February is often a gloomy month and it can be hard to keep up your spirits, but changing the balance of the foods we eat can have a dramatic impact on our mood and motivation. The network of nutrition in our bodies is highly intricate, and too much or too little of a certain food can sometimes cause apparently unrelated symptoms, as it affects the enzymatic chain reactions in the body.
When you’re busy juggling work and family life, focusing on your own health and well-being often comes right at the end of the list, so here are some tips to make it easy for you to keep upbeat if you’re struggling to get through February.
Make sure your diet is rich in fibre, as this is really important to help to maintain a healthy digestive tract. Fibre promotes friendly bacteria and cell function in the gut. If you’re wondering what this has got to do with your mood, it all comes back to that notion of an intricate network. About 95% of the good mood neurotransmitter serotonin is produced in the gut, which scientists have started to recognise as our ‘second brain’. Serotonin manages a whole host of areas that impact our mood, such as happiness, sleep, appetite and sexual desire, so a deficiency can have a direct impact on well-being. If that’s the case, then making sure the production factory is in good order has to make sense.
The best sources of fibre are whole-grains and vegetables. A quick and easy way to boost your fibre intake is to swap to the ‘brown’ version of everything: wholemeal bread, brown rice, whole-wheat pasta. Aim for a high fibre morning cereal – something that contains around 5g of fibre per 50g serving, such as Lizi’s Original Granola, will give you a good start, bearing in mind that the recommended daily allowance is 24g. Make sure your lunchtime sandwich contains some salad, snack on vegetables such as carrots with hummus and add an extra portion of vegetables to your dinner to boost your daily intake.
If you’re feeling lethargic and a bit low, then B vitamins might be the issue, as they’re vital links in the chain reaction of energy production. They also play an essential role in converting nutrients into serotonin. All the B vitamins are important, as they work in synergy, targeting different areas, for example a deficiency in thiamine (vitamin B1) can cause emotional disturbances and a lack of niacin (vitamin B3) has been directly associated with depression.
Vegetables are a great source of the different B vitamins, but be careful how you cook them. B vitamins are water soluble, so all the goodness can end up in the water, if you’re not careful. Steaming is a much better option, or soups and casseroles can capture the vitamins in the juice. Brown rice is another excellent source of B vitamins, but if this isn’t popular at home, you could always add some to a lunchtime salad instead. Stress, alcohol and the oral contraceptive pill all deplete B vitamins, so you may need to factor in an extra boost if any of these apply to you.
Tense, nervous headache? Tight neck and shoulders? Sluggish bowel? All of these can really impact your mood, so it could be time to look at your magnesium levels. Magnesium regulates muscle contraction and relaxation as well as nerve function, so a deficiency can cause a range of symptoms from migraine, by constricting the blood vessels in the brain, to constipation by inhibiting peristalsis, the contraction of muscles that moves stools through the gut.
Leafy green vegetables such as spinach, kale and watercress are great sources of magnesium. Try juicing with some apple or pineapple to sweeten it, if you want a change from a salad. Raw nuts, especially almonds, and lentils, chick peas and beans are other good sources, as well as whole-grain foods. Another great way to boost your magnesium levels is to throw a couple of handfuls of Epsom Salts (magnesium sulphate) into the bath, as this will absorb through the skin relaxing your muscles and promoting a restful night’s sleep. It’s the perfect way to end a stressful day and to make sure you get some all-important ‘me’ time!
If you feel that you’re suffering from general winter blues, then you may need to think about vitamin D. It’s been hitting the headlines a lot in the past year, as the research has expanded way beyond the well-documented benefits of healthy bones and a number of studies have linked a deficiency to a wide range of other conditions, such as diabetes, TB and multiple sclerosis. There is also a growing school of thought that vitamin D plays a key role in mental health and may be linked to seasonal affective disorder, so this could explain why you’re struggling with low mood.
The principle source of vitamin D is sunlight, as it is synthesised by the body through exposure to sunshine, so by this time of year a large proportion of the UK population is likely to be deficient, which could be contributing to the February blues. If you’re not able to nip abroad for a quick burst of winter sun, or have fair skin and tend to avoid sun exposure, then you really should consider supplementation. Look out for a vitamin D3 supplement and take 1000IU per day to get you back on track.
Serotonin is not the only neurotransmitter that improves your mood and banishes the blues. Adrenaline, noradrenaline and dopamine all have the feel-good factor and help to improve motivation and manage stress. Low levels of these neurotransmitters can leave you feeling tired, lethargic and demotivated. The body uses amino acids which are found in protein foods to generate neurotransmitters, so it’s important to make sure that your diet contains adequate protein so that all the building blocks are there.
Good quality protein should form part of every meal or snack, but many of us tend to save it for the evening meal, which simply isn’t giving our body enough material to work with. An egg is a great way to start the day, but not so practical if you’re rushing off to work. Try adding a tablespoon of mixed seeds, such as pumpkin, sunflower and flaxseed to your morning cereal or porridge for a good helping of protein, or have protein-rich peanut or almond butter with your toast. Make sure your lunchtime salad has a good helping of lean meat, fish, lentils or beans, so that you’re not just eating vegetables. Snack on raw almonds or have some hummus with an oatcake. At dinner, 25% of the overall meal should be made up of good quality protein, such as lean meat, fish, eggs, quinoa, pulses or tofu.
Trying one or two of these simple changes to your diet could make all the difference to your mood and motivation so that everything seems a lot easier and you just cruise through the rest of this long winter!