It’s dark when I wake up in the morning and dark before I leave work! I don’t know about you, but I’m already starting to miss the sun! These cold, short days are getting to me early this year.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that’s related to a change in the seasons. It can start in the fall and continue into the winter months, draining your energy and making you feel moody. We might not be able to change the seasons, but we can change what we do and how we respond. Sometimes we just have to create our own sunshine!
Here are some of my tried-and-true tips for boosting your mood during the dark days of winter!
1. Boost Your Happy Hormones
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter and hormone that regulates sleep, mood and appetite. An imbalance of serotonin can cause anxiety, irritability, chronic pain and depression.
Ways to Increase Serotonin
Choose positive thoughts: When we choose to remember happy events in the past, or focus on what we’re grateful for, our brains produce more serotonin. You are the gatekeeper of your mind and your mind has the power to shape your reality. Every thought we have impacts a field of energy around us. Allow positive thoughts and gratitude to guide you.
Fun in the sun: Exposure to sunlight aids in the production of serotonin. Increase outdoor activities as best you can. When the snow comes, try to enjoy fun winter activities like ice skating, skiing, tobogganing, building snowmen, or simply take a bundled up walk through a park with some hot chocolate. Dark chocolate of course!
Low intensity exercise: Serotonin increases from aerobic exercise and lingers in our system afterwards. A study from Harvard University suggests fast paced walking for about 35 minutes a day five times a week, or 60 minutes a day three times a week improved symptoms of mild to moderate depression. Exercising under bright lights may be even better for seasonal depression. A preliminary study found that exercise under bright light improved general mental health, social functioning, symptoms of depression, and vitality.
Friendly food combining: Foods high in the essential amino acid tryptophan are a precursor to serotonin. Try eating slow release complex carbohydrates in combination with those containing tryptophan. The release of insulin from the carbohydrate will allow the tryptophan to be carried to the brain.
When most people hear the word tryptophan, they probably think of turkey and Thanksgiving dinner, but there are plenty of other food sources of this wonderful amino acid! Notice how some foods on the list below are both a source of tryptophan and complex carbs. Bonus!
Tryptophan Containing Foods
Brown rice, quinoa, chickpeas, sprouted tofu, bananas, oats, spinach, cabbage, asparagus, broccoli, watercress, turnip greens, seaweed, spirulina, kidney beans, lima beans, mung beans, hazelnuts, almonds, sunflower seeds, pistachios, walnuts, cashews, poppy seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, chia seeds, flax seeds, eggs, chicken, turkey, whey protein powder
Sweet potatoes, pumpkin, squash, carrots, peas, quinoa, brown rice, steel cut oats, amaranth, buckwheat, millet, beans, lentils, legumes, chickpeas, chia seeds
Mood Boosting Meal Ideas
• Hummus collard wrap and sweet potato salad with pumpkin seeds and walnuts
• Strawberry banana, coconut yogurt smoothie with ground chia seeds
• Fully Loaded quinoa breakfast bowl
• Banana nut cinnamon oatmeal sprinkled with hemp seeds
• Quinoa salad with chickpeas and broccoli florets topped with ground flax seed
2. Eat a Balanced Diet
A lot of us crave sweet, salty, high-fat foods in high stress situations or when we’re depressed because these types of foods stimulate the brain to release pleasure chemicals that reduce tension. This soothing effect is so addictive and habit-forming that we literally train ourselves to crave comfort foods every time we feel anxious.
A lack of healthy food in the diet can lead to nutritional deficiencies. This will create imbalances in the body and contribute to low moods and depression. Eat a large variety of whole foods to ensure you are getting enough of the following vitamins and minerals.
Common Deficiencies That Contribute to Low Moods and Depression
B vitamins are necessary for the normal functioning of the nervous system and naturally boost our energy levels. They are also known as anti-stress vitamins and are an important contributor in the biochemical production of serotonin. A deficiency in any B vitamin, especially B6, B1, B3 and B12 can impair the body’s ability to manufacture serotonin.
The good news is there is a bountiful list of foods containing B vitamins, many of which also contain tryptophan! It’s always a good idea to get B vitamins from eating whole foods, but if you choose to take a supplement, look for a full spectrum B complex.
