Staying cheerful during the winter months can be a challenge, especially if sunlight is rare and temperatures are frigid. Apart from methods such as light therapy, talk therapy and making a point to spend more time outdoors, there are some changes you can make to your diet to really help amp up your mood when you need it most.
Studies show that what you eat may have a profound impact on not just your physical health, but also your mental and emotional health. Experts claim that there is a direct pathway from the gut to the brain, which means that the state of your gut can potentially have a direct impact on the state of your mental wellbeing. To ensure that the messages from the gut to the brain are positive, try the following foods and see their benefits.
What to Get More Of
You may have heard this before, but it's worth repeating: chocolate, specifically dark chocolate, can improve your mood by helping to reduce stress hormones. This is most likely due to the antioxidants in dark chocolate, but either way it's nice knowing that your chocolate habit may be beneficial. Just remember to account for the high calorie content of a small amount of the tasty treat.
Forget the stigma against carbs. The reality is that carbohydrates can promote healthy levels of serotonin, the “feel-good” brain chemical. Several studies have even led to the idea that the stress of following a low carb diet may have more negative impacts than positive upon your emotional well-being.
Leafy green vegetables, such as broccoli and especially spinach, have high vitamin B content. The important ones to look for include folate and vitamins B-3, B-6 and B-12. That feel-good chemical called serotonin needs proper vitamin B levels to be produced, so make sure you get enough. Spinach specifically provides about 30% of the recommended daily intake of some B vitamins in just one cup.
Fish—especially salmon, sardines or mackerel—is a key part of your diet that ensures proper levels of omega-3 fatty acids. These fatty acids have been shown to make up a large part of our brain tissue, and having lower levels has proven to cause more susceptibility to lower moods and energy. Omega-3s help keep brain cells flexible, which is key for helping neurotransmitters (“message chemicals”) function at their best.
Adding this spice to your diet may have similar effects on your mood that other popular mental medications are known to provide. In one study done on women suffering with PMS symptoms, saffron was shown to have cut the intensity of their negative symptoms in half after two months. Experts believe that it may help serotonin become more readily available in the brain.
Coconut has a wealth of health benefits, but its scent specifically can help calm us down. Studies have shown that people exposed to the fragrance of coconut experienced reduced blood pressure. In other words, it can help slow the heart rate for more feelings of calm and less stress.
If you’re a coffee fanatic and can’t seem to shake the caffeine addiction, try switching to caffeinated black, green or oolong teas. Not only will you reduce brain fog with the caffeine, but you’ll benefit from theanine, an amino acid found specifically in these strains of tea. Theanine works side-by-side with caffeine to improve focus and attention. Less of that “fuzzy” feeling is sure to help your mood improve.
A banana a day may not keep the doctor away, but it’s a surefire way to help boost your mood. This fruit contains tryptophan and plenty of vitamins; vitamin B-6 specifically helps convert tryptophan into serotonin, which can ease your mood and aid sleep.
This should go without saying, but staying properly hydrated at all times does wonders for our body and mood. Even if your hydration levels are just slightly off, it can really affect the way your body functions. Therefore, to keep everything running smoothly and ensure that our mental and emotional health is at its best, aim for 1-2 liters of water each day.
What to Avoid
In addition to eating these foods, there are several foods to actively avoid if you're trying to ensure a stable and positive mood. Unfortunately, the typical Western diet relies heavily on these foods. With an awareness of what they do to your body, however, you can take control.
Sugar, particularly refined sugar, can wreak havoc on our health in a number of ways. It can cause fluctuations in blood sugar, of course, which can lead to mood swings, but it can also lead to chronic inflammation. Sugar sets off a chain of chemical reactions in the body that promote chronic inflammation, which overtime can destroy the immune system. A weakened immune system has been shown to lead to low moods and even depression. Doing what you can to lower your intake of refined sugar can help keep your immune system and emotional well-being strong and healthy.
Overconsumption of alcohol can affect your mood in several ways. Though there are studies out there that promote several positive effects of light consumption, it’s clear to most that heavy alcohol intake will lead to a poor mood. Alcohol interferes with REM sleep, causing a lower quality of sleep each night. We all know how poor sleep can affect our moods the next day. It can also cause dehydration, negative interactions with other medicines and those late-night cravings for other foods that work against us.
How processed foods affect your mood negatively is fairly transparent. Sugar, gluten, monosodium glutamate (MSG), synthetic ingredients, artificial colors and trans fats have all been shown in clinical studies to affect the mood. It’s safe to say that whole, natural foods are just generally easier on the body and thus better for your emotional health. When your physical self feels better, your mood will follow suit.
If you can commit to eating more of these good foods and less of the bad, chances are that you may see a positive change in your mood this winter season. This does not mean you can stop actively combatting the seasonal blues in other ways that work for you, but aligning your physical health with your mental health can be a huge help. Try this during the long winter months and see what changes for you. You may be pleasantly surprised.