From Mood to Food: How Stress and Seasonal Changes Affect Eating Habits

Disappointed sad woman looking at phone and waiting message or call

According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), 2/3 of adults report mood and behavior changes when the days get shorter, like fatigue or feelings of depression. 5% of adults, however, struggle with seasonal affective disorder (SAD). 

Noah Kahan’s “Northern Attitude” is an apology anthem for New Englanders. “Forgive my northern attitude,” Kahan sings in the chorus, “I was raised on little light.” He isn’t being hyperbolic for the sake of songwriting. For anyone living at or above 33° latitude, sunlight is in short supply from November to March.

This means New Englanders and anyone living close to – and above – the Canadian border don’t get enough exposure to sunlight. The sunlight northerners do see lacks the power to help bodies create Vitamin D naturally, often leading many to feel low in the winter – or worse. 

What Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) Actually Is 

Just like those living with depression or anxiety, SAD can have a profound impact on daily living. 

According to the APA, those suffering from SAD experience fatigue, changes in mood, appetite, sleep, and feelings of worthlessness and guilt, along with trouble thinking, concentrating, and making decisions. There’s a significant overlap with the symptoms of depression. However, with SAD, the depression cycles are limited to, or worsen, a few months every year, typically in the winter. 

In fact, when diagnosed, Dr. Samar McCutcheon, assistant clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, tells U.S. News & World Report, patients are given a “with seasonal pattern” signifier accompanying their depression or bipolar disorder.

Though it’s rarer, you can experience SAD in the summer. That’s because, despite popular belief, the link between sunlight and SAD has more to do with your circadian rhythm than vitamin D. Studies found that daylight savings time changes cause immediate mood changes in patients with depressive disorders.

At the same time, other studies found not enough – or too much – exposure to sunlight can impact serotonin levels, affecting your ability to process emotions and pain.

Lack of sunlight can also cause an increase in melatonin production, causing many patients to sleep way more (or less) than usual. Using recent Google search data, experts at Yogajala reveal the overlap between sleep issues and living further away from the equator, with New York and Massachusetts topping their lists of states struggling the most. 

Ways to Combat Seasonal Affective Disorder

While there is no cure for seasonal affective disorder, there are different actions you can take to bring relief during this challenging time of year. First and foremost, patients should consult their medical doctor for proper diagnoses before beginning any therapies. 

Some suggest light therapy, known for regulating sleep, acts like a circadian pacemaker. A review of studies from the last 30 years found 19 studies where patients reported relief of seasonal affective disorder symptoms. 

However, the review noted more extensive studies still need to be done on light therapy and its efficacy in treating mental illness. For that reason, many doctors recommend combining light therapy with cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and other forms of stress management. 

Not only can stress management benefit your mood and sleep, but it can also help you balance your appetite. 

The Stress-Food Relationship

“Emotions can entangle our food and influence how and what we eat. Stress can impact our ability to decipher physical hunger and fullness cues, which in turn can affect our food choices, portions, and pace of eating,” Victoria M. Smith, RDN, CDN, CEDS, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, tells Wealth of Geeks. 

One study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that women experiencing occupational burnout, resulting from chronic on-the-job stress may be more vulnerable to emotional or uncontrolled eating, and may not be physically able to make changes in their eating behavior.

Another 2019 study found “maternal caregivers” with “altered cortisol levels” were more prone to “high reward-driven eating” and a decrease in metabolic health.

Smith adds high amounts of stress – like the spike experienced during the holidays – cause hormonal responses, releasing adrenaline and cortisol into the body. This can trigger either delayed or diminished hunger cues or make you feel hungrier than you are, leading to overeating. 

How to Manage Stress When You’re Struggling With SAD 

When working with patients who struggle with their relationship with food and stress, Smith says there is no one-size-fits-all management plan. Instead, she explores “ways to cope with emotions and integrate mindful eating techniques into [patients’] everyday practices.” 

