Today is the shortest day in the Northern Hemisphere, resulting in the longest night. This day also marks the beginning of Yuletide celebrations, which focus on the returning of the light. Despite these celebrations, however; it won’t really feel like the light is returning for at least a month yet. Many of my friends, family, and clients notice a decline in their mental health this time of year, which has left the thought of “enduring the dark before the light returns” hanging in my mind. So here I am, writing to you with some tips for supporting your mental health during the dark Winter months, when you feel low and grey like the weather. We’ll call it “Nutrition for a Dark Night“.
Seasonal Affective Disorder
SAD is a type of depression that correlates with the seasons, most frequently occurring during the darker Winter months. In most cases of depression, you may experience mild to major symptoms, such as:
- Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
- Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Experiencing changes in appetite or weight
- Having problems with sleep
- Feeling sluggish or agitated
- Having low energy
- Feeling hopeless or worthless
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide
For winter-pattern SAD, additional specific symptoms may include:
- Oversleeping (hypersomnia)
- Overeating, particularly with a craving for carbohydrates
- Weight gain
- Social withdrawal (feeling like “hibernating”)
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, please seek advice from a medical professional. There are multiple treatments for SAD, but it is important to get a correct diagnosis before passing your symptoms off on the weather!
In Winter, we may struggle more to wake up in the black mornings, and we barely see daylight at all if working a typical 8hr day indoors. Anxiety bounces in more frequently as we try to keep up with the holiday season’s energy and expectations. Our bodies often beg to hibernate more and turn inwards.
While it’s very tempting to stay indoors more as the days darken, it’s actually incredibly beneficial to get outside as much as you can. Getting outside during daylight hours will increase your exposure to light, which is so important for supporting circadian rhythms and mental health during the dark months. The earlier you get natural light exposure during the day, the better your energy will be while awake.
It’s also important to remember that darkness also has health benefits! Less light leading up to bedtime helps us to fall asleep (mind those bright screens though!), while the darker the night, the easier it is to stay asleep. Longer periods of darkness also make a great opportunity to catch up on some zzz’s after playing hard all summer.
The darkness and cold of Winter also makes it the perfect season for introspection and reflection. If you’ve been really busy this past year, take this moment to slow down, catch your breath, and restore your energy for the next project or stage of your life. Make sure you are still on the path you want to be on. Taking time to take care of YOU is crucial to your well-being – why not take advantage of a slower season to recalibrate?
Nutrition for a Dark Night
When we think of foods for the Winter months, we start with what is traditionally available after an Autumn Harvest:
- Potatoes / Sweet Potatoes
- Carrots / Parsnips
- Turnips / Rutabagas
- Nuts / Seeds
- Iron-rich Meats
- Hardy Greens (kale, etc.)
- Garlic / Onions
To balance the external cold, it’s helpful to add warming herbs and spices to food and drink, which also help us digest these heavier, starchier foods:
- Cinnamon / Nutmeg / Clove / Cardamom
- Ginger / Turmeric
- Cumin / Coriander / Mustard
- Thyme / Oregano / Rosemary / Basil / Sage
Then, start layering in these helpful nutrients to support mental health:
- Magnesium – cocoa/chocolate, nuts, seeds, leafy greens, avocado
- Omega 3 – fish/fish oil, ground flax seeds
- B Vitamins – organ meats, fish, egg yolks, leafy greens
- Antioxidants – all colourful produce!
- Vitamin D3 – exposing skin to UV light, mushrooms, organ meats
- Vitamin C – citrus, broccoli, leafy greens, apples
* Getting regular check ups and lab work is the best (and easiest) way to catch or rule out nutrient deficiencies or other conditions that may be contributing to mental health issues. Even mild iron or B12 deficiencies, thyroid problems, or blood sugar imbalances can contribute.
Herbal Teas to Brighten Your Mood + Soothe Anxiety
- Tulsi (Holy Basil)
- Lemon Balm
- Chamomile + Lavender
- Rose Petal
- Hawthorn + Motherwort
- Golden Milk with Turmeric + Ginger
* Ask your Naturopathic Doctor or Herbalist for advice on higher-strength herb usage (such as tinctures of St. John’s Wort, Siberian Ginseng, Kava, Skullcap, etc).
There are many more nutrients and lifestyle tips to manage throughout the Winter – this is certainly not an exhaustive list! If you are feeling really in a slump, seek help from your doctors, find a counsellor or therapist, ask a nutritionist for further support, and get regular hands-on bodywork (to naturally increase serotonin and endorphins) such as massage, craniosacral, acupuncture, etc (hugs are good too!). Find the modalities that work for you, and utilize them consistently.
Most of all, remember that there is ALWAYS light at the end of the tunnel! The days ARE getting longer and brighter, the sun is returning after his much needed nap, and the earth will grow forth again. If there was no darkness, how would we know to appreciate the light?
I hope “Nutrition for a Dark Night” helps you a little this season. Wishing you all a Happy New Year!