Food Sources of B Vitamins: Cabbage, cantaloupe, green leafy vegetables, spinach, walnuts, almonds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, bananas, turnip, cauliflower, oats, bell peppers, peas, collards, avocado, nutritional yeast, rice bran, blackstrap molasses, whole grains, quinoa, tuna, halibut, salmon, cod, chicken and turkey.
* Beneficial bacteria found in fermented foods also help manufacture B vitamins right down inside your gut. This means enjoying things like sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha not only help with digestive health, but also contribute to serotonin production!
Essential Fatty Acids
A great deal of scientific data links low tissue levels of EPA and DHA to a host of mental/emotional disorders, including depression.
Food Sources: Fish, fish oil, chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, almonds, avocado
A deficiency in vitamin D, also known as the ‘sunshine vitamin’, can be linked to depression, lack of energy and low moods. This time of year, short days means less exposure to sun, and less vitamin D. Are you getting enough? Read up on it >> here.
Chronically low magnesium levels coupled with a lack of sunshine can have a significant impact on mood and energy levels. Magnesium helps reduce anxiety, improves circulation and is a major factor in the production of serotonin and melatonin, both of which can play a crucial role in seasonal affective disorder.
Magnesium Foods: Oats, almonds, hemp seeds, peas, brown rice, sweet potatoes, salmon and dark chocolate.
Zinc is another important co-factor required for increasing serotonin levels. Zinc supplementation has been shown to have antidepressant effects. Studies have shown that blood zinc concentration levels in depressed individuals is lower than in non-depressed control groups. Additionally, there was evidence that incrementally lower zinc levels correlated positively with the severity of clinical depression.
Sources of Zinc
Kelp, legumes, lima beans, pecans, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, whole grains, alfalfa, cayenne, parsley, sage, dandelion, fennel seed, wild yam, eggs, fish, oysters, liver
3. Skip the Sugar, You’re Sweet Enough Already!
Studies have shown that sugar actually lights up the pleasure and reward center of our brain, the same way it does when we’re falling in love. Sugar and other quick fix carbs give us an instant lift because they trigger the release of serotonin, which calms and soothes us – our very own built in chill pill, if you will. But, when we use sugary snacks to boost serotonin, we create a bigger problem by depleting our natural serotonin stores over time.
Low serotonin can often intensify cravings for sugar. This is the body’s way of trying to increase serotonin since eating sugar produces insulin, which helps carry tryptophan to the brain. Too much sugar however can eventually lead to insulin resistance.
Instead, try satisfying your sweet tooth in a healthier way with low glycemic fruit such as apples or blueberries, or with a protein packed snack like almond butter or hemp butter on celery or apple slices. Replace white sugar with more nutrient dense sweeteners like coconut sugar or maple syrup.
4. Feel Serene With L-Theanine
You might not have ever heard of L-theanine, but there’s a good chance you’ve had it without even knowing it! L-Theanine is an amino acid found in green tea. Studies have shown L-theanine significantly increases activity in the alpha waves in the brain, creating a feeling of relaxation, while maintaining mental alertness and the ability to focus. L-Theanine is also available in capsule form or chewable tablets.
5. That Magic Touch
Not only does physical touch help manage stress levels by lowering cortisol and increasing dopamine and serotonin, but studies have also shown it can boost the immune system and even slow the progress of disease. One study conducted by the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine shows that massage increases serotonin by 28% and decreases cortisol by 31%.
Other forms of healing touch include hugging your partner, cuddling, Reiki, contact between breastfeeding mothers and their babies, and owners interacting with their pets.
6. Himalayan Salt Lamps
Himalayan salt lamps are made from large rock crystals of salt. They give off a soft, soothing light and have been credited with providing various health benefits including relief from allergies, fatigue and depression. Positive ions are released by electrical devices such as computer screens, televisions, and telephones. Exposure to excess positive ions can cause feelings of lethargy, fatigue, and even depression. Salt lamps can help bring emotional balance into our lives because they generate negative ions, which help us to feel more energized and uplifted.