Updated 28 September 2015

Ways to beat winter depression

Many people find winter, with its cold weather and long, dark nights, depressing.


Winter is upon us and the mercury is plummeting all over South Africa. In less than two weeks, we will face the shortest day and the longest night of the year. Many people tend to find winter, with its cold weather and long, dark nights depressing. In countries where it really gets cold for months on end and some areas have less than four hours of daylight per day, the suicide rate soars.

While South Africans are lucky in that most of us at least get to see the sun during winter days, depression in winter is a problem for many.

Diet tips to combat depression

a) The Balanced Diet
Research has indicated that diet can play an important role in alleviating depression. The most basic principle in preventing depression and mood swings, is to eat a balanced diet that contains foods from all the different food groups - fruit and vegetables, unprocessed grains and cereals, lean meat, fish, eggs, milk and dairy products, legumes and nuts, poly- or monounsaturated margarine and oils.

If you are eating an unbalanced diet, or one that concentrates too much on only one or two of the food groups, then you can expect this to have a negative effect not only on physical, but also on mental health. If you are on a low-carbohydrate diet then the chances are good that you are not getting enough B vitamins. The vitamins that make up the B complex influence practically every metabolic process in the human body and there are indications that a B complex deficiency can exacerbate depression.

Researchers have, for example, found that elderly people who eat only refined starches (for a variety of reasons, such as difficulty with chewing), develop vitamin B deficiencies and are prone to depression. When elderly subjects were given vitamin B supplements, their mental performance improved and they were less likely to suffer from depression.

So take a good look at your dietary intake this winter and if you are missing out on any one of the food groups, then make a plan to include those foods in your diet again as a first step in combating depression.

b) Essential fatty acids
I have repeatedly written about the importance of eating foods that are rich in essential fatty acids, especially omega-3. Researchers have also found that people who have an omega-3 deficiency are more prone to depression than those who consumed adequate quantities (usually in the form of fish). Just to remind you which foods are rich in omega-3, here is that list again:

  • all types of fish and seafood, but particularly fatty fish such as salmon, and snoek
  • fish oils (tuna, cod liver and salmon oils)
  • plant oils (flaxseed, canola, walnut, soya oils)
  • foods fortified with omega-3 (eggs, milk and bread - check in your supermarket)
  • Salmon oil supplements

c) Cut out stimulants
Certain stimulants such as caffeine give you a quick lift, but in the long run they can harm your nervous system. So while most people can have their three or four cups of coffee a day, if you suffer from depression it may be a good idea to cut out coffee, caffeine-containing beverages (colas and those new energy drinks that are spiked with caffeine) and slimming products that contain caffeine to give you a quick fix (check on the labels). Drink rooibos tea or other herb teas such as camomile or rose hip or peppermint, to escape from the caffeine trap.

Exercise to beat the winter blues
The moment winter arrives, many people who are relatively active during the summer months, suddenly stop all their activity and huddle indoors all day. This is a surefire way of getting depressed. When we exercise we make chemicals called endorphins in our bodies that boost our moods and combat depression.

Yes, it is colder and darker, but if you do some planning and make a concerted effort, then you can still exercise during winter. Wrap up warmly using layers of clothing and go for a brisk walk in the bracing air. As you warm up, and it does not take long to start feeling warm and energetic with all that blood circulating through your body and brain, shed the outer layers of clothes. Just remember to wrap up again when you have completed your exercise to prevent catching a chill.

Another solution is to find a gym that allows you to exercise indoors or you can try doing simple exercises at home like skipping, or doing a workout using an exercise video.

If you combine a balanced diet with regular exercise throughout the year, you will beat those winter blues. Often the solutions to good health and mental wellness are so simple, that we tend to overlook them, but you can prevent depression this winter if you make a few changes to your diet and increase your level of physical activity.

If you have any diet queries, post a question or message on The Message Board. I am here to assist you with your Diet and Food Choices, so let’s interact.

-(Dr. I.V. van Heerden, registered dietician)


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Depression expert

Michael Simpson has been a senior psychiatric academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries, having worked at London University in the UK; McMaster University in Canada; Temple University in Philadelphia, USA.; and the University of Natal in South Africa.

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