If the shorter days and colder nights make you feel miserable, let dietitian Juliette Kellow’s simple strategies lift your spirits.
As winter temperatures drop, some of us suffer a corresponding drop in mood. This seasonal slump can make us feel like we’ve been robbed of our summer-charged vitality; we may feel tired, even lethargic, and a little depressed. At its most extreme, this cluster of symptoms can develop into seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a debilitating form of depression. (See What are the symptoms of SAD?, below for details.)
Why do we get the blues mainly in winter?
When you think about it, much of our behaviour changes with the seasons. Our eating patterns certainly do — we go from enjoying crunchy fresh salads in summer to craving hearty comfort food in winter. Without our consciously realising it, our cold-weather eating preferences can prompt us to make not-so-nutritious choices that can rob us of energy and our overall sense of well-being.
Cold weather also encourages us to be inactive. Faced with the prospect of a wet weekend, most of us would opt to stay curled up on the sofa. But lack of activity makes the body feel sluggish, which can bring on the blues.
Can a quick burst of winter sunshine banish the blues?
Sunlight is our best natural source of vitamin D, and some studies link a lack of this key vitamin with a heightened risk of depression.
As Australians, we like to think we get plenty of sunshine, but in winter, we often don’t. We’re less likely to be outdoors, and when we are, we’re rugged up, exposing less of our skin to light. Shift workers are at particular risk of being vitamin D deficient, as are the elderly, people who drive for a living and office workers. In fact, anyone who sits behind glass windows and looks out at the sun all day may think they’re enjoying the rays’ benefits, but they’re not.
According to Cancer Council Australia, people living in central or southern regions (including Sydney and Perth) should expose their skin to sunlight for two to three hours per week in winter. Worried about harmful UV rays? Council guidelines suggest that regular sunscreen use has little effect on our vitamin D levels.
Can food and exercise help ease the blues?
Yes. Although healthy habits aren’t a cure, many people find they can minimise their symptoms by enjoying a healthy diet and staying active.
What are the symptoms of SAD?
Around one in 300 Australians experiences seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a version of depression that occurs during the winter months and eases in spring. Anyone can develop SAD, but it’s most common in 18- to 30-year-olds. Women are twice as likely to suffer from SAD, whereas men tend to have more severe symptoms.
People who have SAD often suffer from stress, anxiety, poor self-esteem and irritability, some (or all) of which may come with strong feelings of despair, guilt or worthlessness. They may also be lethargic, sleep more, have trouble concentrating and feel unsociable.
Many sufferers say they eat and sleep more in winter and generally feel low. (This means they have the winter blues rather than full-blown SAD.)
A doctor usually diagnoses SAD only when a patient’s symptoms recur for two to three consecutive winters.
If you’re at all concerned about depression and SAD, speak to your doctor.
Your winter action plan
Making a few small changes to your diet can help minimise the winter blues. Thankfully, they’ll keep your body in good shape throughout the colder months, too! The key is to be consistent.
1. Eat regularly
Skipping meals causes your blood-sugar levels to drop, compounding tiredness, poor concentration, irritability and carbohydrate cravings. Drink plenty of water, too — you often don’t feel thirsty in cold weather, but heaters can lead to dehydration, which makes you feel tired and shrinks your attention span.
2. Fill up on low-GI carbohydrates
Foods such as porridge, brown rice, and wholegrain bread and cereals may help boost your levels of serotonin, a brain chemical that regulates our appetite, mood and sleep. These foods trigger the release of insulin, a hormone that helps tryptophan (an amino acid or protein building block) enter the brain, which uses it to make serotonin. When carb cravings strike, reach for high-fibre, low-GI foods. These give you a slow and sustained release of energy, avoiding the stamina slump that comes with high-GI cakes, biscuits and white bread.
3. Boost your B-group vitamins
Studies link low levels of some B-group vitamins, such as B12 and folate, to a heightened risk of depression. To combat this, get your B12 from meat, fish, eggs and dairy, and your folate from leafy green vegies. Vitamin B6 also helps turn tryptophan into serotonin. You’ll find B6 in fish, pork, eggs, soy products, wholegrains, peanuts, walnuts, avocado and bananas.
4. Enjoy oily fish
Apart from sunlight, your best sources of vitamin D are oily fish, eggs and fortified table spreads. Enjoy salmon, sardines, trout or fresh tuna at least two to three times a week.
Bad day? Here’s why you shouldn’t drown your sorrows
When we’re feeling stressed or blue, it’s tempting to reach for a glass of wine in the hopes it will help us relax or lift our spirits. Drinking alcohol can have a positive (if temporary) effect on our mood, but relying on it in the long run is counterproductive.
Alcohol is a depressant that slows brain chemistry, which affects your mental well-being. DrinkWise Australia warns that excessive alcohol consumption is associated with a range of mental-health issues, from memory loss to depression. And let’s not forget that alcohol is both dehydrating and high in kilojoules.
10 foods to lift your spirits
Some of your favourite winter comfort foods are full of mood-boosting nutrients!
Porridge: Eating a breakfast of porridge made from low-GI oats keeps your blood-sugar levels stable throughout the morning, preventing an energy slump. Make it with tryptophan-rich, reduced-fat milk to lift serotonin.
Banana milkshake: Bananas contain vitamin B6 as well as small amounts of tryptophan, and milk is high in protein. The combination of these foods with the fruit’s fibre will help you feel full. To boost folate, toss in some strawberries.
Handful of nuts: Unsalted raw nuts make a great snack thanks to their filling fibre and energising protein. Nuts are also rich in several B-group vitamins, including vitamin B6.
Fruity desserts: Enjoy baked apples, stewed fruit and crumbles (see p60!) in winter. Add a handful of walnuts for their omega-3 fats and fibre, along with vitamin D-fortified yoghurt or custard.
Fish pie: All fish is rich in serotonin-lifting tryptophan, but adding salmon to meals means you’ll also get mood-enhancing omega-3 fats and vitamin D. Add peas to the filling for fibre and folate, and swap pastry for a topping made of sweet potato to keep the fat content low and the starchy, low-GI carbs high.
Macaroni cheese: Pasta has a low GI, so it’s ideal for maintaining energy levels. And dairy-rich cheese sauce is loaded with tryptophan. To cut kilojoules, make this dish with low-fat table spread, reduced-fat milk and reduced-fat cheese. Add some broccoli for a folate fix.
Sardines on toast: Canned sardines are one of the easiest ways to enjoy oil-rich fish. Packed with omega-3 fats, they top this list for their vitamin D content. Serve sardines on wholegrain toast for its satisfying fibre and a serotonin boost.
Eggs on toast: Wholegrain toast is a hunger-busting mix of fibre and protein, and it’s also packed with starchy carbs. Eggs are a good source of mood-lifting vitamins B12 and D.
Roast dinner: Pork is rich in tryptophan and vitamin B6, and it’s lower in fat than beef or lamb. To boost the fibre in your meal, serve pork with sweet potatoes, parsnips, carrots and butternut pumpkin roasted in a little olive oil. Add a side of folate-rich greens, such as cabbage, too.
Soups and stews: Lean cuts of meat provide tryptophan, and potatoes, barley, lentils and beans add energising carbs, all of which are great at boosting serotonin. Vegetables such as onions, carrots, parsnips and leeks add filling fibre.