Mood-boosting foods to lift you out of the winter doldrums

We have a long stretch of this bleak season ahead of us, but a few dietary tweaks can help.

We have a long stretch of this bleak season ahead of us, but a few dietary tweaks can help.

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Outside the frosty windows of my office the snow is falling on the picturesque streets of Lunenburg, NS. It's been snowing all day and the skies are grey and heavy. We have a few more months of cold, short days ahead before these streets are bustling again with camera-wielding tourists, but in the meantime some people will be struggling with the "winter blues".

The "winter blues" are mild for some people and more intense for others, who suffer from a type of clinical depression known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). It affects women more than men and gets worse the farther away we live from the Equator. There are treatments for this, including light therapy, and if you think you might be affected, you may want to consult with your doctor. But if you're looking for ways to combat more minor winter doldrums, and a move to the Caribbean isn't in the cards, try lifting your spirits with these mood-boosting foods.

Complex carbs

Sugar and refined carbohydrates, like white bread, cookies and doughnuts, might provide quick energy and a mood boost, but that sugar high soon wears off and we come crashing down and start craving the next quick hit of energy (AKA more sugar). To keep our energy and mood steady, reach for more fibre-rich complex carbs like vegetables, fruits, whole grains like brown rice and quinoa, and legumes like peas, beans, lentils and chickpeas. Not only do these whole foods keep us feeling full longer, they provide tryptophan which raises our serotonin levels, which may in turn lift our mood. Some foods to try that are particularly rich in mood-lifting nutrients include beans, lentils, bananas, berries and pumpkin seeds.

Proteins

Along with good quality carbs, we need plenty of protein like those found in meat, fish, poultry, seafood, eggs, dairy, nuts, seeds, beans and legumes. Protein promotes the production of the neurotransmitters that make us feel alert and combat fatigue. It is also necessary for building and repairing muscle tissue. Along with complex carbohydrates, protein foods are a rich source of the B vitamins which are essential in keeping our brains and nervous system functioning optimally.  Eggs, salmon and nuts are especially easy to include in your diet and feature an array of mood-boosting nutrients. Fatty fish and eggs also provide us with Vitamin D and studies indicate that a deficiency in this "sunshine vitamin" may contribute to SAD.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids, found in oily fish like salmon and most nuts and seeds, are healthy fats that promote proper brain chemistry and may help balance mood and alleviate mild symptoms of depression. Try adding other oily fish, like tuna, anchovies and herring, as well as raw nuts and seeds like walnuts, almonds, Brazil nuts and ground flaxseed to your diet. In Nova Scotia, we love our Solomon Gundy (pickled herring) and serve it on crackers with a little dab of sour cream.

Fermented foods

Some studies indicate that the probiotics (healthy bacteria) found in fermented foods may help alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression. This research is still in its early stages, but we know that eating fermented foods is excellent for our gut health, so if you're suffering from the blues, it can't hurt to try. Try sauerkraut cold or warm as a side dish or add it to salad. Plain yogurt, kefir, miso and kimchi are other excellent sources of gut-healing probiotics.

Dark Chocolate

If sauerkraut and pickled herring aren't making your mouth water, here's something that might fit the bill: dark chocolate. This sweet treat causes the brain to release endorphins, which contribute to a positive feeling in our bodies and minds and reduce the perception of pain. Stick to dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa for best results. You're welcome!

One final note: eating regularly throughout the day and not letting yourself get too hungry is a key to keeping your mood and energy up and avoiding getting "hangry". Add in a little mood-boosting exercise most days, preferably outdoors, to help your spirits through our long Canadian winter.


Shannon Sponagle is a Nutritional Consultant and freelance writer living in Lunenburg, NS.