Ten Foods to Fight Off the Winter Blues
It’s always important to pay attention to what we put inside our bodies, but in winter the impact of food on how we feel – both physically and internally – is particularly powerful.
During the darker half of the year, reduced sunlight means many people suffer from reduced levels of serotonin. This can lead to depression, weakened immune system, disturbed sleeping patterns, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, increased stress levels and cravings for carbohydrates and sweet foods.
Of course not everyone suffers from full-blown Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), but many people do experience some of these symptoms to at least some degree.
The good news? Whether it’s a minor case of winter blues, or full on SAD, what you eat can have a massive impact on how you feel.
Boost your serotonin
Since serotonin deficiency is where the problem begins, it makes sense to boost your levels back up. You can do this by choosing foods high in tryptophan, a type of amino acid from which serotonin is made. Tryptophan-rich foods include nuts, avocados, bananas, milk, eggs, fish and white meats such as turkey and chicken. (Of course if you go for free range, organic, ethically sourced options, you’ll get the added feel-good boost of looking after the environment as well.)
Pomegranate juice has been shown to balance out glucose levels, which helps to avoid energy and mood slumps. It’s also full of antioxidants, which combat harmful free radicals – the chemicals that cause aging, illness and reduced mental functioning. Cranberry juice, orange juice, purple grape juice and blueberry juice are similarly packed with rejuvenating antioxidants. (Fruit juices also tend to be high in sugars though, so just a small glass is enough.) For extra freshness, flavour and feel-good factor, invest in a juicer and give yourself the added kick of making your own.
Slow burners are best
Simple carbohydrates like white bread and white rice make blood sugar and insulin levels shoot up – giving you a quick boost but then dropping you back down in the dumps. Instead, go for carbs with a low glycemic index, which release glucose into the bloodstream slowly. Low GI options include breakfast cereals based on oats, barley and bran (such as porridge, All-bran and natural muesli), wholegrain bread and brown rice. Legumes are also great for slow energy release, as are (yep, you guessed it) most fruits and vegetables.
The usual (fishy) suspects
Again, no surprises here – oily fish is another of those foods that seems to come up in almost every article or study published about nutrition. The key in this case is that it contains lots of Vitamin D. Some studies suggest that SAD symptoms may be partly caused by reduced levels of this antioxidant, which we get naturally from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Oily fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel can help to top up Vitamin D levels. Other sources include eggs, fortified breakfast cereals and pumpkin and sunflower seeds.
Feed your inner Popeye (but not just with spinach)
If you’re feeling low on energy, it may be that you need more iron in your diet. Iron deficiency has been linked to fatigue and low mood. Good sources include beans, nuts, dried fruit and most leafy green vegetables. Among these is spinach, the properties of which were notoriously grossly over-egged when a German scientist accidentally multiplied his findings tenfold in his 1870 study of iron content. Though not quite the almighty superfood Popeye would have us believe, spinach does have a high iron content, but also contains (like tea and coffee) a substance that makes it more difficult to absorb iron. That’s not to say you should avoid spinach – it’s still very good for you – but also include green veg like brocolli, curly cale, watercress and peas.
Get the most out of your sleep
Finally, to stay healthy and happy we need proper sleep. Reduced serotonin levels lead to disruptions in the production of melatonin, the chemical that tells the body to switch off and rest. Again, stocking up on tryptophan-rich foods helps. To maximise their effectiveness, eat a carbohydrate-based meal before bed, as this facilitates the absorption of tryptophan. Calcium and magnesium have also been shown to promote good rest, and deficiency in both or either is a common cause of restlessness and nighttime awakening. Good sources of magnesium include grains, nuts, seeds and spinach. Everyone knows calcium is found in milk, but it’s actually best absorbed from foods that are also high in Vitamin D, such as tofu and green veg.
Izzy Woods is a fun-loving freelance writer and poet. When she’s not in a hammock in the garden or lounging on some sectional sofas, she writes for a variety of travel blogs and children’s nutrition journals.