Laura Dean Bennett\r\nStaff Writer\r\n\r\nAs we shiver in the icy grip of winter weather in a gray snow globe with precious little sunshine, many people tend to experience a little seasonal depression.\r\n\r\nAbout 20 percentage of us are affected by seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is believed to be the result of fewer hours of daylight which results in more hours of darkness at this time of year.\r\n\r\nThe reduced hours of light between late fall and spring has an effect on the chemicals in our brain.\u00a0\r\n\r\nDoctors can advise about light therapy, exercise and prescription medications to help alleviate the symptoms of SAD.\r\n\r\nThey can also recommend foods to eat to help us fight the \u201cwinter blues.\u201d\r\n\r\nOne thing we should be eating this time of year is fish, rich in EPA and DHA, omega-3 fatty acids, which are known to\u00a0improve symptoms associated with depression.\u00a0\r\n\r\nOne recent study indicated that EPA supplements had an equivalent effect to taking an antidepressant medication.\u00a0\r\n\r\nAlthough there\u2019s not enough known yet to use them as treatment for depression exclusively, the positive effects that EPA and DHA may have on brain health and mood \u2013 not to mention their benefits for heart health \u2013 means that we should be eating fish at least twice a week, especially this time of year.\u00a0\r\n\r\nChoose higher-fat, cold-water fish like salmon, tuna (for the most omega 3s, choose fresh or frozen, not canned), sardines, mackerel, anchovies and trout.\u00a0\r\n\r\nFish oil supplements are also a good way to get both vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids.\r\n\r\nFlax seed, canola oil and walnuts also contain an omega-3 fatty acid called ALA, a small percentage of which can be converted to DHA and EPA, so these are also good to add to our winter diet.\r\n\r\nAnother source of omega -3s are nuts \u2013 cashews, brazil nuts, hazelnuts and especially walnuts.\r\n\r\nWalnuts are known to support overall brain health, being one of the highest plant-based sources of omega-3 and a great source of protein to help keep blood sugar levels in a healthy balance.\r\n\r\nSo keep some walnuts around for a quick snack throughout these cold months.\r\n\r\nVitamin D, which we get from several sources, but primarily through sunlight, plays a vital role in brain health.\u00a0\r\n\r\nAnd this time of year, the vitamin D we get from sunlight is in short supply.\r\n\r\nIt\u2019s been known for some time that low levels of vitamin D have been associated with depression.\u00a0\r\n\r\nThe jury is still out as to whether a lack of vitamin D is a cause of depression, or if depression causes vitamin D levels to drop, but some studies do suggest that consuming vitamin D may help to prevent and or treat depression.\u00a0\r\n\r\nThe fact is that vitamin D plays a significant role in brain health, so we should try to get as much vitamin D in our diet as possible.\r\n\r\nThe best way to do that is to make friends with fortified dairy products and cereals, milk, egg yolks, mushrooms and canned light tuna. Yep, for vitamin D, you want to eat canned tuna, and ricotta cheese and beef liver.\r\n\r\nNearly everyone loves French fries, but whether you\u2019re trying to reduce the size of your waistline or increase your good mood, it\u2019s a good idea to avoid fried and processed food.\r\n\r\nNutrient-dense, whole foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, fish, and some meat may reduce your odds of developing SAD.\u00a0\r\n\r\nFried and processed foods have been identified as increasing low-grade inflammation throughout our bodies, and inflammation appears to play a role in the development of chronic diseases and brain-related ailments such as dementia and Alzheimer\u2019s disease.\u00a0\r\n\r\nAnd healthier, less processed foods act as anti-inflammatory agents in the body, so it\u2019s best to choose foods still in or close to their natural state. \r\n\r\nWhile not always a fool proof system, when you\u2019re reading food labels, finding foods with an ingredients list with five or fewer items is often a good place to start.\r\n\r\nDark chocolate has gotten some good press in recent years \u2013 and for good reason.\r\n\r\nStudies have shown that eating chocolate improves mood and decreases stress.\u00a0\r\n\r\nFlavonoids in the cocoa plant increase blood flow in the brain, as well as having a protective and anti-inflammatory effect on neurons in the brain.\u00a0\r\n\r\nScientists also think that the simple pleasure of eating chocolate boosts one\u2019s mood.\u00a0\r\n\r\nFinding pleasure in a piece of chocolate stimulates areas of the brain that play a role in treating depression.\r\n\r\nChoose darker chocolate. It has less added sugar than milk chocolate, but you still need to hold your consumption to about one ounce per day.\r\n\r\nAnd don\u2019t forget to pay attention to your gut instincts.\r\n\r\nWho knew how interdependent our brain health is on our healthy gut bacteria?\u00a0\r\n\r\nCommunication between our intestines and our brains takes place via the nervous system.\r\n\r\nThis partnership plays a vital role in disease development and has become the focus of recent research on the gut\u2019s relationship to depression and anxiety.\u00a0\r\n\r\nEarly studies suggest that maintaining \u201cgood\u201d gut bacteria may actually have a positive effect on our moods, and help reduce anxiety.\r\n\r\nAdding fermented foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, pickles, pickled vegetables, kimchi, kombucha, and foods with active live cultures to your diet will help keep good gut bacteria alive and thriving.\r\n\r\nIt\u2019s quite normal to reach for sweet or starchy foods when we\u2019re sad or stressed.\r\n\r\nAnd there\u2019s a reason for that.\r\n\r\nThe digestion of carbohydrates stimulates the production of serotonin \u2013 that\u2019s the neurotransmitter that regulates mood. Increased serotonin production is the focus of many antidepressant drugs.\u00a0\r\n\r\nWhile all carbohydrates trigger serotonin production, a diet focused on lower-glycemic foods, such as whole grains, vegetables and beans, are associated with lower rates of depression.\u00a0\r\n\r\nBottom line? Choose vegetables, rather than sweets and simple carbohydrates, whenever you can.\u00a0\r\n\r\nSweet potatoes, whole grains, beans, fruit, and low-fat dairy are better sources of carbohydrates and will help you maintain an elevated mood.\r\n\r\nAnd think about zinc.\r\n\r\nZinc is involved in more than 300 different processes in the human body, including those which affect brain health.\u00a0\r\n\r\nStudies show an inverse relationship between zinc levels in the body and depression \u2013 meaning people with lower zinc levels are more likely to be more depressed.\u00a0\u00a0\r\n\r\nThis means that there\u2019s a good reason why we start craving oysters around the holidays and throughout the winter months. It\u2019s nature\u2019s way of helping us boost our zinc levels.\r\n\r\nEat a few zinc-rich foods several times a week, especially in the winter; foods like oysters and other shellfish, lean beef, yogurt, whole grains and beans.\r\n\r\nArmed with all this nutritional knowledge I just know we\u2019ll be making smart food choices this winter, which will not only keep us healthier, but also in better spirits.