Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, affects approximately 10 to 20 percent of people in the United States, according to the American Psychiatric Association. It is a condition that leaves you feeling down, sluggish, and unmotivated in the winter months. However, when spring and summer return you perk up and feel more like yourself.
Here in Maine, it’s something that folks feel acutely.
David Prescott, PhD, assistant professor and director of healthcare studies at Husson University, says some of this has to do with the shorter days we experience here in Maine. “By mid-January, Mainers have experienced over three months where there is more darkness than daylight each day,” Prescott said.
There has been research to support that lack of daylight makes the body produce more melatonin as well as other neurochemicals which makes us feel drowsy and in turn, less motivated to get outside and be active. “Exposure to extended darkness may alter the body’s natural clock, leading to decreased energy and perhaps seasonal depression,” Prescott said.
While things such as light therapy (exposure to artificial lights), Vitamin D supplements, exercise and medical therapy have been proven to improve moods, there have also been studies that suggest eating more healthy fats can help give our moods a boost.
Dr. Peter Pressman, MD, vice president of medical operations for The Daedalus Foundation and a former Aspire Food Group Visiting Scientist in the Horch Neuroscience Laboratory at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, said that over the last 10 years, there has been research that linked omega-3 fatty acids to health benefits for the brain which include “augmented blood flow to improved mood and lowered risk for depression.”
Swapping those foods for those with healthy fats like avocado, nuts, salmon, olive oil, or tuna is a small adjustment that can have great benefits.
According to a study by researchers in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, published in 2015 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, “The consumption of sweetened beverages, refined foods, and pastries has been shown to be associated with an increased risk of depression in longitudinal studies.” The study found that diets that include a lot of foods with a high score on the glycemic index — sweetened beverages, refined foods and pastries, for instance — could be a risk factor for depression in postmenopausal women, the group which it focused on.
Choosing whole grains and unprocessed foods like oatmeal, quinoa and fresh fruits and vegetables is another small change that can make a difference.
It’s important to consider there are diets and lifestyles which affect people in different ways. Humans are intricate creatures who have different triggers and regiments which work for us, even if they don’t work for our neighbor.
Pressman said depressions, including SAD, are a very “complex state of thoughts, behavior, and feelings into which, life events, culture, personality, socioeconomic level, medical history all play a role.”
It is also important to remember if you feel your symptoms are more than just feeling melancholy in the shorter, darker months, to seek medical attention as soon as possible.