Nutrition for a Good Mood: Easing the Winter Blues

This is the time of year where days are shorter, darker, and colder, and many of us struggle with keeping our spirits lifted. The “winter blues” is what some people call it, or it could be Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is defined as a “seasonal pattern, as it usually appears in the winter months and goes away at the end of the cold season." It further states, “If you’ve had poor mental health every winter for two years or more, you’re likely dealing with seasonal affective disorder.” So, whether it’s the “winter blues” or SAD, symptoms can affect all aspects of daily living and interfere with productivity. Being proactive with simple steps such as eating healthily can help.
 
Most people head for comfort foods, which typically include more refined carbohydrates and are higher in sugar and unhealthy fats. Many also increase caffeine intake thinking it will boost energy levels; however, these choices and temporary fixes will impact blood sugar levels and stress the body and brain further in the long run. They increase fuzzy thinking and mood swings, which is not the outcome we're ultimately looking for. Ideally, we should add specific foods into our diet that can help alleviate the blues by boosting nutrients like vitamin D, hormones such as serotonin, and other chemicals that are associated with boosting our brain’s mood stabilizers. Choosing certain foods like healthy proteins and fats, fermented foods, veggies, fruits, green tea, and a little bit of dark chocolate can nourish the brain and body better and give it the nutrients it needs during this difficult time.
 
Our brain is made up of around 60% fat; therefore, it is highly reliant on healthy fats and omega-3s to function optimally. Wild-caught Alaskan salmon, sardines, mackerel, anchovies, tuna, flax, chia seeds, and walnuts are a few food sources that contain omega-3s. Diets high in fatty fish, which are rich in omega-3s, have been shown to support a healthy mood. Omega-3s can travel easily through the brain cell membrane to help produce dopamine and serotonin, neurotransmitters involved in mood support. Any of these delicious foods are simple to add into our diet daily as a snack or in a meal.
 
Maintaining stable blood-sugar levels throughout the day makes us less prone to mood swings. Adding protein into our diet supports healthy blood sugar levels and provides amino acids, the building blocks for neurotransmitters (dopamine, serotonin). 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) is a chemical our body makes from the essential amino acid tryptophan. Once produced, 5-HTP is transformed into serotonin, a neurotransmitter that provides a sense of well-being. Tryptophan-rich foods include seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, sesame), nuts, nut butters, pork, beef, chicken, turkey, cheese, red meat, fish, shrimp, eggs, beans, tempeh, tofu, kelp, bananas, and milk. I find this time of year I crave more apples with almond butter, and I think my body is looking for more protein and fat.
 
Whole eggs are also high in omega-3s, biotin, tyrosine, tryptophan, and phosphatidylserine (PS). PS is a naturally occurring phospholipid that is an essential component of our cell membranes, and a vital component of our neural membranes. It promotes inter-cellular communication in the brain, and works by aiding the neurotransmitters involved in mood. It also protects against stress and decreases cortisol levels. I have my own chickens and typically eat a frittata using two whole eggs every day. 
 
Fermented foods, like sauerkraut, kimchi, plain yogurt, and kefir, nourish the gut, which plays an important role in the gut-brain connection. Ninety-five percent of serotonin, which is our “feel good hormone,” is produced in the gut. Studies have shown probiotics to reduce stress hormones like cortisol. New research is showing a connection between the gut health and mental health. Foods like yogurt also provide protein, calcium, and vitamin D. Vitamin D has properties of both a vitamin and a hormone, and is important for mood support. Certain foods contain small amounts of vitamin D, like salmon, tuna, egg yolks, and some fortified foods (yogurt and orange juice); however, most individuals this time of year will need to also add a supplement.
 
Dark green leafy vegetables like collard greens, turnip greens, spinach, and mustard greens can be beneficial for mood health. Fruits such as blueberries, referred to as a superfood, are high in polyphenols, antioxidants, and folate, which are linked to increasing serotonin production. Try adding a small amount of dark chocolate with fruit or at the end of a meal, as it is high in magnesium, which is also associated with reducing stress and stabilizing mood. Dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa solids release endorphins that support mood health. As I write this article, I notice lately that I have been eating more Greek yogurt with blueberries and a small bit of dark chocolate with sea salt. Other magnesium-rich foods include black beans, avocados, nuts, and seeds.
 
Top off the day with a nice hot cup of green tea, which is loaded with L-theanineL-theanine is an amino acid that is found naturally in green and black teas. It helps create a calm, centered, non-drowsy feeling and promotes alpha brain waves, which are associated with a state of wakeful relaxation. Theanine affects the levels of neurotransmitters GABA, serotonin, and dopamine in the brain, which influence mood, sleep, and stress.
 
There are many choices of foods and beverages to consider adding into our diet to help shake off those winter blues.