Five Foods to Fight The Winter Blues
In some form or another, we’ve all experienced those dreaded winter blues. As the leaves finish falling off the trees and the sky turns a bleak shade of grey, many of us find it more and more difficult to get out of bed in the morning and look forward to the day ahead. Lacking physical energy and mental acuity, we sometimes find the gratitude and optimism we experienced over the summer months transform into a sense of loneliness and dissatisfaction in our lives. Let’s face it…winter is an unpleasant time for most New Yorkers. Whether or not your symptoms would lead to a full-blown diagnosis of Seasonal Affective Disorder, the winter blues are real and can take a dramatic toll on your mental health and overall wellbeing.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and its sub clinical counterpart, our lovely friend winter blues, reflect a biochemical imbalance in our brains brought on by lack of sunlight in winter. When we don’t get enough sun, our bodies produce less serotonin, a hormone associated with wakefulness and elevated mood, and more melatonin, the sleep hormone, which causes us to become tired, lethargic and less motivated to take part in the activities that normally bring us a sense of joy and accomplishment.
While some of us like to wallow in our misery and hibernate during winter, others may use this less socially demanding season to start fresh and practice healthy habits such as getting optimal sleep and regularly exercising to stay warm and increase endorphins. For those of you whose winter behavior sounds more like the first description, don’t feel bad – you are not alone!
While getting enough sleep, regularly exercising, and staying socially active despite the urge to hibernate are some of the most effective ways to prevent the winter blues, these activities can seem quite difficult when you’re feeling lethargic and entrenched in a SAD state of mind. The good news is, you don’t have to drastically change your lifestyle to start feeling better. Baby steps can lead to great change and lucky for you, simply eating certain serotonin enhancing foods could be the first step towards creating an upward spiral of lasting energy and improved mood. To easily and effectively ward off winter blues incorporate the following five foods into your diet:
1) Salmon – Salmon contains large amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, which help maintain healthy levels of serotonin and dopamine, the hormones linked to mood that tend to be depleted in the winter due to lack of sunlight. According to Dr. Stephen IIardi, author of The Depression Cure, growing research indicates the specific forms of omega-3 fats found in salmon have such strong health benefits that regular consumption can not only prevent depression but also reduce anger and irritability.
2) Lean Meats (turkey, chicken) – Turkey and chicken are a great source of energy, helping to beat fatigue. Low in fat and high in protein, turkey and chicken will help you stay full and satisfied for longer, preventing irritability or “hanger” as some of us are known for exhibiting in between meals. In addition, protein found in lean meats is composed of many amino acids, including tryptophan, the necessary ingredient for producing serotonin and tyrosine, which is vital to dopamine production and helps cope with stress more efficiently.
3) Dark Chocolate (at least 70% cocoa) – Dark chocolate has been proven to increase serotonin levels in the brain and is believed to increase serotonin in the gut as well. This means that not only does dark chocolate improve your mood, but it should also improve your immune system! By eating moderate amounts of high quality dark chocolate we are not only lifting our spirits through raised serotonin and endorphin levels, we could also be decreasing our chances of catching those persistent coughs and colds that plague us in winter.
4) Walnuts – Walnuts are one of the richest plant based sources of omega-3 fatty acids. They have been called the “ultimate brain food” as they are known to not only improve mood through increased serotonin production but according to a 2009 Tufts University study, regular consumption of walnuts also increases cognitive functioning, causing you to feel more alert and focused.
5) Fortified Cereal (made with whole grains and low added sugar) – Carbohydrates are responsible for transporting tryptophan, earlier mentioned as the amino acid essential for serotonin production, from the blood to the brain. As a result, without carbohydrate consumption it would be difficult to naturally produce serotonin. Fortified cereals, made with whole grains and low-added sugar, provide these carbohydrates necessary for serotonin production, while keeping you full and satisfied. In addition, fortified cereals are high in important vitamins and nutrients, including vitamin D, which we typically get from the sun. Examples of healthy fortified cereals include Kashi GoLean or Kashi Heart to Heart Honey Toasted Oat Cereal.
As a graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, I am a believer in a concept called “crowding out.” By eating more vegetables, fruits, and other nutrient-dense foods, your cravings for less healthy foods will naturally diminish as there just isn’t as much room in your stomach for the processed junk food or overeating that contributes to feeling lethargic and generally crappy. If we crowd out foods known to increase fatigue and irritability, including refined carbohydrates such as pastries or bagels, through eating more of the foods proven to elevate mood, such as the ones discussed in this article, we will be on our way to overcoming those winter blues. If changing your diet doesn’t seem to be enough to get you through this difficult time, click here and we can provide you with some extra support!
Allison Lewin, LMSW
KIP Senior Fellow