According to the American Society for Nutrition, mindful eating helps combat stress through breathwork, learning to make and encourage thoughtful food choices, and thoughtful, slow eating. Not only will this help digestion, but you’ll also be able to enjoy your meal more and use it as a coping mechanism less. 

Adding regular exercise and breathwork, like practicing yoga, can also help you manage stress during the long, dark winter months. 

Maria Andrews, registered yoga teacher and editor at Yogajala, says adding a short morning routine can help mitigate stress and bring balance back to disrupted sleep schedules.

“Getting your body moving early in the morning with a quick routine works to release muscle tension and regulate important wake/sleep systems in our bodies, as well as provide much-needed stress relief,” Andrews tells Wealth of Geeks.

“While some experienced Yogis like to challenge themselves with more advanced poses such as inversions,” Andrews adds, “anyone can benefit from simple moves that help reduce pain, increase strength, improve our mood, and increase our focus – especially in the morning.”   

7-Minute Tiredness-Busting Morning Routine

To help shake off the morning fog, Andrews created a simple seven-minute yoga routine. For the best benefits, hold each pose for at least one minute. 

 1. Slow Controlled Breathing

“Starting simply, controlled breathing can help awaken the body by helping the oxygen to follow through the bloodstream,” Andrews says. Sit or lay comfortably — Andrews says upright is best — and take deep, slow breaths.  

2. Child’s Pose

This pose stretches the back, hips, and thighs and gently relieves back, neck, and shoulder tension. Andrews says to begin by kneeling on the floor with your toes touching and knees apart. 

Sit back on your heels, extend the spine, and lower your torso to the ground. Keep your palms on the floor, arms stretched out, and tilt your forehead down. 

3. Cat-Cow Pose. 

To do this pose, Andrew explains, “Begin by kneeling on the floor on all fours, palms and knees [spaced] equally apart. Tuck your chin to your chest and press into your palms, arching your back.”

As you exhale, make the inverse movement, pushing your torso down and lifting your tailbone and head to the sky. Alternate these slowly for a minute.  

4. Downward Facing Dog. 

From being on your hands and knees, tuck your toes, lift your hips, and straighten your legs, forming an inverted V-shape. Keep your palms firmly planted on the floor. 

“This pose is perfect for invigorating your body and getting you ready to start the day,” Andrews explains.

5. Warrior Pose. 

According to Andrews, “This pose helps to stretch the hips and groin and promotes a sense of openness.” 

Begin by standing with your feet wide apart and raising your arms to parallel the floor. Then, turn your right foot out and bend your right knee, keeping it aligned with your ankle. Stretch your arms out to the sides and gaze over your right hand. Hold this for 30 seconds, then repeat on the left.  

6. Triangle Pose. 

From Warrior pose, Andrews recommends flowing into Trangle pose, which stretches the hamstring. To stand in Triangle post, keep your feet spread apart with your arms at your sides. Then, bend to your side and place your lower hand on your shin and your other arm to the sky. Follow the arm in the air with your gaze and hold for at least 30 seconds. Repeat on the other side. 

7. Tree Pose.

“This final pose in the sequence will improve your balance, stability, and focus,” Andrews says. 

Stand with your feet together, move your weight onto your left foot, and bend your right knee. Then, place the sole of your right foot on the inner calf or thigh of your left leg. Bring your hands to the prayer position at your chest and take deep breaths.

Stay here for at least 30 seconds and repeat on the other side.

This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Author: Nicole Tommasulo

Title: Lead Editor

Expertise: Travel, Podcasts, Books, Lifestyle

Bio:

Nicole Tommasulo is an experienced journalist and content creator with over 8 years in the field, currently serving as Lead Editor at Wealth of Geeks. Holding an MFA in Writing from the Savannah College of Art and Design, she specializes in crafting engaging digital content with a strong focus on travel and lifestyle topics.