We receive a lot of emails about how to lift your mood in the winter months when it all gets a bit dark and damp. It’s incredibly common to experience a dip in mood health in the midst of winter as the miserable weather deprives us of sunshine and time outdoors. There are lots of things you can do from a nutrition and lifestyle perspective to keep levels of feel good brain chemicals topped up and protect yourself against any nutrient deficiencies that might kick in during the winter months.
We’re sure many people have been googling “Am I SAD?” over the last few weeks as their mood health declines. Symptoms of depression are incredibly common this time of the year and referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). People experience a change in their mood, motivation and energy levels as the seasons change and it can often have a significant impact on day-to-day life. Many people turn to energy dense food or alcohol for comfort which then adds “seasonal affective weight gain” to the list of woes.
The Lack of Light
As human beings we’re designed to be outdoors and exposed to daylight, it makes us feel energised and happier, we can get away with less sleep and naturally want to be more active. Sunlight helps our body produce vitamin D, which is essential for mood health, bones, blood pressure, optimal hormonal function and our immune response. Vitamin D then plays a fundamental role in the suppression of certain autoimmune diseases and cancers. It’s role in human health is being continually explored and some researchers have even suggested that Vitamin D may actually be a hormone or at least a pro-hormone (hormone precursor).
Furthermore when our eyes detect light a message is sent to the hypothalamus in the brain, the gland that governs hormonal output and therefore impacts sleep health, appetite, libido, body temperature and mood health. Without sufficient light all these functions may be affected. When our eyes detect that it’s dark, the pineal gland in the brain produces the sleep hormone melatonin. Some studies have observed people with SAD may produce higher levels of melatonin levels in winter than those who do not suffer from symptoms.
Whilst many of us know it’s important to eat nutritious food and move on a daily basis, it’s actually equally important to expose your skin to daylight and get a good dose of vitamin D (and ditch the daily sun block habit!). The following are some useful steps you can implement to keep the smile on your face throughout the seasons:
1) Get Daily Daylight and Supplement With Vitamin D
Our skin contains a precursor to vitamin D and when the sun’s ultraviolet rays come into contact with the skin, they convert the precursor to vitamin D3. The liver and kidneys convert this D3 to a molecule called calcitriol and this is the active form of vitamin D our body can use. Only small amounts of vitamin D are available from food (mainly wild salmon, mackerel, cod liver oil and foods fortified with vitamin D). To protect against bone diseases, degenerative diseases and autoimmune diseases it is vital to maintain adequate levels of vitamin D. Ideally you should have your levels tested before supplementing, many GPs now offer this especially if you experience symptoms of depression as the seasons change or suffer from bone diseases. You can also be tested online via a postal kit here.
Darker skin contains more melanin which protects the skin against UVB radiation and therefore supplementation is likely to be more necessary. There is also a genetic mutation many people have that means you may have less vitamin D receptors and therefore your supplement needs increase. It’s important to keep your fat soluble vitamins in balance by eating organ meats, grass fed diary and fermented foods, supplementing with cod liver oil is also helpful. If you chose to supplement look for a brand with added K2 to improve ultilisation, such as Nutri Advanced or Designs For Health. Around 2000 IU’s is the recommended maintenance dose, test levels before supplementing with higher amounts.
How Much Daylight?
If you live in the tropics or subtropics you are exposed to UVB rays all year-round and can get most of your vitamin D requirements from sensible sun exposure. If you live in the mid-latitudes or high latitudes (Europe is in the high latitudes) you have little exposure to UVB from mid autumn to mid spring so your body needs to to rely on vitamin D stores, food and supplements.
As so many factors influence vitamin D production (latitude, time of year, skin colour, age, time of day) a little rule of thumb you can adopt is to consider how long it takes your skin to change to change colour when exposed to sunlight, this is known as your minimal erythemal dose. Aim to expose your arms, legs and face to sunlight each day for about 25-30% of your minimal erythemal dose. This will vary each day and this book provides a little more detailed guidance.
