For many people, crisp air, colorful leaves, pumpkins and flannels can’t get here fast enough. It’s the gateway into the holiday season and the time of year when diets go out the window and indulgence is king. But for others, the shorter days bring shadows, cloudy skies and mood swings gearing up for inevitable bouts of depression also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Seasonal Affective Disorder can be debilitating and is described by the National Institute of Mental Health as a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons. Usually starting in the late fall and early winter and typically going away in the spring and summer (although SAD has been reported during the spring and summer months as well). It’s important to note that SAD is not separate disorder. It is in fact a form of depression, but in order to be diagnosed with this condition, full criteria for major depression that coincides with the seasons for at least two years must be met. Symptoms of Winter Pattern SAD include: low energy, overeating, weight gain, craving for carbohydrates, and social withdraw. Interestingly, women are four times more likely to be diagnosed than men.
However, one does not need to be diagnosed with depression or SAD to feel moody, down, unmotivated, and/or irritable in the fall and winter months and there are many mindful interventions that someone could incorporate into their daily lifestyle to boost their mood. My favorite being the simple, but powerful practice of cooking with seasonal foods.
Let’s dig into this a bit.
Personally, once cooler weather rolls around I have a hard time eating a salad when just a month earlier my body would crave it. My body shifts into grounding mode where squashes, apples, and potatoes literally take up every square inch of my kitchen counters. I can’t wait to make soups and stews and roasted veggies and herbal teas. But there’s a reason for this. Eating locally grown, seasonal foods will help you live in harmony with yourself, your body and the earth. As the colder months, and shorter days, approach we want to look for ways to ground our bodies, to make them more sturdy and like the animals, feel like we are insulating ourselves. We won’t get that from salads, summer foods, cooling fruits or light leafy greens. We need to intentionally seek out what’s in season where we live (which can sometimes be a challenge when shopping in a grocery store!).
Here is a rough guide for what’s in season in the fall months where I live in Pennsylvania:
- Squash (acorn, butternut, delicata, hubbard, kabocha, etc.)
- Brussels sprouts
- Sweet potatoes
- Swiss chard
- Fresh herbs
- Animal products
Now for a moment, I want you to observe and notice where many of the food items on that list grow. For example all the squashes and pumpkin, etc., grow pretty much level with the ground. Root vegetables, grow into the ground and absorb the nutrients from the soil. These vegetables, when eaten, give us a certain energy and can impact our food-mood connection. Squash and gourds help to balance mood and energy and root vegetables are great for grounding us when we feel overstimulated or anxious.
On a side note, eating a little protein at each meal will help to stabilize blood sugar, which will ultimately help you balance out mood swings and fatigue. Whole foods and protein also build up the molecules needed for your body to create brain chemicals called neurotransmitters, which affect how we think and feel.
If eaten daily, the fall foods listed above could help to improve your mood over the coming months whether you’ve been diagnosed with depression or SAD or not, simply because you’d be supporting your mood with “brain nutrients” needed for proper production of those neurotransmitters mentioned earlier. Without adequate levels of these brain chemicals, dips in mood and energy will most likely appear.
Eating whole seasonal foods = healthy brain chemicals = enhanced mood and energy levels
Each person’s food-mood sensitivity varies so I encourage you to find what works for you. Think about the correlation between what you eat and how you feel and then determine what works best for you. Your first step can be to take this list of seasonal foods with you next time you go shopping and start incorporating them consistently into your meals!