Is it too good to be true that mood boosting foods can help you combat the winter blues? The holidays are over, cold and flu season is knocking at your door, and your skin hasn’t seen the sun in days. For some, the combination of these events can set up a bad case of the winter blues. While you might feel the urge to lie in a tanning bed or plow into a bag of chips, there are healthier ways to boost your mood during the winter months. Let’s summarize the science of “feel-good foods” and find ways to maximize these nutrients in your own diet.
3 Key Mood Boosting Nutrients
Omega-3’s (EPA & DHA)
Research continues to mound regarding omega-3 fats and their ability to combat depression and optimize mental health. This relationship makes good sense as our brain and nervous system is largely made up of fats. Omega-3’s are referred to as “essential” because they cannot be made by our body. This means they must be obtained through the diet. Studies show that omega-3’s can improve different types of depression and can also be beneficial at various stages of life, for example, during and after pregnancy.
Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids have both mood boosting and immune boosting properties. These include flax seeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, avocadoes, olive oil, and fatty fish. Eating fish and fatty fish in particular, such as salmon or tuna, is the easiest way to meet your omega-3 requirements. Current recommendations for adults and children is 2-3 servings (4-6 oz.) of fish per week which is equivalent to ~500 mg of omega-3’s per day. For those who don’t enjoy fish or seafood, fish oil supplements can be a good backup plan. 1000 mg of EPA + DHA in supplement form have been shown to be effective.
*Always consult with your physician about changes to your supplement regimen.
*Pro tip: If you are plagued by the fish pill burp, chill your pills in the freezer before you take them. Make sure you don’t forget about them!
Vitamin D is often referred to as the “sunshine vitamin” because our body can make vitamin D from sunlight. Levels of vitamin D in the body often dip during the wintertime due to the less daylight, indoor activity, and challenge in obtaining enough vitamin D through foods such as fatty fish, milk, eggs and fortified foods. Low levels of vitamin D are often associated with mood disorders such as depression and seasonal affective disorder.
Statistics show that 75% of adults may be deficient in D. Therefore, as a dietitian, I often recommend that people get their vitamin D levels checked. Optimal levels should fall in the range of 40-60 ng/dl of 25(OH) vitamin D. Supplementation is often warranted and most health professionals would agree that a dose of 600-1000 IU of D3 is appropriate. If your blood levels fall short, your physician may put you on a mega dose of vitamin D for several months.
Protein foods that are rich in the amino acid tryptophan, like turkey and chicken, can have calming benefits and help relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression. That is one of the reasons why we typically find ourselves feeling a little bit more relaxed after the Thanksgiving meal. Protein helps us feel satisfied and energized especially throughout the winter time. Good sources of lean protein includes salmon (win-win since it is also high in omega-3’s), chicken, turkey, eggs, beans, and legumes.
Top Cold & Flu Foods
Just like our mood tends to drop during the winter, so does our immune system. The best line of defense during the winter season is a balanced diet, rich in variety and color. Not only will these mood boosting foods protect you with a coat of armor, they also might ease any symptoms of a contracted cold or flu bug. Here are three of my top cold and flu protective picks to keep on your grocery list.
Chicken Noodle Soup
Mom’s homemade soup might be just what the doctor ordered. Soups typically contain a salty broth, which both hydrates and thins mucus secretions. The warm liquids allow congestion to break up and expedites the removal of germs from the body. Make sure to add in lots of vegetables and lean proteins to boost micronutrients. Vitamin C, A, iron and zinc are all important immunity fighters. Check out this immune-boosting instant pot chicken soup.
Vampires and viruses beware! A compound in garlic, called allicin, has both anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. Studies have shown that both raw, cooked & garlic pill supplements can help speed up recovery by boosting T-cells in our blood stream. If all else fails, your super garlicky breath will at least keep infectious people at arms reach.
Just like soup, the warm and soothing liquid helps mend sore throats. Also, certain teas, such as black and green teas, contain EGCG. EGCG is a compound which has been shown to keep viruses from reproducing. A warm cup of tea might just be the solution to treat your winter blues and prevent you from getting sick.
Summing It Up
While the cold weather might inspire overeating and inactivity, fight back with immune, mood boosting foods and winter exercise. Your body will thank you later!