Sunday marks the end of daylight saving time (DST), a ritual paired with setting clocks back an hour. Debate over whether we should kill DST aside, what it immediately means is less after-work daylight. Evening light fades sooner. In New York City, where I live, the Sun sets before 5 p.m. in November.
For some, this increased darkness is a challenge for mental health. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression characterized by the change in seasons — this means symptoms can last for about four to five months per year. While some people experience it in summer, it’s most often associated with winter. Scientists don’t completely understand what causes SAD, but it’s theorized to come back to the relationship neurotransmitters have with sunlight and an over-production of melatonin.
For treatment, there’s strong evidence supporting the use of bright light therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and an FDA-approved antidepressant called Wellbutrin XL. But lately, there’s conversation around another potential preventative measure, something perhaps so obvious it’s been overlooked: food.
A casual internet search will bring up a motley crew of articles claiming specific foods ease “the winter blues.” Whether or not that is true is complicated. Research does indicate there is a robust link between nutrition and mental health. But there is no one food that is sure to fix the problem.
Michael Berk is a professor at Deakin University in Australia and a co-author of a now-influential study on the possible therapeutic impact of dietary changes on moderate to severe depression. The “SMILEs” trial did indicate diet is a useful strategy, and three studies have successfully replicated its results.
Regardless, Berk emphasizes “there is no superfood for super supplement.”
“The major misconception that people have is that there is a single superfood or supplement that is going to solve this problem,” Berk tells me. “The evidence does not support this. It really is about a healthy whole diet, and is as much about what you do not eat as what you do eat.”
Eating for mental health
The SMILEs trial leaned on a modified Mediterranean diet, which includes 12 key food groups. These include, but are not limited to, whole giants, vegetables, fish, and olive oil. “Extra” foods, like processed meats and sugar drinks, were limited to no more than three per week. All alcohol — apart from two standard drinks of wine per day — was placed in the “extra” group as well.
Choosing the Meditteranean diet wasn’t a random act. Previous studies suggest it can protect against the development of depressive symptoms in older people, and strict adherence is associated with a lower risk of being diagnosed with depression.
“The key is a healthy whole diet that is largely unprocessed, avoids industrial large processed foods, and is largely plant-based and fresh,” Berk says.
He notes that while his study examined the Meditteranean diet, a…