Illustration: Joël Penkman

Need a natural mood boost this winter? Try turning to some of these foods.

Carolyn Land Williams, PhD, RDN
November 03, 2017

The time change means shorter days, cooler weather, and, for some, seasonal depression. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is thought to be from changes in brain chemicals triggered by less light and more darkness, and is a real issue affecting around 20 percent of people usually in late fall and ending in spring. Light therapy and exercise, as well as prescription medication, are all used to combat SAD, and some diet choices may have subtle effects on depression and mood as well. While not a replacement for other therapies, these seven diet suggestions may give you a little mood boost during the winter.

Fatty Fish

Greg DuPree

DHA and EPA are two omega-3 fatty acids found almost exclusively in fish, and recent research suggests that increasing intake of those two fatty acids can improve symptoms associated with depression. In fact, one study even suggested that EPA supplements had an equivalent effect to taking an antidepressant medication. While there’s not enough known yet to use them treatment for depression exclusively, the positive effects that EPA and DHA may have on brain health and mood– not to mention heart health–is enough reason to fit fish into your meal rotation at least twice a week if you aren’t already.

What to Eat: Higher-fat, cold-water fish like salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel, and anchovies. Some plant-based foods like flaxseed, canola oil, and walnuts contain the omega-3 known as ALA–the liver can convert some ALA to DHA and EPA, but only a small percentage.

Vitamin D-rich Foods

Illustration: Joël Penkman

Unique from other vitamins in that it acts as a hormone in the body, Vitamin D plays a role in brain health and neuron functioning, and low levels of vitamin D have been associated with individuals who suffer from depression. The jury is still out as to whether a lack of vitamin D plays a role in helping to cause depression–or if depression causes levels to drop–but there are research studies suggesting that consuming vitamin D may help to prevent depression, as well as ones suggesting it as a treatment. The fact that most individuals get less than the RDA also suggests that it wouldn’t hurt to focus more on vitamin D intake, particularly in the winter when there's only a few hours of sunlight.

What to Eat: Fatty fish like salmon, tuna, sardines, and trout, fortified dairy products, and eggs. Fish oil supplements are also a good way to get both vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids.

Less Processed Foods

Victor Protasio

French fries may sound good, but eating fried and processed foods, as well as foods made with refined grains and added sugars, may not only hurt your waistline but also your mood. Several studies suggest that higher intakes of nutrient-dense, whole foods like whole grains, fruit, vegetables, fish, and some meat may reduce odds of developing depression. One possible reason behind this is inflammation, something that appears to play a role in most brain-related ailments like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Those French fries and less healthy foods trigger low-grade inflammation within the body contributing to the development of many chronic diseases, while healthier, less processed foods act as anti-inflammatories in the body.

What to Eat: Focus on choosing still in or close to their natural state like vegetables, beans, whole grains, unsaturated oils, nuts, and fish, as well as minimally processed versions like nut butters, canned beans, and frozen unsweetened berries. While not always the best indicator, looking for ingredients list with five or fewer items is often a good place to start.

Dark Chocolate

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Here’s validation for anyone who tends to reach for chocolate when down: eating chocolate improves mood and decreases stress. And, the effect is thought to be a combination of science and psychology. Flavonoids in the cocoa plant appear to be responsible for increasing blood flow in the brain, as well as having a protective and anti-inflammatory effect on neurons. These mechanisms may offer physiologic benefits, but researchers also think that the simple pleasure of eating chocolate boosts mood. Finding pleasure in a piece of chocolate stimulates areas of the brain that play a role in depression treatment.

What to Eat: Choosing darker chocolate with less added sugar is the best choice; limit to around 1-ounce per day or a few times per week, and remember to account for those extra calories.

Probiotics

Jennifer Causey

The gut-brain axis is communication between intestines and the brain via the nervous system, and its role in disease development and progression has become the focus of recent research–including the gut’s relationship to depression and anxiety. There’s a lot to still be discovered, but a few studies have suggested that repopulating your good gut bacteria may actually be associated with improvements in depression and anxiety.

What to Eat: Yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh, kombucha, and other fermented foods and foods with active live cultures.

Lower-Glycemic Carbs

Caitlin Bensel

If sugary or starchy foods are what you reach for when sad or stressed, there’s a reason. The digestion of carbohydrates stimulates the production of serotonin, the neurotransmitter that regulates mood and is the target of many antidepressant drugs. While all carbohydrates trigger serotonin, consumption of lower-glycemic foods, or ones that don’t create spikes in blood sugar (high-fiber complex carbs like whole grains, vegetables, beans), are associated with lower rates of depression. And another study found that women who had high intakes of higher-glycemic foods, such as refined grains and added sugars, had a greater likelihood of developing depression.

What to Eat: Choose vegetables, including some starchy ones like sweet potatoes, whole grains, beans, fruit, and low-fat dairy for the carbohydrate source at meals and snacks.

Zinc-Rich Foods

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Zinc is involved on over 300 different processes in the human body, so it makes sense that zinc affects brain health in some form. An inverse relationship between zinc levels in the body and depression have been documented–meaning individuals with lower zinc levels are more likely to score higher on depression assessment tests–and there’s ongoing research looking at the role zinc may play in psychiatric disorders. The effect of increased zinc intake on depressive symptoms isn’t exact, but it likely doesn’t hurt to get a few zinc-rich foods in each week.

What to Eat: Oysters and other shellfish, lean beef, yogurt, whole grains, and beans.