Do you tend to feel a bit more down in the dumps during the winter? If so, you’re not alone. It’s estimated that between 14-20% of us (mostly women) experience a mild form of depression, known as “the winter blues.” (1) It’s especially common if you live in a northern latitude where the daylight hours are shorter, skies are often drearier and those winter-vortex temps limit your time outdoors. Here to talk more about winter blues and the recipe to beat it is Anne Dahany from Craving Something Healthy


A case of winter blues usually isn’t serious, but it can make you feel tired, lethargic, or gloomy. For many people, the major symptoms are sleep problems, lack of motivation, and that all-too familiar craving for carbohydrate-rich comfort foods. If your Saturday nights are consistently more about putting on your favorite pajamas and digging into a bowl of mac and cheese than getting dressed up for a night on the town – you might be a victim of the winter blues.

Blame it on the Chemical Messengers
The exact cause hasn’t been confirmed, but researchers are honing in on the effect that a lack of sunlight has on the hormones and chemicals that transmit messages in our brain.

When the daylight hours are shorter in the winter, many people experience lower levels of serotonin and higher levels of melatonin. Both play an important role in regulating circadian rhythms, also known as our internal clock. (2) When the levels of these hormones and neurotransmitters are out of balance, we’re more likely to experience anxiety and depression, feel more lethargic, and crave carbs.

Let Food Be Your Medicine
Most cases of the winter blues don’t require medical treatment and quietly disappear by springtime. In the meantime, if you’re feeling sluggish, out of sorts, and your scale or your favorite pair of jeans are noticing the effects of those extra carbs, it might interest you to learn that help is as close as the grocery store.

You’re probably aware that a healthy diet can impact your energy levels, but it also turns out there is a relationship between certain foods and your mood. The right foods can help to stabilize and balance out the hormones and neurotransmitters in your brain that contribute to your symptoms. Here’s what’s recommended:

Eat more fish! Researchers have long noticed that people who eat more fish have less depression, including seasonal depression. That’s even if they live in places where winters are long and dark. A recent research study compiled data on more than 150,000 people, and they found that those who eat more fish have less depression. (3) They’re not exactly sure why fish helps with depression, but they believe it may be because the omega-3 fats found in fish help those chemical messengers, especially serotonin to work better.

Higher fat fish like mackerel, sardines, anchovies, salmon and tuna provide the richest sources of omega-3 fats, so aim to have at least two servings of those each week. Your heart will love them just as much as your brain!

Bump up vitamin D-rich foods. Vitamin D levels are frequently lower in those who have seasonal or other depression. It may be due to less exposure to sunlight because much of our vitamin D is made when our skin is exposed to sunlight. (2) Make sure you have your vitamin D levels checked to see if you need a supplement and incorporate more vitamin D-rich foods into your diet. Fish wins in this category too, because salmon, tuna, mackerel, and sardines are some of the best sources of vitamin D, followed by fortified milk, egg yolks, and mushrooms.

Add some good bacteria. Foods that provide a dose of healthy bacteria or probiotics help to repopulate and feed your gut microbiome. That’s important because your microbiome helps to regulate so many aspects of our health, including sleep patterns, circadian rhythms, and mood. Researchers have determined that people who have a healthier and more diverse gut microbiome tend to sleep better, have better cognitive (brain) function, and less mood disorders like anxiety and depression. (4)

Add a good serving of fermented dairy like kefir or yogurt, fermented vegetables like kimchi or sauerkraut, or a shot of kombucha every day. Check the label and make sure it says “live and active cultures.”

Embrace your healthy fats. You’ve probably heard about the heart health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, but there’s also proof that it helps with brain function and depression. (5,6) Omega-3 and mono or polyunsaturated fats help to build healthier neurons and brain cells. Including more foods like – you guessed it – oily fish, especially mackerel, sardines, salmon and anchovies, as well as nuts, flax, pumpkin or sunflower seeds, avocados, olives and olive oil along with a diet that’s high in fruits and vegetables and lower in sugar has been shown to improve symptoms of depression. (5)

Choose “smart carbs”. There’s a reason most people tend to crave carbohydrate-rich foods when it’s cold and dark out. Those foods can boost up levels of serotonin, that feel-good hormone that tends to dip in the winter. (6) Unfortunately, eating refined carbs like pasta, bread and cookies tends to backfire because they wreak havoc with your blood sugar and insulin, and they pack on the pounds.

