Beating the winter blues
It's that time of year again... winter blues, otherwise know as seasonal affective disorder (SAD) which can affect people who have normal mental health and moods through most of the year. It's a common story that as the days get shorter and darker, people start to feel lethargic, gloomier and less interested in doing things that make them feel active and happier, which includes eating healthily. When we feel low, it's tempting to reach for sweet treats for a quick sugar rush, but this won't make the blues disappear!
A lot of people don't realise that they suffer from SAD, believing that it's only natural for their moods and energy to drop in Autumn and rise again in Spring. However, this doesn't have to be the case. There are ways to naturally increase levels of our 'feel good hormones' by eating ourselves happy and engaging in particular activities. Here are my top tips to protect yourself from winter depression:
Get enough vitamin D
Adequate vitamin D is essential for maintaining good moods, whilst low levels are associated with depression and other illnesses, including fibromyalgia, autoimmune diseases and high blood pressure. Since over 80% of the UK population have sub-optimal levels, I recommend that you get it checked twice a year, at the beginning of Autumn and at the end of Spring. Good levels of vitamin D range from 50 to 70ng/ml.
Eat omega-3s frequently
Omega-3s (a type of healthy fat) play a role in regulating serotonin and dopamine, which are chemicals that effect our mood and behaviour. Good sources of omega 3 fats are oily fish (salmon, trout, mackerel, sardines) and nuts and seeds (flaxseeds, hemp, walnuts). Most people don't get enough through their diet, so I often recommend a good quality fish oil supplement.
Exercise naturally increases endorphins, making us feel better instantly and therefore lowering depression, anxiety and stress. For additional benefit, try exercising outside so you get some sunlight and your skin gets a chance to synthesise a little vitamin D. The simple act of taking a walk, when done regularly, can have a measurable effect on your overall well-being. Even on the darkest winter days we should all be aiming for a minimum of 30 minutes, three times a week.
Many of my clients have found that investing in a light box really helps to improve their winter moods. Light boxes emit a very bright light which simulates the spectrum of the sun and there are claims that this can make you feel happier. Alternatively sitting by the window for 10 minutes can have similar effects, but this will only work if the sun is shining!
Soups, stews and smoothies made with seasonal ingredients are all ideal choices for the colder months. If you add warming spices such as ginger and cinnamon, they can increase circulation and aid healthy digestion too. When you feel the need for a 'quick fix', try to avoid simple/processed carbs and sugars which will only contribute to your low moods in the long run, as they negatively affect blood sugar levels and deplete essential brain nutrients. Instead, opt for nuts, fruits and vegetables which are rich in B vitamins, zinc and magnesium, and thus combat mood swings, irritability and depression.
Get your daily tryptophan fix
Tryptophan makes our 'happy hormone' serotonin, so it's important to make sure you're getting a steady supply. Luckily, tryptophan is easily found in certain foods so I suggest making these diet staples during the cold winter months. The most abundant sources of tryptophan include fish, chicken, turkey, oats, and eggs.
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