As soon as the days get shorter, you can feel the general mood shift. For many people it’s a drop in energy, focus and motivation; and for some, depression and anxiety kick in. It’s often the time we reach for stodgy, sweet, filling foods to ‘treat ourselves’ and cheer us up.
Picking up on the ‘you are what you eat’ premise though – although it’s tempting to reach for things that make us feel satisfied in the short term, like sugary things, or carby foods, generally the feel-good factor is short-lived and ultimately you’re going to feel worse. What you put into your body can have a huge impact on how you feel.
So yes, you can comfort-eat your way through winter. But with a bit of know-how you could choose more healthy foods that energise you, and lift your mood with tried and tested nutrients instead.
Food that helps you feel really great, even on the rainiest of days.
We spoke to nutritionist Kirsten Chick to find out how we can use food to beat that droopy feeling and avoid seasonal sadness. Here’s the science…
FIVE WAYS FOOD CAN HELP BEAT THE WINTER BLUES
1. Allow yourself some downtime
The first thing to remember is that winter is very different to summer: life is actually meant to slow down and be more restful. So if things are hectic and stressful, then make more of an effort to schedule in time for rest and relaxation. Think of it as semi-hibernation.
Winter is a great time for batch cooking, which frees up time and energy the rest of the week. If you have pre-made portions of soup, casserole or perhaps vegetable bake in the fridge or freezer, you can just warm it through when you get home, and then have an earlier night.
2. Keep blood sugar stable
When blood sugar dips, moods plunge and anxiety is more likely to kick in too. Blood sugar lows can also impact your energy levels, motivation and ability to concentrate and learn new things.
My two best tips for keeping blood sugar stable are:
a. Have a protein-rich breakfast
Studies are starting to show what many people have learnt from experience: if you have a good level of protein at breakfast time, it helps stave off blood sugar dips throughout the day.
So this could be muesli with plain yoghurt, or poached eggs and avocado on sourdough rye, for example.
Classic breakfast cereals, especially crunchy flakes and puffed grains, can have the opposite effect, however. Plus they are often high in sugar – which brings me to my second tip…
b. Reduce sugar and refined carbohydrates
Refined carbohydrates include things like white bread, white pasta, white rice, white noodles, cakes and biscuits.
Sugar is not just what you put in tea, cakes and biscuits, but also check food labelling for HIDDEN SUGAR! Like sucrose, glucose, fructose, fruit concentrate, dextrin, maltodextrin, dextrose, rice syrup, agave syrup, malt syrup and other syrups. Also watch out for excessive levels of sugar in fruit juice, wine, beer and other drinks.
These can all contribute to sugar highs, and then crashes – with immediate effect on your mood and brain activity. Sweeten with small amounts of raw honey or molasses for a more nutrient-rich option.
3. Boost serotonin – your happy chemical (naturally!)
Prozac and party drugs are not the only things that can do this!
Drugs like Prozac work by stopping you break down so much serotonin, the neurotransmitter that gives you feelings of happiness and wellbeing. Putting the right nutrients into your diet can actually help you make more serotonin in the first place.
Serotonin is made out of an amino acid (protein) called tryptophan. The best food sources of tryptophan are nuts and seeds – especially pumpkin seeds – meat, eggs, cheese and oats.
Vitamin B6 and magnesium help your body to manufacture serotonin. You can find both in green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, watercress, kale, cabbage and chard. There are also great levels of vitamin B6 in sweet potatoes, garlic, cauliflower, salmon and liver. Nuts and seeds are another good magnesium source, although magnesium is hard to get enough of due to depleted levels in the soil.
Vitamin C and folate are also needed in your serotonin factories, and again, both can be found in green leafy vegetables – raw for the vitamin C. Sprinkling fresh, chopped watercress, rocket or herbs onto each meal is a great idea for this. Beans and lentils are additional fantastic sources of folate.
4. Soothe anxiety with nerve-calming foods
We’re back to the green leafy vegetables again, and magnesium. Magnesium deficiency has been associated with anxiety and panic attacks, and supplements may be helpful for alleviating depression. Also try adding a handful or two of Epsom salts (magnesium sulphate) to a soothing, warm bath.
Choline helps to calm down your nervous system, and is found in egg yolks (especially runny ones), cauliflower, broccoli, chard and Brussels sprouts.
Finally, the balance of microbes in your gut has a direct influence on your mood and your nerves. They’re also part of your immune system, which you also need to be strong at this time of year. You can help keep your microbes happy with small amounts of fermented foods, such as sauerkraut (fermented cabbage), kimchi (spicy fermented vegetables), plain yoghurt and kefir (a yoghurt-like drink).
5. Banish SAD
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that coincides with winter, and usually vitamin D deficiency. We can’t make vitamin D from the sun in the autumn, winter and early spring months, as the sun is too low in the sky. The UVB rays we need bounce off the ozone layer. Vitamin D deficiency has been noted in general depression as well as SAD.
There is vitamin D in oily fish, and a really tiny amount in eggs and mushrooms. However, deficiency is so rife that most people would benefit from a good supplement through the darker months.
Eat plenty of leafy greens and other vegetables alongside small but regular portions of proteins and wholegrains. Make your meals warming, nourishing and delicious. For example:Breakfast: oat porridge with chopped Brazil nuts, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds, and maybe some stewed apple and cinnamon
Lunch: sweet potato and watercress soup with sourdough rye bread and hummus
Dinner: grilled salmon with steamed broccoli, cauliflower, kale and a little brown rice, garnished with a dollop of sheep’s yoghurt and a handful of chopped parsley, mint or dill
DON’T FORGET THE WATER!
Hydration is always key, so aim for 1½ – 2 litres of still, plain water – warm if preferred – in addition to a cup or two of herbal tea.