REMEMBER having more does not improve health. Excess levels of vitamin D can lead can issues with calcium deposition including kidney stones. Too much sun exposure may increase your risk of skin cancer, so use a natural sunscreen if you know you’ll be out in the sun for a while.
2) Let There Be Light
You can use your own lights at home to help boost the hormones you need to get up and go. Consider a light alarm clock or SAD lamp for your desk to improve light exposure. Some research suggests three 10 minute stints on a UVB sunbed may also be helpful. Not to mention just getting outdoors more!
3) Boost Feel Good Chemicals Before Breakfast
Exercise first thing in the day, keep it easy and accessible so you’re more likely to do it. A 20 minute walk, quick round of yoga sun salutations or a bodyweight training sessions are a good place to start. The exercise will boost endorphins and serotonin, obviously doing this outdoors is even better.
4) Eat Good Mood Food
Generally following a Fitter Food model of eating should ensure you’re topped up with all the essential nutrients for healthy mood function. However, the following is a quick reminder of the what and why’s:
- Carbohydrates: Avoid going too low carb if you struggle with low moods, carbohydrates are important for serotonin production, test your glucose levels to assess your tolerance and eat enough to keep good sugar levels stable. The source is most important and ensure you favour unprocessed, home prepped carbohydrates rather than flour based, refined products. Potatoes, root vegetables, rice, legumes and fruit are all excellent sources.
- Eat Fermented Foods Daily : Gut health plays a fundamental role in the balance of hormones and neurotransmitters so taking a daily dose of the good bugs for your gut keeps the balance in favour of beneficial bacteria. Either make your own or jump onto Happy Kombucha for some kimchi, kombucha or sauerkraut.
- Eat Tryptophan Rich Foods: This is the amino acid precursor to serotonin (our good mood chemical) and foods with the highest levels include pumpkin seeds, poultry, lamb, beef, cheese, tuna, nuts and eggs. Good meal options would be cottage cheese with pumpkin seeds and berries for breakfast, a tuna Nicoise salad with roasted vegetables for lunch and these Turkey, Spinach and Sweet Potato Burger for dinner.
- Get the B Vits In: Getting a good serving of B vitamins into your nutrition is imperative for mood health (and a dozen other health goals). Take 1-2 raw eggs yolks daily or chop liver into small pieces and freeze so you can take like capsules. I stick them into a morning smoothie with berries and vanilla protein powder and you would never know they were there!
5) Lift Up Your Living Space
Scandinavian countries are renowned for making their living space a beautiful environment as their long winters and shorter days mean they spend a great deal of time indoors. You can make your home environment mood enhancing with the following:
- Natural candles or aromatherapy oil burners – scents have a powerful effect on our state of mind, lavender can help you relax or ylang yang has an uplifting effect.
- House plants – to add some oxygen and energise your living space, check out this great guide.
- Salt lamps to improve air quality and create a cosy glow.
- Have a portable speaker for your phone or laptop and whack on a playlist of your favourite feel good tunes. Keep it playing all day long 🙂
6) Ditch The Health Hijackers & Hang With The High Fivers
This is pretty simple really; for every high there is always a low. Nailing a giant bag of sweets, tub of ice cream or a bottle of wine will simply take you down a gear the next day so try and focus on healthy highs. Swap the sugar, booze, excess caffeine and other comforts for some awesome plans with people who always make you feel good. Do something that gets all of you outdoors and finish up with some healthy scoff, a long walk in the park followed by a Sunday roast or a brunch totally fits the bill.
We’re also loving being part of Fitter 365 for this very reason. Of course we would say that given it’s our membership site, however, we couldn’t have wished for a more supportive and wonderful bunch of members = there’s banter, laughs and plenty of help, advice and kind words whenever you need it. You can jump in and join us here.