You probably feel a little bit down once the sun starts setting at 4pm, especially if you live somewhere prone to wintery weather. You’re not alone! Everyone gets the winter blues, and according to the National Institute of Mental Health, millions of people have seasonal affective disorder (SAD) with symptoms that include depression, sluggishness and changes in appetite.
While there’s no cure for the winter blues or SAD, there are things you can do to help mitigate them (and you should definitely see a doctor if you’re concerned about your symptoms). Begin by getting some sunshine and exercise, even if it’s just a little bit each day.
“Sunlight, of course, is important and any type of movement, whether that’s walking or stretching or yoga poses,” said Laura Lagano, a clinical integrative nutritionist.
What you eat – and don’t eat – also helps combat the winter blues. Here are some foods to eat and others to avoid in the cold days ahead.
Salmon and yellowfin tuna
During the darkness of winter, your body has trouble producing vitamin D. These fish are very rich in vitamin D, said registered dietician Kelly Jones.
“They are great to include in your diet a couple of times a week in three- to four-ounce portions to get adequate amounts so that we’re meeting our needs, especially when we don’t have that added sun exposure,” she told HuffPost.
Lagano suggested taking vitamin D supplements as another option.
Fish like salmon and yellowfin tuna also provide omega-3 fatty acids, which help to fight inflammation. “We’re finding that inflammation is not just something that affects the heart, but also the brain. So any brain inflammation is going to interfere with production of hormones that help you feel better. And especially, again, in the winter months, when people are more prone to feeling a little bit down, prioritizing the omega-3 can be extra helpful,” Jones said.
Colourful fruits and veggies
It can be an effort to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables in the winter, but it’s important in order to get a range of antioxidants and vitamin C.
“If you’re only eating apples and bananas for your fruit every day, and you’re eating leafy greens and focusing on all your green veggies but you’re missing out on red or orange or purple, then you’re only getting certain antioxidants,” Jones explained. “So the more different colours you get, the more antioxidants you have that can work together to lower inflammation.”
Don’t worry about buying out-of-season fresh fruits and vegetables. Frozen and canned produce is perfectly acceptable, Jones said.
“I recommend getting frozen berry blends, different frozen vegetable blends. Obviously, the greens are great, but maybe you’re getting peas and carrots too, to have a little bit more variety there,” she said. If you get canned fruit, make sure it doesn’t have added sugar.
Legumes, nuts and seeds
By now we’ve all likely heard of probiotics, microorganisms that can support gut health. But we also need prebiotics, which “feed” the bacteria in our lower digestive tracts, Jones said.
You can find prebiotics in most whole plant foods, but legumes, nuts and seeds are especially good sources and they also serve as a protein option.
“If our gut is not happy, then it’s very likely that people are going to deal with more stress and anxiety mentally. So it’s important to regularly eat those whole plant foods that support the bacteria so that your brain can feel better too,” Jones advised.
According to Lagano, increasing zinc intake is a must in the winter. It’s believed to help maintain the immune system while metabolising nutrients and keeping up energy levels.
One of the best sources of zinc is shellfish ― think shrimp, crab, lobster, mussels and oysters. They’re also relatively low in calories and high in protein. If shellfish isn’t your thing, ramp up the chickpeas and lentils.
Dark chocolate is another great source of zinc, Lagano said. “I’m not talking milk chocolate. I’m talking 85% cacao,” she added.
Iceberg lettuce is tasty – who doesn’t love a wedge salad? – but it might not give you the immune-boosting benefits you need. When it comes to greens, try to go for the dark, bitter ones.
“The more bitter the green, the better it’s going to be. Arugula, radicchio and dandelion ― those are going to be some of the top ones,” Lagano said.
What to scale back on
Jones doesn’t like to tell people to cut out certain foods completely because it can lead to bingeing later, but something to scale back on is greasy, fatty food. As much as those cold, blustery winds push us toward the drive-thru window, the fats found in French fries can increase inflammation and make us feel worse, physically and mentally. Similarly, it’s best to reduce refined sugars.
It’s also a good idea to cut back on alcohol, if not avoid it altogether, since it’s a central nervous system depressant.
“No matter what study you may have seen that shows that moderate intake [of alcohol] may improve this or that, for the vast majority of people, even moderate intake can affect things like blood pressure and absolutely can affect your mood,” Jones said.