Fall, Foods, and Brighter Moods
Here in my neck of the woods, there have been some hints of autumn with cooler mornings and evenings, but we are still in the 90s during the day. But the changing of the weather (not quite SWEATER WEATHER) has a couple of questions popping into my inbox. They can be summed in two basic queries: “I am early in my recovery and have previously battled SAD–largely by eating. What can I do?” and “Can certain foods help keep me energized and in a good mood during dreary months?”
First, I am not a doctor, so I can offer only what I have seen in personal or professional scope as a certified holistic and nutrition coach. If you are suffering from significant anxiety, depression, or mood swings, please consult an appropriate physician or qualified medical professional.
Seasonal depression is a more common term for a condition named SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). SAD is a recurring depression that often occurs in the late fall and winter months. Contrary to common belief, there are some actions you can take that can really help combat seasonal depression long before you feel its effects.
Can food help us maintain a good mood?
During cooler months, it can be easy to hunker down and just be inside more. If you’ve ever found yourself in front of the TV after a bad day, mindlessly digging ice cream out of the container with a spoon or plowing through a bag of chips, you know that mood and food are sometimes linked. This can be made worse during periods of shut-in or isolation. But while stress eating is a verified phenomenon, the relationship between food and actual mood disorders, such as depression, is less clear. Can the things you eat influence your mood, stress, or anxiety — and if so, what are some changes that can potentially improve your mental health or boost your outlook?
“The research regarding dietary factors and depression is still inconclusive,” says Patricia Chocano-Bedoya, a visiting scientist in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. But there have been hints that food may play a role in depression and mood.
Food-based Strategies That May Help
I have found, even if only anecdotally, a snack and a nap can go a long way with both mood and energy-which can negatively impact your mood and tolerance levels. The following strategies can be incorporated by nearly everyone.
If your blood sugar drops you might feel tired, irritable and depressed. Eating regularly and choosing foods that release energy slowly will help to keep your sugar levels steady.
Slow-release energy foods include: pasta, rice, oats, wholegrain bread and cereals, nuts and seeds.
- Enjoy your meals mindfully. Mindful eating can increase your enjoyment of the present moment.
- Eating breakfast gets the day off to a good start.
- Instead of eating a large lunch and dinner, try eating smaller portions spaced out more regularly throughout the day if possible and feasible for your habits and lifestyle.
- Sometimes pairing a fat or protein rich food with foods which make your blood sugar rise and fall rapidly, such as sweets, biscuits, sugary drinks, and alcohol can be a good way to enjoy those foods.
If you don’t drink enough fluid, you may find it difficult to concentrate or think clearly. You might also start to feel constipated (which puts no one in a good mood).
- It’s recommended that you drink between 6–8 glasses of fluid a day.
- Clean water is a precious gift so take advantage of it when possible!
- Tea, coffee, juices, smoothies, and water-rich foods all count towards your intake.
Getting Nutrient Variety Each Day
Vegetables and fruit contain a lot of the minerals, vitamins and fiber we need to keep us physically and mentally healthy.
Eating a variety of different colored fruits and vegetables, as well as seasonal picks when possible, means you’ll get a good range of nutrients. For example, folate, thiamine, and magnesium are believed to heighten your mood. Research has shown that these minerals positively impact those with depression.
- Fresh, frozen, tinned, dried and juiced (one glass) fruits and vegetables all count towards your 5 a day.
- Choose fall foods like lentils, leafy greens, pistachios, and pumpkin seeds as great sources of these minerals.
Looking after your gut
Sometimes your gut can reflect how you are feeling emotionally. If you’re stressed or anxious this can make your gut slow down or speed up. For healthy digestion you need to have plenty of fiber, fluid and exercise regularly.
Healthy gut foods include: fruits, vegetables and wholegrains, beans, pulses, live yogurt and other probiotics.
- It might take your gut time to get used to a new eating pattern, so make changes slowly to give yourself time to adjust.
- If you’re feeling stressed and you think it is affecting your gut, try some relaxation techniques or breathing exercises.
Getting enough protein
Protein contains amino acids, which make up the chemicals your brain needs to regulate your thoughts and feelings. It also helps keep you feeling fuller for longer.
Protein is in: lean meat, fish, eggs, cheese, legumes (peas, beans and lentils), soya products, nuts and seeds.
Whatever your diet, why not do some research into other foods that contain protein, and find something new to try?
Caffeine is a stimulant, which means it will give you a quick burst of energy, but then may make you feel anxious and depressed, disturb your sleep (especially if you have it before bed), or give you withdrawal symptoms if you stop suddenly.
Caffeine is in: tea, coffee, chocolate, cola and other manufactured energy drinks.
- If you drink tea, coffee or cola, try switching to decaffeinated versions.
- You might feel noticeably better quite quickly if you drink less caffeine or avoid it altogether. If you are sensitive to caffeine, experiment with alternatives like chai tea or a full-bodied tea.
Eating the right fats
Your brain needs fatty acids (such as omega-3 and -6) to keep it working well. So rather than avoiding all fats, it’s important to eat foods that contain some of these.
Healthy fats are found in: oily fish, poultry, nuts (especially walnuts and almonds), olive and sunflower oils, seeds (such as sunflower and pumpkin), avocados, milk, yoghurt, cheese and eggs.
Additional Tips to Stave off SAD
Enjoy the sunshine
If you are able to get outside during the day, do so as often as possible. When it is not, consider the purchase sunlamps that mimic the rays of the sun. Light therapy is one of the most recommended treatments for seasonal depression.
- Sunlamps can cost anywhere from $100 to $250. However, the special sunlamp replacement bulbs can cost as little as $10 for a pack of three.
Nurture your social life
Being socially active is an important part of keeping up your spirits during the wintertime. Avoiding feelings of isolation and loneliness are probably the second-best thing that you can do to feel the warm fuzzies that can keep us in good spirits.
- Have a weekly dinner with your friends. If the weather is nasty, host a dinner in your home or head over to your friends’ house for a nice evening. If the weather allows, head out for a weekly cocktail night with the girls or poker night with the boys
- Vacation in the winter instead of the summer! This may be a good choice if you are really affected by seasonal depression. If your budget doesn’t allow for two vacations a year, try swapping out the summer one for a winter one. Additionally, maybe it can be a gift to you and your family at the holidays. It may also help you avoid the stressfulness of holidays too!
Take Care of Your Body
Taking care of the physical needs often take back seat in the winter. Let this season be a time of rejuvenation and pampering instead!
- Make an effort to exercise daily. Video games that are action based (we love our dancing ones!) can be helpful. Online classes and virtual apps can keep you going all year!
- Wear clothes that make you feel good. I tend to dress for comfort but always feel better if I wear “outside” people clothes inside or for meetings!
- Maintain a healthy skincare regimen. This can be a real treat in the drier climates!
I certainly hope that you find something of value here ahead of the longer nights and the onset of SAD this year! If you have any other tips, please comment and pass it on to someone who may benefit!
Share this with someone you think will be uplifted and put the tips to use!