Food and mood: can what I eat help combat symptoms of SAD?

Person standing in the snow

As autumn comes to an end and the long winter months stretch ahead of us, for many, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) can have a significant impact on their day-to-day life. Known as ‘seasonal depression’ or the ‘winter blues’, those who experience SAD may experience signs often associated with depression.

While feeling sad from time to time is completely normal, if you experience symptoms over a prolonged period or at the same time each year, these can be signs of depression or SAD.  

What is seasonal affective disorder?

Thought to be linked with decreased exposure to sunlight during the autumn and winter days, the cause of SAD still isn’t fully known. Symptoms can include

  • an ongoing, persistent low mood
  • feelings of stress, anxiety, tearfulness or sadness
  • a loss of enjoyment in everyday activities
  • low self-esteem
  • decreased libido or infrequent desire to be sociable
  • changes in how much you eat (more or less than is typical for you)

Some who experience SAD also report being less active than normal, feeling tired or lethargic, having difficulting in getting up, as well as trouble concentrating.  

Most commonly experienced by those aged 18-30, our significant changes in light levels between the summer and winter here in the UK combined with dark, gloomy weather, environmental factors and lifestyle mean that more people than ever are reporting symptoms of SAD. 

What can I do to tackle symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?

There are a number of different things you can do to help combat the symptoms of SAD. Ensuring you are exercising regularly and getting outside can be essential parts of boosting your mood. Going on a brisk walk outside during your lunch break or while the sun is still out can help to improve your mood whilst releasing natural, mood-boosting hormones due to the increase in your activity levels.

If you struggle to get outside while it’s still light, SAD lamps or light bulbs can also help improve melatonin production. Eating healthy, nutritious, and regular meals and snacks can all help ensure that your body is getting all of the right mood-boosting nutrients it needs.   

Making a few small changes to your diet can help improve your mood and decrease some symptoms of SAD. 

1. Eat more oily fish

As one nutritionist explains, “Omega-3 fatty acids are important for proper nerve and brain function, and have been shown to help protect against depression.” Good sources of omega-3 include salmon, mackerel, and sardines. If you’re vegetarian or aren’t a fan of fish, eggs, walnuts, sunflower seeds and flaxseeds can all also be healthy sources of omega-3. 

Eating fish twice a week, and including a small handful of seeds and nuts each day can give a great boost to your omega-3 levels. 

2. Optimise your vitamin D levels

Nutritionist Severine Menem recommends eating a rainbow of fresh fruits and vegetables each day to help keep you feeling full and healthy whilst giving a much-needed boost to your energy levels.

“Most fruit and vegetables have a low glycemic index and have a wide variety of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. This helps keep you full and healthy without any side effect.

“Vitamin D deficiency alone can explain low energy and depression. In the UK, people tend to be chronically low on vitamin D because of the lack of sunshine throughout the year. A simple blood test can confirm your levels.”

If you’re looking to boost your vitamin D levels, spending more time outside in the sun can also help increase absorption. 

3. Consider taking supplements

Psychotherapist Lindsay George says “Consider speaking with a nutritionist to ensure you are getting the nutrients known to benefit mood and general wellness, such as omega-3 and 6.”  

Taking supplements can also be a good way to ensure your body is getting just what it needs. As Lindsay highlights, “Public Health England (PHE) recommend that people in the UK take a daily vitamin D supplement between October and March.

“Taking vitamin D 10mcg once a day from October to May will provide you with the recommended daily requirement, according to NICE guidelines.”   

4. Eat seasonally

Nutritionist Rosie Letts recommends eating seasonally to help make the colder months more palatable. “If you add warming spices such as ginger and cinnamon, they can increase circulation and aid healthy digestion too. 

“When you feel the need for a quick fix, try to avoid simple/processed carbs and sugars which will only contribute to your low mood in the long run, as they negatively affect blood sugar levels and deplete essential brain nutrients. Instead, opt for nuts, fruits and vegetables which are rich in vitamin b, zinc and magnesium. [These can help] combat mood swings, irritability and depression.” 

5. Reduce stimulants

We’ve all heard of the benefits of cutting back on caffeine and alcohol for our overall well-being, but as one nutritionist explains, reducing our sugar, alcohol, caffeine and nicotine intake can also have a significant impact on how we are feeling. 

“When you eat sugary foods, your body has to pump out insulin to reduce the effect of the sugar. This process can lead to dips in energy and mood. Caffeine, nicotine and alcohol can mimic the stress response and contribute to low mood. Keep them to a minimum and see if you notice a difference.” 

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Bonnie Gifford

Written by Bonnie Gifford

Bonnie Evie Gifford is a Senior Writer at Happiful.

Written by Bonnie Gifford

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