Have you ever wondered why it becomes increasingly challenging to maintain a healthy diet during the winter months? The combination of reduced physical activity, a tendency to eat more comfort foods and an increased urge to hibernate, wreaks havoc with your mood, leaving your body a “heavy” price to pay in springtime.
Diminished sunshine levels lead to a decline in serotonin (this is a “feel good” chemical released by the brain), which in turn is linked to symptoms of depression, anxiety, fatigue and insomnia. Symptoms of the wintertime blues, also known as SAD (seasonal affective disorder) usually begin when the days get shorter and nights get longer. Reduced serotonin levels may explain why you crave comfort, carbohydrate foods and are tempted to stay huddled indoors by the fire with the TV remote close at hand.
The good news — for those who do not have the prospect of a trip to sunnier climates planned for this winter — is that there are lots of ways to combat a mildcase of wintertime blues. There are plenty of mood elevating, serotonin-enhancing pharmaceutical prescriptions out there; but for a lighter case of the blues, here are several quick fixes that can be used to boost serotonin levels naturally.
The Value of Veggies
Try eating a small amount of high-quality carbohydrates with every meal or as snacks throughout your day. Veggies, fruits, and whole grains are the best choices, as are beans, soups, and oatmeal. You need a little carbohydrate at every meal to signal your brain to produce serotonin.
Opt for breads made with whole grains like spelt, which are good sources of both tryptophan (the precursor for serotonin) and zinc. By choosing healthy carbohydrates like whole grains, winter squash, and pumpkin, you will boost serotonin levels and pack a nutrient-dense punch of vitamins without consuming high calories.
Adding the Awesome Amino Acid
Our bodies make serotonin from a precursor amino acid called tryptophan – tryptophan is not synthesized by our bodies so we must eat foods rich in the amino acid: eggs, cottage cheese, turkey, poultry, sesame and sunflower seeds, walnuts, banana and oats. The effect of tryptophan is enhanced by eating carbohydrates so you may want to include a small amount of brown rice, corn, green leafy vegetables, avocados, beans, lentils, broccoli and spinach.
It’s a well-known fact that folks often feel relaxed and sleepy after eating Thanksgiving dinner and this may be attributed to the fact that turkey contains tryptophan in high concentrations (no, it’s not just the effects of alcohol!).
Avoid over-stimulating your body with caffeine, alcohol and sugar. Although these substances give you a quick burst of joy, they blunt hormonal processes like serotonin production in the long run so limit caffeine to one a day and avoid the sugar rush altogether!
A little planning at the weekend can go along way – stock up with healthy grab-and-go foods like bananas, whole fruits and low fat yogurts. This way you can enjoy a healthy snack at work and on your return home in the dark before you prepare dinner.
Hopefully armed with this plan, you will not be tempted to slump onto the sofa, nursing a bowl of highly processed salty soup! Additionally, whole fruits are low in glycemic index so your blood sugar will not spike quickly, your mood will elevate and you will feel warmer.
Part of your winter diet should include an oily, fatty fish like salmon –yes, you heard right – salmon is fatty, but packed full of good omega-3 fats, which help elevate mood, is required for serotonin production and brain function, and is thought to reduce seasonal depression.
Even if it’s cold outside, make it a priority to bundle up and walk briskly during the daytime. Take a walk during your lunch break or if you have the luxury of an office, move your desk close to the window so that you see light. Both the light and exercise will kick up your serotonin levels a notch or two.
Laughter Really is the Best Medicine
Last but by no means least, let’s not underestimate the power of laughter, which not only boosts your endorphins but also promotes a feeling of bonding, which, in turn, has been linked to boosting the production of serotonin.
Being a scientist, I should point out that single food sources of tryptophan cannot raise serotonin levels to a high enough level to mimic the effects of pharmaceutical agents, but for a mild case of the blues, the combination of healthy eating, increased light and laughter may just do the job.