Quite frankly, with the type of winter we have had so far in New York – and continuing to have, now into March – I sometimes think that only a trip to a Caribbean island will make me feel better! Thoughts of a swim in the warm ocean, lying around the sun-drenched white sand, and having one (or ten) of those drinks with the little umbrellas will undoubtedly do the trick. But obviously most of us can’t hop right on a plane to a tropical island. And, snow and cold aside, why aren’t we enjoying winter, anyway? Sledding, skiing, skating aren’t just for watching during the Olympics! And after all, being Better Than Before is all about living in the moment.
I took my query to Elizabeth Somer, author of the bestselling Eat Your Way to Happiness, and highly sought-after and respected source of nutritional information and lifestyle changes. I was hoping she could share some good news on how to keep in a good mood – not to mention not gain twenty pounds from all those hot chocolates with mini marshmallows – while we wait and wait…and wait, for spring.
JWM: Let’s start with the obvious basic question: Why does our mood often plummet during the winter?
ES: At its foundation, it’s biological. The seasonal drop in sunlight throws brain chemistry out of whack, making some of us more anxious, depressed, and tired this time of year. We snap at the kids, sleep more, crave sweets, and as a result, gain weight.
JWM: Can depression, mood swings, and chronic irritability be symptoms of more serious problems than just winter blues? Other than PMS or menopause, that is.
ES:. Yes, it could be Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. The winter blues and SAD rest on the same continuum, differing only in their degree of severity. In other words, a person suffering from winter blues might feel grumpy and tired, while someone with SAD suffers serious depression, with feelings of desperation, anxiety, and exhaustion. If your depression interferes with important aspects of your life, such as your job or relationships, or if you have feelings of hopelessness, these are possible symptoms of SAD that should be discussed with a physician.
JWM: Who suffers from it? Other than we confirmed hypochondriacs, of course.
ES: Approximately 10 to 20 percent of Americans battle the winter blues. The reasons why our moods slip and our appetites take over by mid-winter could be simply that we’re cooped up, bored, and restless; or it could have a deeper cause, resulting from a drop in serotonin, a brain chemical that regulates mood and hunger. Whatever the reason, most people have some kind of behavior change in the winter. Children and teens can suffer from the winter blues, too.
JWM: What could be some of the signs?
ES: The main ones are obvious – depression and fatigue that lingers. Or, ask yourself the following: Has your mood plummeted along with the temperature? While you stare forlornly out the window at another bleak, winter day, is your spouse dozing rather than playing with the kids? Do you find yourself power snacking on Skittles by the 5th day of rainstorms. If so, you could be battling winter blues or SAD.
JWM: Are there foods and activities — other than Skittles– that you recommend that can boost our mood in these darkened days?
ES: Absolutely. First of all, you might consider finding more light. If your mood improves while vacationing down South, for example, it’s probably more the sunshine than the trip. [Or the drinks with umbrellas.] The researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, are among those who have linked dark winter skies to low levels of serotonin, which makes some people drowsy and more prone to depression. Ample sunshine hitting the retina of our eyes triggers a cascade of events in the brain that raises serotonin levels. Voila! Moods improve! Up to 80% of SAD and winter blues sufferers report at least some relief when exposed for 30 minutes to 1 1 /2 hours daily to sunlight or a specialized light box that emits light 5- to 20-times brighter than typical indoor light. Check out the internet for a local resource for these lights.
JWM: How about diet? Any suggestions?
ES: Eat Regularly: Don’t attempt to skip breakfast in an effort to cut calories. You’ll overeat later in the day, struggle more with mood swings and fatigue, and battle a weight problem in the long run. Be sure to eat breakfast, but make it light and include some carbohydrates, such as cereal, fruit, and milk. Then have lunch. Something as simple as a sandwich, nonfat milk, and a piece of fruit will fuel your brain, body, and mood.
JWM: One way a lot of us make the cold hours pass better is with something to nibble on. What about snacks?
ES: Snack, but not on sweets. A voracious sweet tooth during the winter months also might stem from low serotonin levels. Chowing down on sweets works temporarily – serotonin levels rise and we feel better. But that high is followed by a crash, setting up a roller coaster of highs and lows that causes overeating and weight gain. Replace these foods with more nutritious sweet treats, such as fresh-sliced kiwi mixed with nonfat strawberry-kiwi yogurt, a half papaya filled with lemon yogurt, fresh fruit layered in a parfait glass and topped with a dollop of low-fat whipped cream, or nonfat milk whipped in a blender with fresh fruit and a sprinkle of nutmeg.
JWM: But how about people who have a sweet tooth? As you said, sugar is counter-effective in the long run. What should they do?
