Although it can occur in other seasons, winter is the main season for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), especially between December and February when daylight hours are at their shortest. It is called a seasonal depression because people who aren’t normally affected fall into a depressed state.

SAD affects women four times as often than men. It usually hits between the ages of 18 and 30. The dark days of winter can cause a case of winter blues or be as devastatingly severe as clinical depression.

In this article, we’ll look at three factors that cause SAD and then consider how a garden harvest may help ease a mild case of it.

SAD 101 – An Absence of Sunlight

Serotonin, the feel-good chemical, is impacted by SERT, a protein. When sunlight is scanty, SERT levels rise and serotonin levels drop. But when the sun is shining bright and strong, SERT levels go down and serotonin levels rise. No wonder that a bright, sunny day makes us feel good!

SAD and Melatonin

Sunlight also affects melatonin, the hormone that regulates our wake-sleep cycle. When the sun goes down, melatonin triggers sleepiness, preparing us for a night’s rest. Beyond the day-night cycle, the sun-poor days of winter have the same effect with the same result.

Researchers have found increased levels of melatonin in people with SAD. Tiredness and lethargy are key SAD symptoms.

Vitamin D and SAD

Then there’s vitamin D; which is technically a hormone since the body is able to make its own supply. We’ve all heard that we need to get outside to soak up the sun and make some D. Sunlight, in the form of type B ultraviolet (UVB), is absorbed by a type of cholesterol in our skin (7-DHC), to make D3.

But winter sunlight doesn’t have enough UVB to get that process started. So winter means low levels of D.

While we think of vitamin D in terms of building strong bones, it is also important for the immune system, glucose management, and cell building. Many prescriptions are being written to build up D3 levels, but researchers say it’s better to get it through food.

Although the best food sources are fatty fish, if you’re growing mushrooms or raising chickens and turkeys, you’re growing excellent sources of D3.

SAD Symptoms

  • feeling sad, irritable, weepy, or lethargic
  • having low energy (leading to decreased physical activity)
  • difficulty concentrating
  • withdrawing from social activity
  • craving carbs and sugar (leading to weight gain)

Severe SAD may require medical attention – medication and behavioral therapy. A few simple strategies can manage mild symptoms; here’s where your garden comes in.

Push Back the Night

Bright Light Therapy (BLT), also called phototherapy, is one of the top SAD treatments. You sit near a light box, preferably in the morning, for 20 – 60 minutes. The box churns out a super-bright white light, 10,000 lux. By comparison, the lux range for buildings ranges from 100 to 1200 lux.

It shouldn’t be surprising that regularly sitting near such intense light can have negative effects like eyestrain, headache, increased risk of macular degeneration, irritability, and difficulty sleeping.

And it shouldn’t be surprising that Amazon has a page devoted to light boxes and full-spectrum lighting. But before you go shopping, bear in mind that “full-spectrum lighting” is a marketing term used by manufacturers.

Despite the claims for happy plants and people, there isn’t a consensus on what “full-spectrum” means. I suppose the bottom line is that adding brightness to dark winter days shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg.

One Light for Happy Plants and People?

Can the lights used to help your plants thrive indoors also help you? The answer could be yes since both are sold under that “full-spectrum” moniker. But, you’re not likely to find “and it helps people combat SAD” in the product description of a plant light.

The reason for that, as near as I can tell from trawling web content on plants and lighting, plant lights can

  1. Give off damaging UV levels. As we know, ultraviolet light causes skin-damaging sunburn. How long can you sit under plant lights and not get burned?
  2. Grow lights are measured in PAR, the type of radiation plants need to thrive, not lux, the intensity level of visible light. There are conversion charts, if you really want to go there.

Now we know more about SAD, let’s see what may be in your harvest that could help.

Garden-grown SAD-busters

Norman Rosenthal of Georgetown University was the guy who first understood the seriousness of SAD and the benefits of light therapy. In his book Winter Blues he recommends foods that may be a part of your garden or farm.

Tryptophan, an amino acid that the body needs to make serotonin, reduces depression’s symptoms and anxiety. It is in foods you probably did not grow like:

  • salmon
  • poultry
  • eggs
  • milk
  • nuts
  • oats
  • chocolate

But if you’re growing seeds (sunflower, pumpkin) and spinach, you’ve got tryptophan.

Tryptophan works best for relieving depression and anxiety when teamed up with carbohydrates you may’ve grown, like

  • winter squash
  • below-ground vegetables: potatoes, carrots, beets
  • corn
  • beans/legumes

Now that you have an idea of what to eat, let’s talk recipes.

Fermented Dishes

Probiotics increase the amount of tryptophan in your blood; so here’s another reason to pickle your veggies. Fermented foods are an excellent source of probiotics.

You can find traditional and creative recipes for pickling cabbage, whether its sauerkraut or kimchi.

Build a tryptophan-friendly meal by combining T-friendly foods. Like this kimchi fried rice which of course starts with a simple kimchi recipe.

If you’re a sauerkraut fan, check out this recipe from the New York Times that combines smoked fish with sauerkraut. For another take on pickled veggies, here’s what you can do with all of that squash:

Pickled Squash from
A few hours can produce a new way to use your bountiful squash harvest. The recipe uses butternut but feel free to substitute acorn, delicata, or others.

Poultry and Veggies

Chicken Florentine Casserole from
Chicken and cheese team with spinach, garlic, herbs, and mushrooms.

Chicken Saag from
Spinach and tomato team with ginger, coriander, garam masala, and chicken. Steamed rice completes the meal.

Soups and Chilis

Few things are as satisfying on a cold day than a hot bowl of soup. Or chili. As mentioned in a previous post on souping, the body has to work harder to keep warm when it’s cold out; but soup is an inexpensive way to use the veggies and herbs that your garden grew to nourish and energize you through the dark winter months.

Apricot Lentil Soup from
Red lentils, tomatoes, and dried apricots simmered in a chicken broth.

The folks at Eating Well feature several chili recipes filled with tryptophan-friendly ingredients, from sweet potato and black beans to white turkey chili.

Herbs, Tisanes, and Essential Oils

Traditional mood-lifters and calmers that may be in your garden:

  • rosemary
  • sage
  • lemon balm
  • geranium
  • chamomile
  • lavender

Use these as potpourri, hydrosols, teas, seasonings, or make into essential oils.

If you’re a citrus container fan, you’re growing some powerful SAD-busters. While you’re at it, why not craft an indoor fragrant garden spot to see you through the winter?


If you’re feeling the effects of SAD, it’s worth having a conversation with your doctor. No need to just tolerate those mild winter blues!

So fill your days with light and scent to energize and soothe you, as the case may be.Nourish yourself with good protein, carbs, and veggies. And chocolate. Long days of sunshine will return before you know it, banishing your SAD days.

Now that you know what you can do to combat SAD, will your garden plans for the coming year include more SAD-busters?


[embedded content]