October 21, 2017

Winter Wellness Tip – Focus on ‘Feel Good’ Serotonin

rosemary_100x115Have you ever wondered why it becomes increasingly challenging to maintain a healthy diet during the winter months? The combination of reduced physical activity, a tendency to eat more comfort foods and an increased urge to hibernate, wreaks havoc with your mood, leaving your body a “heavy” price to pay in springtime.

Diminished sunshine levels lead to a decline in serotonin (this is a “feel good” chemical released by the brain), which in turn is linked to symptoms of depression, anxiety, fatigue and insomnia. Symptoms of the wintertime blues, also known as SAD (seasonal affective disorder) usually begin when the days get shorter and nights get longer. Reduced serotonin levels may explain why you crave comfort, carbohydrate foods and are tempted to stay huddled indoors by the fire with the TV remote close at hand.

The good news — for those who do not have the prospect of a trip to sunnier climates planned for this winter — is that there are lots of ways to combat a mildcase of wintertime blues. There are plenty of mood elevating, serotonin-enhancing pharmaceutical prescriptions out there; but for a lighter case of the blues, here are several quick fixes that can be used to boost serotonin levels naturally.

The Value of Veggies

Try eating a small amount of high-quality carbohydrates with every meal or as snacks throughout your day. Veggies, fruits, and whole grains are the best choices, as are beans, soups, and oatmeal. You need a little carbohydrate at every meal to signal your brain to produce serotonin.

Opt for breads made with whole grains like spelt, which are good sources of both tryptophan (the precursor for serotonin) and zinc. By choosing healthy carbohydrates like whole grains, winter squash, and pumpkin, you will boost serotonin levels and pack a nutrient-dense punch of vitamins without consuming high calories.

Adding the Awesome Amino Acid

Our bodies make serotonin from a precursor amino acid called tryptophan – tryptophan is not synthesized by our bodies so we must eat foods rich in the amino acid: eggs, cottage cheese, turkey, poultry, sesame and sunflower seeds, walnuts, banana and oats. The effect of tryptophan is enhanced by eating carbohydrates so you may want to include a small amount of brown rice, corn, green leafy vegetables, avocados, beans, lentils, broccoli and spinach.

It’s a well-known fact that folks often feel relaxed and sleepy after eating Thanksgiving dinner and this may be attributed to the fact that turkey contains tryptophan in high concentrations (no, it’s not just the effects of alcohol!).

Avoid over-stimulating your body with caffeine, alcohol and sugar. Although these substances give you a quick burst of joy, they blunt hormonal processes like serotonin production in the long run so limit caffeine to one a day and avoid the sugar rush altogether!

A little planning at the weekend can go along way – stock up with healthy grab-and-go foods like bananas, whole fruits and low fat yogurts. This way you can enjoy a healthy snack at work and on your return home in the dark before you prepare dinner.

Hopefully armed with this plan, you will not be tempted to slump onto the sofa, nursing a bowl of highly processed salty soup! Additionally, whole fruits are low in glycemic index so your blood sugar will not spike quickly, your mood will elevate and you will feel warmer.

Super Salmon

Part of your winter diet should include an oily, fatty fish like salmon –yes, you heard right – salmon is fatty, but packed full of good omega-3 fats, which help elevate mood, is required for serotonin production and brain function, and is thought to reduce seasonal depression.

Even if it’s cold outside, make it a priority to bundle up and walk briskly during the daytime. Take a walk during your lunch break or if you have the luxury of an office, move your desk close to the window so that you see light. Both the light and exercise will kick up your serotonin levels a notch or two.

Laughter Really is the Best Medicine

Last but by no means least, let’s not underestimate the power of laughter, which not only boosts your endorphins but also promotes a feeling of bonding, which, in turn, has been linked to boosting the production of serotonin.

Being a scientist, I should point out that single food sources of tryptophan cannot raise serotonin levels to a high enough level to mimic the effects of pharmaceutical agents, but for a mild case of the blues, the combination of healthy eating, increased light and laughter may just do the job.


Planning an Organic Vegetable Garden

This time of year is exciting …you can smell and taste summer … even if it’s raining heavily and persistently outdoors! The temperature really has risen (honestly!) and summer blooms are beginning to burst forth. With all this wet weather, there’s still time to plan your organic vegetable garden. I like to try something new every year – last year it was a very unusual blend of lettuce (not repeating the one that was too peppery!) and this year I hope to have success with frisee lettuce, rocket/arugula and watercress.

Your organic garden should be planted with things that you love eating and enjoy cooking – try different varieties of tomatoes or peppers and a whole lot of herbs to flavor up the barbeque.

Start small and simple and you will reap the benefits of fresh organic produce at little cost.  Someone in your neighborhood may be growing something different, so you can start swapping vegetables at the height of summer.

Get the kids involved in planting, watering and picking produce – they’ll love the responsibility and watching things grow. Who knows you may even get them interested in some recipes and cooking their produce!  Of course, you will need to keep the deer and other smaller pests out so plant in raised beds surrounded with wire netting.

I am often asked to recommend just one dietary change as folks find too many changes hard to stick to. That’s understandable, but one dietary change that is highly recommended is to include a green vegetable with every meal!

But that’s impossible I hear you say … we cannot serve vegetables at breakfast!

Well, that’s not quite right.  Why not try an omelet packed full of spinach, peppers and mushrooms?  For those of you trying to eat low cholesterol, you can make an omelet with two egg whites – it’s equally delicious.  

If you are going to make this one change, then you’re in tune with the season and you can plant your organic garden accordingly.

You could grow any of the cabbage family bok choy, cauliflower, kale, kohlrabi, mustard greens or watercress.  They are packed full of calcium, iron and rich in antioxidants and they are great for your skin, especially at this time of year.

Plants like watercress contain polyphenols, caretenoids and flavanoids that help combat sun damage. Watercress also has nutrients that can help you combat anemia and can help boost immunity.  Watercress also contains a compound called sulforaphane (a natural compound found in cruciferous vegetables that supports the body’s own antioxidant function), which is reported to have anti-cancer and anti-microbial properties.

Sprouting plants like brocco sprouts are also packed with this compound, so sprinkle them liberally in salads or add them as garnish to a sandwich or wraps.  Bok choy, cauliflower and brocco and alfalfa sprouts are also very versatile and can be used raw or cooked, in salads, stir fries or broiled.

Remember that when you are planting your organic garden, you’re planning good health for you and your family.

Rosemary Barclay holds a PhD in Biochemistry and is a board certified nutritionist and certified esthethician. She is the founder and owner of Bonne Santé LLC, a wellness establishment specializing in nutrition counseling, organic skincare and therapeutic massage. Rosemary’s unique scientific research background allows her to sort through the maze of conflicting nutritional information and dietary myths, helping clients overcome the challenges that the modern world dictates.