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Which foods can help improve your mood?

PUBLISHED: 12:00 14 November 2020 | UPDATED: 17:25 15 November 2020

Registered nutrionist Emma Harvey Lawrence, partner at Woolpit Complementary and nutritionist at Nutrition Creative  Picture: Emma Harvey Lawrence

Registered nutrionist Emma Harvey Lawrence, partner at Woolpit Complementary and nutritionist at Nutrition Creative Picture: Emma Harvey Lawrence

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Registered East Anglian nutritionist Emma Harvey Lawrence of Nutrition Creative shares her tips for improving your gut health, and mood, this autumn and winter.

A diet filled with fresh fish, pulses, grains, fruit, vegetables and oils is said to lead to better gut health and a happier mood  Picture: Getty Images/iStockphotoA diet filled with fresh fish, pulses, grains, fruit, vegetables and oils is said to lead to better gut health and a happier mood Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

As hours of sunlight diminish in the latter months of the year, it’s perfectly natural and normal to feel a bit ‘low’. But if you find your mood is having an impact on your daily life, could you be afflicted by SAD?

What is SAD?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is type of depression that is usually marked by the winter months. It’s often associated with symptoms of low mood, irritability, lack of energy and disordered eating behaviours, and in order to be considered SAD a person should have experienced depressive episodes over the course of two consecutive years around wintertime. If you think it’s rare to experience SAD you’re wrong. According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, three people in every 100 experience ‘winter depression’.

Increasing the amount of grains and pulses in your diet can help improve your gut health  Picture: Getty Images/iStockphotoIncreasing the amount of grains and pulses in your diet can help improve your gut health Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

It’s largely understood that the cause of SAD is due to the lack of natural light and general nature of winter months. It’s not always confined to the winter though, with some people experiencing depressive episodes seasonally in warmer months too. Causes are diverse and often spanning a combination genetics, environment, gender, age, physiological traits and stress. If you think you may be experiencing depression, anxiety or SAD it can help to speak with a doctor, who can help you to identify health factors that may be contributing to your symptoms.

What is the connection between the gut and the mind? Can eating better help improve our mood?

Our brain and gut are able to communicate with one another, which is sometimes referred to as the gut brain axis, via a number of systems in the body. It happens without us even needing to think about it in most cases. This means that there are many physical and environmental factors that can influence how they function, which in turn can influence our health and how we feel.

What’s more, the bacteria in our gut – that form our gut microbiome – have been found to influence both gut function and the messages that are sent to the brain, so there is almost no end to the variability between us when it comes to gut-brain conversations.

So, what can we do to ensure we are eating well for both out gut and our brain to support our mental health? While there isn’t a gold standard diet for optimal mental health, there are key considerations for us to think about to be sure we’re doing enough to enjoy nutritious foods of all varieties that support our mental health throughout the year.

Simply broken down, for good gut and brain health, it’s important to focus on variety and diversity in the diet. Especially from fibrous carbohydrates like grains, cereals, vegetables and fruit that fuel our brain, feed our microbiome and contain phytochemicals that enhance our body’s response to stressors. Protein, primarily sourced from lean unprocessed meats, beans and pulses, help to build and repair our cells to maintain brain function. Beneficial fats coming from nuts, seeds (and/or their oils), avocado and oily fish provide Omega-3 fatty acids and other poly-unsaturated or mono-unsaturated fats help combat inflammation and protect the integrity of cells throughout our bodies.

If feelings and behaviours associated with eating are difficult for you, it’s really important to approach things slowly and positively, to build your confidence in the changes you make. It’s always good to remember that eating behaviours and mental health are inextricably linked and speaking to someone who can support you at home or seeking professional guidance, such as a cognitive behavioural therapist, may help you overcome some of the barriers you encounter, to make beneficial changes.

How can you make positive change?

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1. Increase the variety of whole foods in your diet gradually. Add grains, cereals, vegetables, fruits, beans, pulses, nuts and seeds. These are prebiotic foods packed with nutrients for you and your gut bacteria.

2. Aim for one to two portions of oily fish per week or, if you’re vegan, use seed and nut oils, milled seeds or supplements in order to improve your Omega-3 intake.

3. Keep hydrated. Drink water with your meals to help ease digestion, especially when increasing fibrous foods in the diet.

4. Know your levels when it comes to Vitamin D. A lack of vitamin D can lead to lack of energy, low mood and irritability. If you’re prone to a lower serum level of Vitamin D you’re likely someone who will benefit greatly from a daily supplement in the winter months. The recommended dose from the British Dietetic Association is 10 micrograms per day of Vitamin D3. Your health professional will be able to advise an adequate dose beyond this if required.

So what should we be cooking?

Look at meals associated with the Mediterranean diet- that’s a good start. In a nutshell the diet typically incorporates the above, and is one that is widely researched and adapted prescriptively for health conditions. Find recipes using those ingredients you know you will likely enjoy, or ones including foods you’ve had before, and replicate them at home.

Or, simply add more of the foods I’ve mentioned to meals you already love. Pulses and grains can easily be incorporated into curries and pasta sauces. Swap some minced beef for mixed beans or lentils in a lasagne for example.

Add more vegetable varieties to your winter chilli, stew or soup. Nuts, seeds and oils are great toppers for most breakfast, lunch or dinner choices.

There’s always room for what you think may be less healthy, so avoid restricting foods of any kind, so that you can focus more on choosing when and how much to enjoy.

Recipes are so flexible, they’re a lot like music really. You can make something your own and create a new dish or taste several different versions only to find out that you don’t really like the original. So, it’s worth experimenting and practising. You can find examples on my Instagram if you’d like some inspiration or simply set off on your own journey.

Before making any dramatic changes to your diet speak to your GP or nurse practitioner.


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