Do you feel you suffer from the winter blues, or Seasonal Affective Disorder? Do you get those down feelings as soon as the clocks go back? Well you're not alone. It's estimated that 1 in 10 people in the UK suffer from the winter blues (approximately 6 million people).
So, what's this got to do with nutrition? Well, simple changes made through diet, supplements and lifestyle could really make the difference to how you feel.
There are two likely reasons for feeling blue in the winter:
1. Less exposure to sunlight causes brain levels of serotonin - the 'happy' transmitter - to fall (light stimulates the brain to produce serotonin).
2. You might not be eating so well (less fresh salads/fruit etc) and so not getting enough mood boosting nutrients.
The two most common factors associated with winter blues are: having less energy (wanting to hibernate); and just feeling low or depressed (just can't be bothered). Other issues, such as increased stress (especially leading up to Christmas) and increased bombardment from cold and flu infections, can all play a part.
So from a nutrition point of view we need to eat foods for high energy - foods that give the best 'miles per gallon'. These foods are - unprocessed, organic, nutrient-rich whole foods such as apples, pears and berries and all vegetables, and also whole grains (oats, brown rice, wholemeal bread), beans and lentils. If half your diet consists of these whole foods, you are on the right track for natural energy. Avoid processed foods and refined carbohydrates such as white bread, biscuits, cakes and white rice.
To improve mood we need to look at foods that increase levels of serotonin, the brain's 'happy' neurotransmitter. A protein called tryptophan is converted in the body to serotonin, so we need to increase our intake of foods rich in tryptophan. This can be found in foods such as fish, turkey, chicken, cottage cheese, avocadoes and bananas. Also, eating foods rich in omega 3 essential fatty acids (found in oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and tuna, and also in seeds) is thought to stave off depression as it acts on serotonin function in the brain.
If the thought of eating lots of vegetables, fruits and whole foods seems difficult in the winter, think of making lots of warming soups, casseroles, hot berry desserts. Also, use what's in season - all those root vegetables, carrots, swedes, celeriac, turnips, leeks and onions. Try combining a selection with some vegetable stock and brown lentils to make a wholesome soup or casserole (add fresh/dried herbs for extra flavouring); and follow it with a delicious apple and berry crumble. Comfort food can be nutritious and can help you get out of the winter blues!