In her book, The Jungle Effect, Daphne Miller, M.D., writes about the people of Iceland who experience much lower levels of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) than those living in other northern countries and even those in southern latitudes. After much research, Miller discovered that despite the long, dark winters that can last more than 180 days, Icelanders exhibited robust mental health because of their diet, which is high in omega-3 fats which are known to have a beneficial effect on the brain and nervous system. Nutrients from other indigenous foods also contributed. To help ward off the blues this winter, try including some of these foods in your diet:
FISH Icelanders eat 225 lbs each year compared to our paltry consumption of 48 lbs. Icelanders eat a lot of wild char and salmon. But even if you don’t have access to those, eating fish with low mercury levels at least twice a week is suggested. (Consult the Guide to Buying Safe Fish from the Natural Resources Defense Council for a list of low-mercury fish.)
COD LIVER OIL In addition to consuming boatloads of fish each year, in the winter months mothers give their children a daily teaspoon of this age-old folk remedy. Cod liver oil is exactly what it sounds like: the oil from a cod's liver. The taste is rather strong, so if you can’t stomach the liquid, try the capsules. Claudia Keel, founder of the ArborVitae school of Nutritional Herbalism in New York, recommends taking fermented cod liver fish oil to bump up the benefits. (Before taking any supplements, consult your physician.)
DAIRY from pastured cows. In Iceland, the cows graze on clover and moss which are naturally high in omega-3s. Their cultured dairy products are called Skyr and can be found in stores around the country. Also, look for cheese from Switzerland which is likely to contain up to 5 times more omega-3s than typical cheese.
TEA In Iceland, people drink a lot of black or green tea each day. According to Miller, studies show that drinking tea is linked to low rates of depression. She says it’s likely the antioxidants in tea play a role.
POTATOES Icelanders eat a lot of potatoes—the small red or new potatoes with a waxy center. These have a lower glycemic index than Idaho or Russet potatoes. Also, the way you cook a potato makes a difference. Cooking them in their skin can lower the glycemic index by as much as 40%, and eating them whole and adding vinegar can bump up the nutritional benefits.
BREAKFAST Icelanders eat a hearty breakfast of whole grain cereals, like muesli topped with yogurt and berries, or dark rye bread topped with smoked salmon, or pickled herring and a boiled egg. Look for low glycemic index grains such as steel cut oats (not instant), millet, spelt, buckwheat, and quinoa. Soak them overnight, then quick cook in the morning. Like potatoes, it’s not only the type of grain that matters, but how it is prepared.
BERRIES In Iceland, bilberries (like tiny blueberries) grow everywhere and people pick them off the bushes. They freeze them to eat in the winter too. What berries grow in your region of the country? Buy them in season and freeze them to use in pies or smoothies when it’s no longer summer. They are a good source of antioxidants.
CHOCOLATE Icelanders like their sweets and you can too, in moderation. Eating a square or two of a dark chocolate each day is a good source of theobromine, which is known to cause a sense of happiness and arousal, similar to amphetamine and marijuana highs.
GRASS-FED MEATS like lamb and beef, especially. If you are a meat eater, include small amounts of organ meats (called offal) like kidneys, liver, intestines, brain, etc. They contain the highest amounts of omega-3s as well as iron, vitamins A and D, and zinc. Like cod liver, these are foods your grandparents probably ate.
WILD GAME Animals that are free range have low concentrations of less healthy saturated animal fats and high ones of omega-3s. It’s hunting season in many U.S. states, so if you are a meat eater, see if you can buy some from a specialty butcher or a hunter.
Photo: Natural Health Magazine