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Healthy Eating for Winter Blues Using Integrative Nutrition

by Shelly Stinson

Although some people relish in the idea of seasons changing and winds getting colder as they look forward to all that this particular time of year has to offer, not everyone has the same positive reaction to the prospect of chillier, shorter days. In fact, for a large number of people (maybe even you?), just the idea of winter setting in is enough to give them a case of the winter blues.

Unfortunately, the winter blues, sometimes called seasonal affective disorder (SAD), is a rather common occurrence as this condition is thought to affect an estimated 10 million Americans (even more on a milder level) annually. And while most health experts agree that feeling down when winter rolls in is largely due to the decreased levels of sunlight, it has been found that inflammation within the body may just play a role in depressive thoughts as well. 

The Link Between Inflammation and Depression

In one particular study, published in JAMA Psychiatry, researchers looked at inflammatory markers within the body to see if there was a relationship between their levels and feelings of depression. What they discovered was that the higher the levels of a certain marker (specifically, interleukin 6) in younger years, the more likely the participants were to be depressed later in life. 

Another study found similar results. In this case, almost 1,000 people with cardiovascular disease were studied and the ones who had previously "encountered major stressors, like surviving a natural disaster or serious car accident, had increased rates of inflammation...later in life."

This isn’t a new thought, really, as many health experts believe that our mind and body aren’t two separate entities, meaning that what affects one ultimately affects the other. How?

The Body-Mind Connection

The Institute for Integrative Nutrition explains that “we are holistic beings” in which our mental and physical health aren’t independent of each other. In other words, the condition of our internal body can greatly affect how we perceive the world around us. Perhaps one of the simplest ways to explain it is how when you don’t feel well, you may notice that your attitude is more negative. On the contrary, when you feel good physically, then you may notice that you feel happier and enjoy life more.

So, if there is inflammation, as suggested by the study, or some type of malnourishment or deficiency somewhere within us, then it may very well increase the likelihood that we’ll feel depressed and sad. This means stronger and more powerful winter blues, making us feel that much worse.

While this may sound really bad, it is actually good news because this means that you have a greater ability to largely control your mind’s reaction to the changing seasons simply by altering the foods you choose to put into your body. It’s a concept called integrative nutrition and it might just be your path to reducing the winter blues.

Integrative Nutrition to Lessen Winter Blues

By eating healthier, anti-inflammatory foods, you could find that your SAD either lessens or, best case scenario, leaves you entirely. The first step to using nutrition to your advantage is to reduce the amount of processed foods in your diet as you concentrate mainly on eating foods in their most natural forms. Some that Dr. Andrew Weil recommends in his anti-inflammatory diet include:

  • Salmon, sardines, herring, black cod, etc
  • Avocados
  • Nuts, such as walnuts, cashews, and almonds
  • Hemp seeds and flaxseed
  • Beans
  • Winter squash
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Brown rice
  • Bulgar wheat
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Flaxseed
  • Tea
  • Phytonutrient-rich foods, such as broccoli, mushrooms, dark leafy greens, and more
  • Even plain dark chocolate can be beneficial in moderation!
  • Drink lots of water and read Dr. Weil's recommendation for daily supplements linked above; be sure you have a very high-quality source of supplementation (cheap vitamins from the store aren't gonna do anything but waste your money, and potentially poison you)

If these are foods you don’t typically eat, aim to add just one or two a week to slowly get used to their different tastes and textures. For instance, maybe you’ll want to have salmon on a bed of leafy greens for lunch one day this week and next week you can swap your white potato side for a sweet potato instead. You don’t have to overhaul your entire diet in one day in order to start to receive the inflammation-reducing results.

Dr. Weil also recommends consuming as much organic food as you can afford to budget for and eating carbohydrates, protein, and fat at every meal, and aiming for at least 40 grams of fiber a day. This is where your fruits and vegetables prove to be beneficial because they are loaded with fiber, as well as many invaluable vitamins and minerals.

Put simply, good food going into your body means good emotions coming out. It really doesn’t get any easier than that.

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