth is somewhere in the middle and it leads to a vicious cycle. For example, when we’re depressed we often crave sweets. That’s our bodies’ way of trying to correct things. Deep down our body understands that we need more energy so it makes us crave something sweet. The good new is that this often makes us feel a little better. The bad news? It leads to a cycle of feel bad –> binge sweets –> feel a little better –> crash–> feel worse –> binge sweets, etc.

Meanwhile, we’re relying on simple carbs (think cookies, cake, bread, etc- things that get used up by the body very quickly but aren’t very filling) and the same stand-by meals (often times when we’re depressed, nothing sounds good and eating sometimes feels like it takes too much energy so we eat the same things that are easy to grab and sound palatable) leaving us missing lots of other nutrients that are critical for brain function. So here are some things you can do to ease symptoms. Please bear in mind that any dietary changes or supplements mentioned in this article are supported by preliminary research and you should always consult your doctor before adding anything to your diet, including supplements.

First things first, diets are terrible for depression. Studies have shown that while dieting, people’s moods are more depressed. Try adding in foods rather than dieting so that you’re getting the nutrients you need.

A list of what your body needs

  • Vitamin D- Light therapy has been effective in some studies because we get less Vitamin D (which we make from cholesterol when our skin is exposed to sunlight) in the colder months and light therapy (you can find light therapy boxes online) can give you some artificial sunshine to help. Vitamin D plays a role in our mood and many people in Michigan are Vitamin D deficient. Foods high in Vitamin D include: fortified milk and cereal, fatty fish, egg yolks, and cheese.
  • Move your body! Some studies show exercise as being as effective at treating depression as anti-depressants are. You don’t have to do Crossfit to benefit. Bundle up and go for a short walk.
  • Relax when you can. Take some time for you to be creative, practice meditation, etc.
  • Avoid hibernating. Just like the feel bad- eat sweets cycle, we also tend to isolate ourselves when we’re depressed and that makes depression worse. See if you can make yourself engage with others for fun a few times a week.
  • Amino acids- amino acids are the building blocks that your body uses to make many of the things your brain needs (like serotonin- the neurotransmitter most closely related to depression). Some of the amino acids that are suspected to help with depression are found in turkey, eggs, cheese, milk, soybeans, nuts (especially Brazil nuts), fish, and spinach.
  • Omega-3 Fatty acids- These are most commonly found in fatty fish (salmon), walnuts, flax seeds, and fish oil supplements. People who eat more fish typically have lower levels of depression and while studies have been done on fish oil, results are not always consistent that it’s helpful. However, the brain is about 50% fatty acids which makes me think they’re important to healthy brain function 😉
  • Get your B-vitamins. Vitamins B1, B2, B6, and B12 have been linked to depression in studies. Some of the best foods for B vitamins are berries (raspberries, strawberries, etc), eggs, dairy, clams, oysters, and crab. As you may have noted by this point, vegetarians and people who are lactose intolerant may have an extra hard time meeting their needs. Please talk to your doctor about seeing a nutritionist if this is something you’re concerned about.
  • Lastly, your minerals are important, too. Namely folate, chromium, iron, selenium, and zinc. Some of the best foods for these minerals are oranges, broccoli, asparagus, eggs, spinach, tomatoes, oats, barley, lean beef, liver, shellfish, and legumes.

Get creative with your food if you’re feeling well enough to do so. Try to eat some colorful fruits and veggies and add some fish if you can. Please talk to your doctor before making any big changes and if your SAD is bigger than something you can handle on your own. Until next time, friend, be well and get some sunshine!

Kayla Valley is a Licensed Master of Social Work (LMSW) who works at the Highland location of Perspectives Therapy Services. She became a therapist to help people struggle with the depression and anxiety that she understands intimately. She loves being a Michigander and is an avid sewist who loves spending time with her cats and sugar gliders.

Perspectives Therapy Services is a multi-site mental and relationship health practice with clinic locations in Brighton, Lansing, Highland and Fenton, Michigan. Our clinical teams include experienced, compassionate and creative therapists with backgrounds in psychology, marriage and family therapy, professional counseling, and social work. Additionally, we offer psychiatric care in the form of evaluations and medication management. Our practice prides itself on providing extraordinary care. We offer a customized matching process to prospective clients whereby an intake specialist carefully assesses which of our providers would be the very best fit for the incoming client. We treat a wide range of concerns that impact a person's mental health including depression, anxiety, relationship problems, grief, low self-worth, life transitions, and childhood and adolescent difficulties.