Winter is a time of year which many of us find hard. Usually we’d have Christmas and New Year celebrations to cheer us up, but this year those were cruelly cancelled by coronavirus. Now all we want to do is get through the next few months until the spring arrives, bringing with it lighter evenings and more opportunities to see friends and family outdoors.
But we are not helpless and can take active steps to endure the winter with a better frame of mind. For example, did you know that the food we eat actually plays an important role in maintaining our mental health and mood? If we eat well, we’re more likely to feel well. So, here are five foods we can eat and things we can do to help keep our spirits high any time of the year.
1. Fill up on fruit and veg
Researchers from University College London reviewed the dietary habits of 32,908 people in France, Australia, Spain, UK and the US and found similar patterns around the world. They looked at 41 studies published over the last eight years.
They found that compared with typical Western diets – full of meat, processed foods, saturated fat and sugar – people who follow the classic Mediterranean diet were around 33 per cent less likely to develop depression.
Fruit and vegetables, pulses (peas, beans and lentils) and nuts all tend to be higher in fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidant dense polyphenols which can reduce inflammation, which has been linked to depression.
2. Give yourself a berry boost
Berries in particular have been shown by independent long-term studies to have a protective effect on the brain due to their high flavonoid content.
Flavonoids are a group of natural compounds found only in plants, they have antioxidant properties and might be neuroprotective. In studies, a high intake of flavonoids, especially from berries, slowed rates of cognitive decline.
3. Nuts aren’t just for Christmas
Nuts are one of the best natural sources of melatonin – a hormone that regulates sleep – especially pistachios and walnuts. We all know we’re not at our best if we’ve had a bad night’s sleep.
Walnuts are also higher in the omega-3 fatty acid ALA than any other nut, which is converted by the body into a different omega-3 fatty acid, known as DHA. DHA is thought to help regulate serotonin and dopamine, which influence mood and sleep. Some studies have found links between introducing nuts into the diet and improvements in mood.
You can also get DHA from flaxseed and algae-derived supplements.
4. Take everything with a pinch of nooch
Extreme tiredness, lack of energy, pins and needles sensation, muscle weakness, depression and cognitive problems have been linked to a deficiency of vitamin B12.
Fortunately, it’s easy to obtain from fortified nutritional yeast, yeast extracts and supplements. Viva! recommends that you take a daily B12 supplement providing 50 micrograms per day.
5. Keep your spirits high by keeping your spirit intake low
It might be an unpopular suggestion, but despite many people relying on alcohol as a pick-me-up, it is in fact a depressant. So, after all the over-indulgence of the holiday period, it’s not surprising our mood might dip as the New Year gets underway. The truth is, to keep our spirits high, we should keep our spirit intake low.
Alcohol also affects the quality of our sleep (even if we think it helps) which has a knock-on effect on our mood.
Of course, although diet is important, it is not the only factor affecting mood. Try and get some cardiovascular exercise at least three times a week, a good night’s sleep of around eight or nine hours and spend time connecting with friends – at the moment that might mean virtually, using Zoom or Skype for example!
Note: Winter blues is different from acute clinical depression. If you think you are suffering from depression, please talk to someone and seek professional help.