"Feelgood" Foods; fend off the blues with good nutrition

Yummy, healthy fresh foods that nourish you and help your body to produce seratonin can really help to lift your mood.

As the weather both here in the UK and in some areas Stateside is stubbornly refusing to give us a proper Spring, my thoughts have turned again to "comfort food".  When it's cold outdoors and the interminable Winter just seems to drag on, a bowl of something warm and yummy or sweet and gooey is just what we need to help us feel good about life again, isn't it? Perhaps not always: it's often not just a case of needing a little mood-boost either; the number of people suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is growing. These people can become debilitated by feelings of sadness, lethargy and even severe depression during the long Winter months when there is precious little daylight. Even now that the clocks have moved forward an hour and the evenings are lighter, there has been a distinct lack of sunshine in our lives. It is this sunshine that we currently don't have a lot of which stimulates our bodies to make Vitamin D, and lifts our mood so that we can tackle life head-on. So what to do when we don't have that? SAD sufferers often use sun- mimicking lamps which can be very effective, but a few dietary tweaks can also make a big difference to the way you feel, and even if you don't particularly suffer from SAD it's worth a go:

  1. Cut out the junk: Much as it's tempting to go and binge on sugary desserts, cake and chocolate, pizza, crisps and chips, this will not help at all beyond the immediate taste sensations. In fact as well as probably making you feel guilty afterwards, it will set up a vicious circle of eat junk- get short of nutrition- get no "boost" from what you eat and instead just get food cravings to make up the shortfall- eat more junk- feel even worse- go for the junk food again... you get the picture? Sugar is actually an antinutrient, and will "rob" the body of minerals, especially magnesium. Ultimately, it will make you feel worse! So resist heading for the icecream freezer and instead make sure you get plenty of micronutrient-rich fresh fruits and veggies, and a sensible protein-to-carbs ratio. In fact, there's nothing quite like a smoothie or a plate of greens to give you a nutrient and energy boost; and afterwards, if you still want chocolate, then you can go ahead and have a little!
  2. Chocolate: Yes, we know, chocolate is full of unhealthy sugar and fat, and no-one's suggesting you overdo it, BUT chocolate's reputation as a mood-lifter is not undeserved. Cocoa contains a substance called theobromine (Greek for "food of the gods") which as well as giving it it's naturally bitter taste is actually a mild stimulant related to caffeine and has even been found to ease bronchial asthma! Theobromine is also found in smaller amounts in tea, kola nut and guarana. If you want to make the most of the mood lift that chocolate has to offer, we'd recommend dark chocolate with a higher proportion of cocoa solids; even better of you can afford chocolate sweetened with xylitol rather than sugar.
  3. Watch your sugar and caffeine levels: Even if you are not eating refined sugar in cakes, biscuits, icecream, chocolate etc. you still may be causing your blood sugar levels to spike and then crash, leaving you feeling washed out and irritable. Do you get a "three o'clock slump" at work and go for caffeine or sweet things to boost your energy? This could be because you have eaten the wrong kind of lunch. Foods like potatoes (chips/ fries, crisps, jacket potatoes) and even pure fruit juice because there is no fibre to slow down its absorption can all raise your blood sugar level and then bring it  crashing down again. Any unrefined carbs can do this, so swap the white bread and pasta for wholemeal and consider something other than sandwiches for lunch. If you balance the carbs with plenty of protein this helps too. Low GI (glycaemic index) foods are now well known for their stabilising influence on blood sugar and therefore mood, and low GI diets are popular- but don't cut out carbs altogether, as the seratonin-boosting foods (see list below) need to be eaten with a little carbohydrate food in order to work properly.
  4. The seratonin factor: Seratonin is a chemical that occurs naturally in the body. Anti-depressant medicines often contain it. There are, however, certain foods which are rich in the large chain aminoacids tryptophan and tyrosine which can boost seratonin levels as these are the precursors  to seratonin. Foods rich to moderate in these are: banana and plantain, pineapple, kiwifruit, plums, melon, dates, figs, grapefruit, tomatoes, avocado, broccoli, black olives,cauliflower, aubergine and spinach. If you do eat dairy products, then these are also good seratonin boosters.
  5. Eat good oils: Oils rich on EFAs (essential fatty acids) like omegas are essential for your hormones. If your hormones are balanced and working well for you, then you're much more likely to maintain a stable mood. Include foods like flax seeds, nuts, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, hemp, legumes and olive oil as part of your healthy diet.
  6. Don't neglect excercise and sleep: Try to get adequate restful sleep and do some excercise. The benefits of excercise not only to fitness but also to mental wellbeing are well-attested, and regular excercise can even, for some people, take the place of antidepressant medicine. Good sleep and excercise will enhance your mood-lifting diet.
Note:  If you think you are suffering from anxiety, stress or depression, talk to your doctor; don't try to struggle on alone.



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