As part of the Irish Independent New You campaign, consultant nutritionist Gaye Godkin has devised a four-part tutorial on turning your health around through better food choices. In the final week, 10 simple food rules for improving your mood
1 Nourishment, not punishment
The month of January is a time to hibernate, love ourselves and indulge in self-care. It is time to focus the mind on supporting the body by nourishing and not punishing it with strict dieting regimes. This is not a good time to embark on dieting and detoxing. Caring for ourselves during these dark dreary months needs to be prioritised. It is a time for becoming aware of our relationship with food and being mindful of our food choices.
Choose healthy foods that nourish the body and the mind. This plan will yield the best dividends and lift the mood while we navigate our way through the winter months in good spirits.
When you are making food choices think; how is this food nourishing my body? Similarly consider the negative effects of eating junk foods which contain anti-nutrients and are taxing on the system.
They are toxic to the body and deplete us of much needed energy.
2 A cuppa for good cheer
The body is under pressure during the long dark winter months. We are negotiating all weathers at the moment. The effect that the cold has on us can leave us feeling low.
When we are warm we actually feel better. Having a nice cup of tea can actually lift our mood and refocus our mind. Engage with your cuppa. Aim to sit down and relax, choose your favourite cup and enjoy it.
Make it a ceremonial occasion and feel grateful in that moment. Punctuate your day with tea breaks and be kind to yourself.
I'm a real tea fan and there are lots of really interesting tea shops opening up selling an amazing selection of teas.
Tea contains an amino acid called L'theanine. This substance in tea enhances GABA in the brain. The brain contains hundreds of neurotransmitters, some of them are more abundant than others. GABA is a calming neurotransmitter. When there is lots of GABA circulating in the brain it creates an anti-anxiolytic affect which gives an overall feeling of relaxation and calmness to the body.
3 Warming foods create inner heat
The body is under pressure to regulate body temperature during the cold weather. When we feel chilly, we tend to feel miserable. To support good mood, it is important to feel warm.
Aim to choose foods that are thermogenic. Thermogenic simply means heat producing. Foods which produce heat and make us feel warm are typically known as fiery foods. Chillies, black pepper, white pepper, ginger and cloves give us this affect.
Apart from being the instant provider of heat, warming foods also support the digestive function and immune system. Soups, stews, casseroles, and curries are cooked and the meat fibres are broken down, this renders them easier to digest and assimilate.
Try adding black pepper, ginger and some hot chillies into soups and casseroles to create that inner heat and glow. Feeling satisfied after eating creates a feeling of contentedness and well-being.
4 Stabilise blood sugars
The food choices that we make impact either positively or negatively on our everyday mood. Research shows that certain foods improve mood and as we feel better we make wiser food choices.
Appetite and feeling satisfied are controlled by hormone signalling from the digestive system back to the brain.
Therefore it is important not to allow ourselves to become ravenous as we may be driven to make poor food choices which directly affect our mood and behaviours.
When we are very hungry we tend to reach for foods that will instantly gratify us such as high-sugar, high-fat foods.
By eating regularly, we stabilise our blood sugars which are the essential fuel of the brain.
5 Serotonin, the happy hormone
Among the hundreds of neurotransmitters in the brain which are involved in mood regulation, serotonin is probably the best known and most researched.
It is known as the 'happy hormone'. Serotonin is made from a protein called tryptophan. By eating protein with each meal we provide the necessary raw material to manufacturer serotonin. Good sources of tryptophan include flaxseeds, lentils, pork, chicken, bananas, nuts, turkey, eggs and milk. The key is to have a diversity of these foods in the diet. The synthesis of tryptophan begins in the gut. The production and availability of serotonin to the brain depends on good gut health. Protein should be consumed at each meal.
It is best to combine proteins from many sources. In Ireland we tend to eat far too much protein from meat sources and insufficient plant protein. Aim to increase the amount of plant protein consumed.
6 Good bugs for good mood
It is now indisputable that there is a connection between gut health and mood.
There are over 2kg of bacteria in the gut, there are 100 times more bacteria than cells in the body. The workings of these bacteria has a significant impact on our mental health.
People who suffer with IBS and gastrointestinal issues have low energy and very often low mood as their gut function is compromised. That's why GPs now offer anti-depressants to IBS sufferers. Become aware of the foods that agree with your body and eliminate those that disturb and disrupt digestion.
7 Focus on fibre
Keeping the bacteria in the gut well fed and happy is key to energy production and mood balancing.
The food they require is fibre rich prebiotic foods which come from the plant kingdom. They multiply and flourish on insoluble fibre rich foods such as peas, beans, lentils, apples with the skin on, nuts and vegetables.
It is imperative that we nourish our gut bacteria to manufacture our happy hormone more efficiently. They are also key to the detoxification process of the body.
A sluggish digestive system results in bloating, distension and lethargy which can lead to exhaustion and low mood.
8 The brain is a fatty organ
Fats also play a crucial role in mood regulation.
The brain is a fatty organ. A total of 33pc of the brain is made up of omega 3.
Eating oily fish three times per week supports brain function. Include eggs which contain phospholipids which influence hormone signalling. Eggs also contain choline, an essential brain fat.
Fats become oxidised in the brain and need plenty of anti-oxidant foods to combat this damage. Eating a diet high in plant-rich antioxidant foods helps to reduce damage from oxidative stress on brain cells and cleans up debris in the brain.
Aim to include brightly coloured fruit and vegetables daily. Purple, orange, red, yellow and green repair damage done to cells on a daily basis.
Similarly, dark chocolate contains rich cocoa and is packed full of antioxidants and a real treat while being a super mood booster.
Always choose chocolate which contains 70-80pc cocoa.
9 Sunshine vitamin D
Aim to include some sunshine Vitamin D foods in the diet.
Due to our northerly latitude, Irish people do not receive sufficient sunshine.
The World Health Organisation recommends that we get 20 minutes arm and leg exposure every day. During the months of October to April it is not possible to achieve this amount of sun exposure in Ireland.
Vitamin D is a hormone in the body. It is critical to many vital bodily functions. It is now showing great promise in upregulating mood.
There is increasing focus on the lack of Vitamin D and its association with depression as well as other mental health problems. Research is now showing a clear link to Vitamin D and healthy brain cell activity. Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin. It is found in fatty foods. The body only uses a form known as D3 which is only found in the fats of animal foods. Best dietary sources are lambs liver, mackerel, eggs, butter and milk.
However, it is best to add a Vitamin D supplement at this time of year to ensure you are getting sufficient amounts.
10 Sleep is the new black
The body has a very sophisticated regulatory system called the circadian rhythm.
This system resides in the brain. These rhythms cause both physiological and behavioural changes over a 24-hour period. To maintain and support the natural rhythm during the winter months, we need to get seven to eight hours sleep per night.
At certain times of the day hormones which stimulate energy and alertness are at their highest. We are designed to work and achieve during daylight and rest during the darkness. People who engage in shift-work tend to have disrupted sleeping patterns as they are going against their body clock's natural instinct. Circadian rhythms also influence hunger and appetite. Sleep deprivation can lead to low mood increased hunger and weight gain.
Aim to be active early in the day and wind down in the evening in preparation for a good night's sleep.