Vitamin D & seasonal depression: foods that can cure the 'winter blues'

Amelia Thorpe sheds light on the effects of SAD and how high vitamin D foods can help those darker days

Amelia Neri
14th October 2020
Image: Pixabay

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is form of depression which is experienced when there are large changes in the weather and number of daylight hours. SAD is also known as “winter depression” or the “winter blues” because symptoms are usually more apparent and severe in the winter. The mental health disorder affects roughly 10% of the population of Northern Europe, with 20% of sufferers experiencing more severe symptoms.

Although it is common for dull weather and little daylight to dampen your mood, winter weather affects SAD sufferers so much that it can trigger depressive episodes that may result in feelings of hopelessness, guilt, despair, and even thoughts of suicide. Other symptoms of SAD include: sleep problems (oversleeping but not feeling rested), lethargy (being so tired that everything becomes chore), craving carbohydrates (leading to weight gain), anxiety, persistent low mood, social withdrawal, and physical problems (such as joint pain, indigestion, and lowered immunity to infection). These symptoms tend to start around September and can last until April, but are at their worst in the darkest months.

Image: Unsplash

The exact causes of SAD are unclear. However, research shows that lack of bright light in winter has a huge effect on people’s mood and behaviour. One reason this might cause symptoms of SAD is because prolonged lack of bright light causes a biochemical imbalance in the brain; when light hits the backs of our eyes, messages are sent to our brain which control sleep, appetite, sex drive, temperature, mood and activity. When levels of light are low, these functions may slow down.  Therefore, one way of relieving the symptoms of SAD is through bright light therapy by setting a bright light box up in your room.

Another way shorter daylight hours in the winter can cause SAD is due to fact the UV rays from the sun allow us to absorb vitamin D through our skin. Low blood status of vitamin D levels in winter is linked with poor immunity, depression and anxiety. Although getting the right amount of vitamin D from England’s winter sun is near impossible, there are other ways we can consume enough vitamin D, such as through food and supplements or even by taking a trip abroad during this time.

Eating food is the healthiest and most naturally affordable way of consuming enough vitamin D. Here is a menu of vitamin D packed foods to add to your diet, especially over the winter months:

Image: Pixabay
  • Oily fish – such as salmon, sardines, herring and mackerel
  • Red meat – especially liver
  • Egg yolks
  • Mushrooms
  • Some (fortified) dairy products
  • Certain vegetables - such as broccoli and carrots
  • Fortified foods – such as some fat spreads, breakfast cereals, and non-dairy milk alternatives

So when it comes to satisfying hunger, trade in empty calories for something more hearty and nutritious. Full English fans are in luck as a traditional homemade fry-up (mushrooms, beans, bacon, black pudding and all) is rich in vitamin D. For veggies, a mushroom risotto or a smashed avocado and poached egg on toast will do the trick. Click the link below for some winter meal inspiration (all super healthy and high in vitamin D).

There is a common misconception that cow’s milk (and other dairy products) is high in vitamin D and most of us are told to drink it from a young age to help strengthen and grow our bones. However, (in the UK at least) cows' milk is not a good source of vitamin D because it is not fortified, deeming it useless in providing us with the vitamin D we need during winter to combat SAD.

The government now advise that everyone take vitamin D supplements during autumn and winter, especially over lock-down, when our exposure to sunlight is at an all-time minimum. Although they are not as effective as consuming vitamin D through our diet, receiving enough vitamin D through diet alone is not always enough.

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