ES: One way to sooth your mood and save your waistline is to switch from fatty sweets to high-quality carbs, such as whole grain breads and crackers, brown rice, oatmeal, or starchy vegetables like corn or potatoes. Plan a mid-afternoon all-carb snack, such as half a whole wheat English muffin with jam, 3 fig bars, or drizzle honey over a toasted cinnamon bagel to counteract the desire to eat sweets at this crave-prone time of day. Also include carb-rich foods in your meals, such as pasta primavera or marinara, whole wheat couscous, or yams cut into strips and baked on a cookie sheet to make ‘French fries.’ (Serotonin also improves sleep, so a serotonin-boosting evening snack, such as air-popped popcorn or a scoop of sorbet, will help you sleep better, too!)
JWM: There is a lot that has been written about omega-3 fat DHA elevating your mood. How do you feel about that?
ES: You can definitely boost your spirits by taking either omega-3 fat DHA supplements of food rich in it. Research shows that this fat helps boost mood all year long, especially in the winter. In fact, DHA curbs depression by up to 50% in people who are the most difficult to treat; and even helps those who just battle a bit of grumpiness. Interestingly, researchers have found that people who are depressed have much lower levels of omega-3 fats in their blood, fat tissues, and brains — up to 36% lower than happy people. In fact, as omega-3 levels drop, so do levels of serotonin, leaving people grumpy, blue, and downright depressed. If your DHA levels are low, you have a 2.6 times greater risk of getting really crabby and blue compared to someone who keeps those levels high. On the other hand, up your intake of omega-3 fat DHA and serotonin levels rise and mood improves. The evidence is so overwhelming that the American Psychiatric Association in 2006 recommended omega-3s be included in any treatment for depression.
JWM: What are the best foods for omega-3 fat?
ES: You can get all the omega-3 fat you need from flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil, leafy greens or soy to help lower your risk for heart disease, but those foods will do nothing for your mood or memory. That’s because there are three omega-3 fats, and they are not all created equal. It is only the omega-3s in fish, especially DHA, which will boost your mood. Aim for 2 servings of omega-3-rich fish such as salmon every week, choose foods fortified with DHA, and/or take a daily supplement that contains at least 220 milligrams of DHA.
JWM: If we don’t see any improvement in our mood or appetite after a few weeks on a high-carb menu, what should we do?
ES: Try substituting some of those carbs for more protein. New research from the National Institute of Mental Health shows that some people don’t experience a mood boost when they eat high-carb diets. So, if you still feel grumpy after a week’s worth of the high-carb choices, try cutting back on the carbohydrates and increasing protein intake by adding a slice of turkey or a glass of milk to the meal. Protein has a satiating effect that keeps you full longer and curbs cravings in some people.
JWM: A lot of people drink coffee to improve their mood. But for some, like me, it has the opposite effect. What are your thoughts about this?
ES: It’s better to limit coffee. While caffeine is a great pick-me-up, if you are drinking more than 3 small cups a day, it could be fueling fatigue. For the person who is sensitive to sugar or caffeine, simply removing these substances from the diet may be all it takes to reduce or even eliminate depression, according to research from the University of South Alabama. How coffee affects mood is unclear, although caffeine is a drug that affects the nervous system. Cut back or eliminate coffee, tea, chocolate, cocoa, colas, and caffeine-containing medications, such as Excedrin, Dristan, and Dexatrim.
JWM: We spend so much time in heated rooms in the winter, leading to not only dry skin, but dry everything. Is that a factor?
ES: Absolutely. Actually, the first sign of dehydration is fatigue, which is the stepping stone for depression. Many of us are mildly dehydrated, because thirst is a poor indicator of your body’s need for water. Drink twice as much water as it takes to quench your thirst, or at least 8 glasses daily. Drink even more water if you exercise intensely or drink a lot of coffee and tea.
JWM: Are there any other supplements that you recommend that can affect our moods?
ES: It is difficult in winter to constantly keep up the proper quantities of fresh vegetables and fruit. So several nutrient deficiencies, including the B vitamins, are more common in the winter that indicate a link to impaired mental ability and mood swings. More than one in four patients with depression is deficient in vitamins B2, B6, and B12, and folic acid. B-rich foods include chicken, legumes, fish, bananas, avocados, and dark green leafy vegetables. A moderate-dose multiple vitamin and mineral, supplies these B vitamins and can fill in the nutritional gaps on those days when you don’t eat perfectly. In addition, preliminary evidence suggests that low vitamin D levels, which can occur due to lack of exposure to sunlight, might contribute to winter blues. So make sure your supplement has at least 1000IU of this important nutrient.
JWM: What about exercise? Please don’t say to take a spin class or use the elliptical machines, my two fitness nemeses in any season!
ES: Any kind of exercise is good. It’s well proven that people who are vigorously active almost every day are at much lower risk for developing any form of depression, including winter blues.
Now if I can get my husband, The Lawyer, to sprint to take omega-3 supplements while drinking a gallon of water, I might have some peace around here before springtime!