Winter can be a season of ups and downs: the joy of Christmas for many is followed by a January low, and some experience a phenomenon commonly known as the winter blues. Whether you experience a few slumps in the wet weather, or signs of Seasonal Affectiveness Disorder, there are many ways that you can alleviate your symptoms in a very simple way – through the food you eat.
If you’re lucky enough to be treating yourself to a nutritional spa break this winter, you’ll be sure to encounter a whole sphere of nutritional information that may well transform your dietary habits for the better, both in the colder months and beyond. Here at Champneys, our dietary experts will give you the tools to manage your health, answering any questions and recommending recipes that you can implement into your diet to give you a positive relationship with food and a happier outlook on life. If you’re looking to holistically boost your mood this winter, we have collaborated with some leading nutritional experts and holistic food bloggers to out what you should be eating to beat the winter blues.
Of course, a healthy and balanced diet is the key to physical and mental wellbeing. Julia Mueller from The Roasted Root explains: “The answer is simple: whole, un-processed, low or no inflammatory foods. In this sense, you should aim for foods that contain zero (or tiny amounts) of refined sugar, little or no dairy, contain high-quality fats, and be very choosy about the grains you consume. Vegetables, lean animal protein, fruit (in moderation), and nuts are what your diet should mostly consist of, and should be particularly rich in high-nutrient vegetables, like leafy greens and root vegetables.”
She continues to explain that limiting sugar is an essential part of creating a diet that will support a stable mental health: “In general, a diet that's very low in sugar is best for maintaining a consistent mood. Blood sugar spikes and drops can be the leading cause of mood changes, causing you to constantly chase your mood and never really get on top of it. Avoid all processed sugars and when eating dessert, try to bake your goods homemade using high quality natural sweeteners like raw honey or coconut sugar.”
Besides keeping your diet balanced, natural and wholesome, here are a few delicious winter foods that are widely believed to improve your mood.
You might think of citrus fruits as more of a summer ingredient, but in fact they are extremely valuable for maintaining a balanced diet and supporting your mental health throughout the winter season. Beat the Winter Blues explain that health and wellness experts have long suggested that SAD sufferers eat a diet rich in antioxidants, namely beta-carotene and vitamins C and E. From citrus fruits to, strawberries, tomatoes, peppers and potatoes, vitamin C is easy to come by and add into any meal.
Kathy from Happy Healthy Life says that during the winter: “I actually love waking up to a fresh pressed citrus-infused juice to brighten my spirits and immune system. Right now I am loving ginger-lemon-apple-pomegranate. Grapefruit mint is another winner. Or a simple warm glass of water with some fresh lemon is a great way to start your day.” Whilst the bioactive ingredients in citrus fruits work to improve your mental health balance, the simple ritual of waking up to a freshly-squeezed orange juice will give you that extra boost to lift your mood.
Vitamin E can be found in nuts, beans, seeds, and wheat germ. According to Mental Health Food: “A study by the Department of Agricultural Chemistry at the Meiji University, Kawasaki, Kanagawa Japan found that a deficiency in vitamin E increased anxiety in both juvenile and adult rats. In a 2009 study at the same university, researchers discovered that they could induce anxiety behaviours in rats by making them deficient in vitamin E.” Some scientists believe that a deficiency in vitamin E could cause similar effects in humans.
Luckily, vitamin E is remarkably easy to work into your everyday meals. Kathy from Happy Healthy Life says, “I love making waffles this time of year. I boost them with protein by adding hemp seeds, protein powder or an array of nuts like pecans and chopped walnuts. Besides waffles, I adore porridge for breakfast. I add loads of fresh banana, almond butter and cinnamon on top. A pinch of orange zest is a nice touch too!”
Vitamin D is perhaps the most famous ingredient for tackling Seasonal Affective Disorder, as it is manufactured in the body in exposure to the sun, working chemically to lift the mood. However, it can be incorporated into the diet, too, by eating foods such as salmon and tuna, milk, fortified cereals, eggs, mushrooms, beef liver and pork.
A stunning one quarter of the population is thought to be deficient in the steroid hormone precursor vitamin D, leading to Natural News dubbing the ingredient “the single most underrated nutrient in the world of nutrition.” The National Institute of Health cites several studies where sunlight markedly improves mood, and it is commonly believed to be effective in lifting the winter blues. Try incorporating a warming mushroom risotto after one of your weekly evening work outs and it may well begin to help lifting your mood.