Instead, make sure every meal (and snack) includes a good serving of colorful fruits and vegetables, plus whole grains like farro, quinoa, or oats, or some legumes like lentils, chickpeas or other dried beans. These provide complex carbs which still boost serotonin levels, but because they supply long-lasting energy they won’t tip the scale or spike your blood sugar. If you want a sweet treat, choose some dark chocolate. It’s low in sugar, and it stimulates endorphins in the brain which make you feel happier. (6)

Limit what’s not good for you. Finally, although you might think that extra cup of coffee and a donut, or a trip through the drive-through is what you need to boost your energy – don’t do it! Do your best to limit fast food, sweets, sodas, and excess caffeine and alcohol. They’ve been shown to make symptoms of depression worse. (7) Hit the salad bar instead and top your salad with some olive oil and fish.

When you’re knee deep in snow and subzero temps, the winter blues can take a toll, but these good-mood foods can make a huge difference in how you feel. Work on adding as many as you can each day, and you might just be surprised at how quickly the rest of the winter flies by.

Looking for a way to get all of this onto your plate? Try this Wild Mackerel Good Mood Salad. It’s jam-packed with happiness-inducing ingredients, including a delicious kefir-herb dressing.

Fish is always at the top of the list of Foods to Beat the Winter Blues, and high-quality canned fish makes eating more fish so easy. It’s packed with protein and healthy, omega-3 fats, and of course, there’s no cooking required.

I love Wild Planet’s Wild Mackerel Fillets because it’s always wild caught, not farm-raised. It’s also a super-abundant fish that’s sustainably caught in the Atlantic – and it’s low in mercury so it’s a great choice for everyone. It tastes very much like fresh tuna, and it has a lovely texture, so you can serve the canned fillets right on top of your salad. If you’re not familiar with it, try something new today!

Wild Mackerel Good Mood Salad with Creamy Kefir Herb Dressing
Dressing (Makes about 1 ¼ cups)
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
¼ cup white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 avocado
¾ cup nonfat plain kefir
1 tablespoon each, fresh tarragon, fresh basil, fresh chives, fresh parsley
¼ cup water or as needed to thin
1/8 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
¼ teaspoon sea salt (or to taste)

Combine all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Keep in a jar or covered container for 3-4 days.

Salad (Makes 2 servings)
3 cups of mixed baby greens
1 small golden beet, peeled and sliced thin
4 medium radishes, sliced thin
2 rainbow carrots, sliced into thin rounds
1/2 cup cooked red lentils (prepared according to package directions)
1 hard-boiled egg, sliced
2 tablespoons salted, roasted sunflower seeds
1 package of Wild Planet wild mackerel, drained

Combine the greens, beet, radish and carrot slices in a mixing bowl and toss to combine. Toss with about ¼ to ½ cup of the dressing (as desired). Sprinkle with the lentils and egg slices. Portion the salad on to 2 plates. Sprinkle the sunflower seeds and top each salad with half of the wild mackerel. Serve immediately.

References:

  1. More than the winter blues? Rush University Medical Center. https://www.rush.edu/health-wellness/discover-health/more-just-winter-blues. Accessed January 30, 2019.
  2. Melrose S. Seasonal affective disorder: an overview of assessment and treatment approaches. Depression research and treatment. 2015;2015.
  3. Li F, Liu X, Zhang D. Fish consumption and risk of depression: a meta-analysis. J Epidemiol Community Health. 2016 Mar 1;70(3):299-304.
  4. Li Y, Hao Y, Zhang B, Fan F, Zhang B. The role of microbiome in insomnia, circadian disturbance and depression. Front Psychiatry. 2018;9:669.
  5. Opie RS, O’Neil A, Jacka FN, Pizzinga J, Itsiopoulos C. A modified Mediterranean dietary intervention for adults with major depression: Dietary protocol and feasibility data from the SMILES trial. Nutritional neuroscience. 2018 Aug 9;21(7):487-501.
  6. Kate PE, Deshmukh GP, Datir RP, Rao JK. Good Mood Foods. J Nutr Health Food Eng. 2017;7(4):00246.
  7. Sánchez-Villegas A, Toledo E, de Irala J, Ruiz-Canela M, Pla-Vidal J, Martínez-González MA. Fast-food and commercial baked goods consumption and the risk of depression. Public Health Nutr. 2012;15(3):424-432.

Anne Danahy
Written by Anne Danahy
Anne Danahy MS RDN is a Scottsdale, AZ-based registered dietitian nutritionist and freelance writer who specializes in women's health, wellness, and healthy aging. Anne also blogs at Craving Something Healthy, where she creates (mostly) healthy, lower glycemic recipes, and shares nutrition articles and tips to help readers eat better, age gracefully and live a more vibrant life.