Feeding the Winter Blues

December 2, 2009

Photo Courtesy of KellyB. on Flickr


It’s the holiday season, the most magical time of year. But also the most stressful and depressing for many people. I have noticed the increase in advertisements for depression medications recently, and in particular those targeted specifically at S.A.D. (Seasonal Affective Disorder), a diagnosis for those who feel down only during the winter months. I am concerned with the increasing rates at which people are being treated with mind altering drugs just because they feel a little down. A few years back I was “diagnosed” with depression. I use the quotes because the conversation with my doctor lasted all of 30 seconds. His response to my sadness, crying and insomnia was simply “You are depressed. Therapy can take years. Just take this.” And, with that, I walked out of the office with a prescription that promised to cure all of my woes, with little explanation as to what impact it may have on me or what it would be like to withdraw down the line (it was NOT pleasant). The truth is I was not clinically depressed. I had a poor diet, a lot of stress, and was hanging on to a bad relationship. While I didn’t change my diet initially to cure my depression, it certainly did improve my mood and will have a more positive long term impact on my overall health than medication.

The winter blues are no surprise. There are less daylight hours, we are overstuffed and neglecting nutrition, stressed about parties and shopping, and reflecting on what we feel we did not accomplish in the past year that we started off determined to achieve. But the answer does not have to start with medication.

One of the best natural defenses you can take against the winter blues is to ensure sufficient intake of Vitamin D, from which many Americans are suffering a significant deficiency. Vitamin D, among other things, ensures proper absorption of calcium, helps fight certain cancers, reduces the risk for heart disease, strengthens the immune system, and…boosts your mood! The best source of Vitamin D is the sunlight. But the truth is most of us aren’t getting enough sun, whether we spend more time indoors or are simply lathered in sunscreen. You can find Vitamin D naturally in oily fish such as salmon, sardines, and tuna, and also in eggs. Other options include fortified foods such as milk, orange juice, yogurt and cereals. You can also choose a supplement. The daily recommendation is 400 IU but seems to be on the rise to at least 1000 IU.

If you are struggling with the winter blues and considering medication, I encourage you to first talk to your doctor about testing your Vitamin D levels before you turn to a “magic pill” that, trust me, is not all that magical.

Here is a Tuna based recipe to help you get started with increasing the Vitamin D in your diet. It makes a quick and easy meal or side dish that will store for several days in the fridge:

Tuna and Bean Salad
Yield: Serves two as a main dish, four as a starter

1 small red onion, peeled and very thinly sliced
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar
1 (6 1/2-ounce) can water-packed tuna, drained
1 (15-ounce) can cannellini beans or borlotti beans, drained through a strainer and rinsed
3 fresh sage leaves, slivered
2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 small or medium garlic clove, finely minced
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon plain low-fat or nonfat yogurt (or omit and use 4 tablespoons olive oil)
1/2 Japanese cucumber, cut in half lengthwise and sliced, for garnish

• Place the onion in a bowl and add 1 teaspoon of the vinegar and cold water to cover. Let sit for 5 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water, then dry on paper towels.
• In a medium bowl or salad bowl, combine the tuna, beans, onions, sage, and parsley.
• In a small bowl or measuring cup, mix together the remaining vinegar, salt to taste, freshly ground pepper, garlic, and Dijon mustard. Whisk in the olive oil and the yogurt. Toss with the tuna and beans and serve, garnishing each plate with cucumber slices.

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