Leafy – or ‘collard’ – greens are often dubbed a ‘superfood’, and with good reason. A fantastic source of folates and B-12, leafy greens like kale, spinach and mustard greens are believed to be instrumental in reducing the symptoms of SAD. Greens are a fantastic ingredient to incorporate into your winter wellness diet because they are incredibly easy to cook with. Kathy from Happy Healthy Life says, “Winter greens are my favourite! I love steaming chard, kale or collards and adding fresh garlic, extra virgin olive oil, apple cider vinegar and a pinch of pink sea salt. Nutritional yeast sometimes too. I also pair beans and lentils and fluffy quinoa or rice with my greens for a meal.”
According to Julia, “Fiber is your digestive system's best friend. It helps keep your system regular, generally contains a great deal of vitamins and minerals, and helps your body both process and absorb proteins. Your diet should primarily look like a plethora of vegetables, especially dark leafy greens like kale and chard. Generally when it comes to vegetables, the darker the flesh, the more nutrition is packed into the plant. In this regard, choose spinach or arugula over iceberg lettuce, and enjoy beets, broccoli, peppers, and carrots in various veggie-centric dishes.”
Eating Well reports: “In a study of more than 11,000 people - published in March 2012 in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition - those who stuck to a Mediterranean diet scored higher on markers of mental health than their counterparts who ate a more Western diet. How to eat the Mediterranean way? Pack your diet with fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, fish and a moderate amount of alcohol. Though researchers couldn’t pinpoint what exactly about the diet boosted participants’ mental health, they suspect that omega-3 fats (found in oily fish), B vitamins and folate contributed.”
The chemicals in omega 3 that contribute to brain function are called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These are most easily digested from oily fish, but they actually derive from the algae that fish eat, to vegetarians can still get them from omega-3 supplements.
This Southeast Asian food is believed to possess a wide range of healing properties, from anti-inflammatory to antifungal and even antidepressant. Eating Well reports that turmeric “contains a polyphenol called curcumin that has been linked to a better mood, according to a 2012 review article in Nutritional Neuroscience.” According to Turmeric for Health, the curcumin in turmeric can influence depression in three ways:
Green tea has long been thought of as a potent health food, particularly for those who are looking to suppress their appetite, but it may also be useful in treating emotional imbalances. Eating Well reports that “there’s a polyphenol in green tea—EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate)—that may alleviate stress and depression.” They report that, according to a study by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, individuals who drank 4 or more cups of green tea daily were 44 percent less likely to have depressive symptoms than those who drank just 1 cup a day.
Packed full of antioxidants, green tea is widely thought to promote healthy brain functioning, in fact, a 2013 study in by Einother and Martens in the same journal suggests that green tea can prolong enhanced concentration and cognitive performance.
A somewhat lesser-known ingredient that may benefit mental wellbeing is tryptophan. As Health Line suggests, tryptophan is an amino acid works by synthesising serotonin, the chemical messenger responsible for stabilising moods. As they explain, “the common belief is that by eating foods high in tryptophan, you can boost your serotonin levels.” However, the tryptophan you find in food has to compete with other amino acids to be absorbed into the brain, so it’s unlikely to have much of an effect on your serotonin levels.
But, in conjunction with other foods, namely carbohydrates, tryptophan-rich ingredients may be more easily absorbed by the brain. Foods containing high levels of tryptophan include eggs, cheese, pineapples, tofu, salmon, nuts and turkey, but, according to Health Line, recent research has found that the protein in eggs in particular can significantly boost your blood plasma levels of tryptophan, according to recent research. So, make a healthy poached eggs on toast your go-to winter heart breakfast!
Although there are certain ingredients that are believed to biochemically act on the brain to maintain a good mood throughout the winter, there is no harm in indulging in a few winter warmers to give you that little bit of cheer. For a treat, Kathy from Happy Healthy Life says “for dessert or snacks you really can't beat fresh baked pumpkin or banana bread this time of year! Comfort food always gives me a boost!” By substituting sugar with agave syrup, you can keep these occasional treats healthy and make the most of the nutritional value ingredients such as pumpkin and banana provide.
Julia sums up: “The vagus nerve runs from your stomach to your brain, which creates a connection between the state of your digestive system and the state of your mind. In essence, if you eat foods that depress your digestive system, you are essentially eating foods that depress your mind. Eating for happiness requires diligence and consistency, which can be difficult at first, but once you get into a solid rhythm with nutrient-dense meals, a healthful meal plan becomes easier and easier easy to maintain.”