Laura Dean Bennett
Staff Writer

As 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.

About 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.

The reduced hours of light between late fall and spring has an effect on the chemicals in our brain. 

Doctors can advise about light therapy, exercise and prescription medications to help alleviate the symptoms of SAD.

They can also recommend foods to eat to help us fight the “winter blues.”

One thing we should be eating this time of year is fish, rich in EPA and DHA, omega-3 fatty acids, which are known to improve symptoms associated with depression. 

One recent study indicated that EPA supplements had an equivalent effect to taking an antidepressant medication. 

Although there’s 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 – not to mention their benefits for heart health – means that we should be eating fish at least twice a week, especially this time of year. 

Choose higher-fat, cold-water fish like salmon, tuna (for the most omega 3s, choose fresh or frozen, not canned), sardines, mackerel, anchovies and trout. 

Fish oil supplements are also a good way to get both vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids.

Flax 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.

Another source of omega -3s are nuts – cashews, brazil nuts, hazelnuts and especially walnuts.

Walnuts 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.

So keep some walnuts around for a quick snack throughout these cold months.

Vitamin D, which we get from several sources, but primarily through sunlight, plays a vital role in brain health. 

And this time of year, the vitamin D we get from sunlight is in short supply.

It’s been known for some time that low levels of vitamin D have been associated with depression. 

The 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. 

The 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.

The 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.

Nearly everyone loves French fries, but whether you’re trying to reduce the size of your waistline or increase your good mood, it’s a good idea to avoid fried and processed food.

Nutrient-dense, whole foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, fish, and some meat may reduce your odds of developing SAD. 

Fried 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’s disease. 

And healthier, less processed foods act as anti-inflammatory agents in the body, so it’s best to choose foods still in or close to their natural state.

While not always a fool proof system, when you’re reading food labels, finding foods with an ingredients list with five or fewer items is often a good place to start.

Dark chocolate has gotten some good press in recent years – and for good reason.

Studies have shown that eating chocolate improves mood and decreases stress. 

Flavonoids 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. 

Scientists also think that the simple pleasure of eating chocolate boosts one’s mood. 

Finding pleasure in a piece of chocolate stimulates areas of the brain that play a role in treating depression.

Choose darker chocolate. It has less added sugar than milk chocolate, but you still need to hold your consumption to about one ounce per day.

And don’t forget to pay attention to your gut instincts.

Who knew how interdependent our brain health is on our healthy gut bacteria? 

Communication between our intestines and our brains takes place via the nervous system.

This partnership plays a vital role in disease development and has become the focus of recent research on the gut’s relationship to depression and anxiety. 

Early studies suggest that maintaining “good” gut bacteria may actually have a positive effect on our moods, and help reduce anxiety.

Adding 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.

It’s quite normal to reach for sweet or starchy foods when we’re sad or stressed.

And there’s a reason for that.

The digestion of carbohydrates stimulates the production of serotonin – that’s the neurotransmitter that regulates mood. Increased serotonin production is the focus of many antidepressant drugs. 

While 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. 

Bottom line? Choose vegetables, rather than sweets and simple carbohydrates, whenever you can. 

Sweet potatoes, whole grains, beans, fruit, and low-fat dairy are better sources of carbohydrates and will help you maintain an elevated mood.

And think about zinc.

Zinc is involved in more than 300 different processes in the human body, including those which affect brain health. 

Studies show an inverse relationship between zinc levels in the body and depression – meaning people with lower zinc levels are more likely to be more depressed.  

This means that there’s a good reason why we start craving oysters around the holidays and throughout the winter months. It’s nature’s way of helping us boost our zinc levels.

Eat 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.

Armed with all this nutritional knowledge I just know we’ll be making smart food choices this winter, which will not only keep us healthier, but also in better spirits.