A Guest Blog by nutritionist, Kate Swaine Dip ION FdSc mBANT CNHC
This is the time of year when SAD (seasonal affective disorder) can start to kick in and many of us in northern climes are affected, women more so than men. As darkness increases, our production of neurotransmitters alters in response to the lack of daylight and it is thought that SAD sufferers may be particularly sensitive to these changes.
While nutrition can’t bring back the light, here are several diet and lifestyle strategies for boosting your mood this winter.
Supplement with vitamin D3 during the winter
Vitamin D works like a hormone in our body and has a known effect on our mood. Even after summer, many of us start winter low in vitamin D as we spend too much time indoors. SAD sufferers are often low in vitamin D. You can test your levels at www.vitamindtest.or.uk or ask your GP and if you’re low or towards the lower end of the reference range then supplement. I would advise anywhere between 1000 and 6000 iu daily depending on levels. Please note that too much vitamin D can be toxic, so don’t take very high levels for months on end without professional advice.
If you notice your cravings for carbs increase at this time of year, you might be low in serotonin. Serotonin can fall in winter due to the increase in darkness. Tryptophan is an amino acid found in some foods and helps us to make serotonin. Turkey is really high in tryptophan, chicken has some too as does fish, seafood and game. You’ll also find it in oats, bananas, milk, cottage cheese, lettuce and seaweed. Warming stews and porridge all round then! Tryptophan rich foods can also be helpful if you’re having trouble sleeping as it also helps us to make sleep inducing melatonin. Also, be wary of very low carb diets if you are prone to SAD as carbohydrates can help us to make serotonin as well.
Make sure you consume omega 3s from oily fish - organic/wild salmon, mackerel, sardines, herrings, fresh tuna - and also from hemp seeds, flax and chia seeds. Fish is a more bioavailable source of omega 3s than the seeds as it contains the fatty acids with all the beneficial properties, EPA and DHA. Seeds contain ALA, which we then have to convert to EPA and DHA. Sometimes, due to genetics or a lack of co-factors (B vitamins, zinc) we don’t make this conversion well, so fish remains the optimum source of omega 3s. We need these omega 3s for effective communication between brain cells, so even with good amounts of serotonin, they are a vital part of healthy mood. It can also be worth supplementing with a good fish oil.
Pack your diet with B vitamins which are found in most whole, natural foods, from animal produce, to vegetables, to grains, to nuts and seeds. So, in theory if we eat a lot of these foods, we shouldn’t have low levels of B vitamins. However, this isn’t always the case. Stress, a high sugar diet, alcohol and medications can all affect vitamin B levels. B12, folate and B6 are needed in a biochemical process called methylation, involved in the production and metabolism of hormones and neurotransmitters affecting mood. Some of us don’t methylate very well and may benefit from supplementing these nutrients. You can find this out by testing certain genes or by finding out levels of an amino acid called homocysteine.
This may seem dull or unrealistic (notice "limit" not "avoid") especially when you’re feeling low but the problem with refined sugars, cakes, pastries etc is that they can give you a lift temporarily and then send you plummeting, both mood and energy wise, leaving you feeling quite unstable. When you do have something sweet, try to combine it with some protein (nuts, seeds, or following a meal) and stick to once or twice a week if you’re trying to improve your mood this winter.
Look after your gut
Up to 80% of serotonin is made in the gut and we are also learning more and more each year about the gut/brain axis and the ability our gut bacteria have to affect our mental health. This means keeping sugar and alcohol low, and having as wide a range of vegetables as possible, lots of vitamin A from eggs and liver from time to time, vitamin D and avoiding foods you know are troublesome to you. Supplements vary from person to person, but a good probiotic can help to provide a healthy gut environment.
Get enough sleep
Sometimes SAD can mean you want to sleep all the time and other times you can suffer from insomnia. But in general, it’s so important to rest well to be able to cope with low mood and to help improve it. If you’re having problems, all of the nutritional points above may help and also consider magnesium. We are often low in this mineral and it can really help sleep and relaxation. Eat lots of dark green leafy veg, such as broccoli and kale or watercress and rocket, plus nuts and seeds. Supplementation may also be beneficial.
Get outdoors when you can
This can help support your circadian (natural) rhythm of hormones. Getting outside first thing in the morning when it’s light (ok, so not quite first thing in Scotland!) can be extremely beneficial for this
Invest in a light box
These are great and mimic bright natural light so on a dull dark day your brain thinks it’s getting daylight. You can either get the kind that you wear as a visor in the morning for a period, or a box that sits on your desk, especially good if you work from home!
Rest up and enjoy yourself!
And last but by no means least, find time to rest and do some things you enjoy. Winter is a time for hibernation in nature, everything slows down, except modern day us! This can be exhausting and can end up contributing to feeling low. Give yourself permission to do something nice for yourself: have a massage, read a good book, go out for dinner with family or friends, have a warm bath or, the piece de resistance in terms of SAD medicine……book a holiday somewhere sunny!