Who doesn’t love fall… the season of woodland walks, misty mornings and harvest moons; the season of wind-lashed cheeks, warming soup and crackling fires; the season of apple picking, color gazing and leaf crunching (not to mention the ever popular feijoa).
And yet among these familiar marvels, comes an unnamed internal shift; one that can sometimes leave us feeling a sense of loss, agitation and general malaise. One that is not always easy to describe but is nevertheless felt. This is because the change of seasons doesn’t merely alter what’s going on outside our windows, it can also have a profound effect on what’s going on inside of each of us – our mood, motivation, energy levels, sleep patterns and diets.
Lack of light, cooler temperatures and sensory adaptation requirements add to this complexity and those of us in life transitions – whatever they may be – may feel these changes even more.
I’ve been researching and writing in the area of mood for over a decade now and when I think about ways of supporting mood, the list is long, hopeful and ever-expanding. Of course approaches to mood do not merely involve food (I wish it were that simple) but dietary strategies are a great place to start and can often set the stage for better things.
1. Daily B Vitamins
B vitamins play an important role in supporting our nervous system and brain function. During times of transition and stress, our bodies require more B vitamins to mobilize stored energy for fuel and to make serotonin, that critical mood regulating neurotransmitter that assists with our sense of calm, sleep and memory. B vitamins are also thought to protect brain function by reducing levels of an amino acid called homocysteine — high homocysteine levels have been linked to depression.
Because B vitamins are water soluble (meaning our bodies do not store them and only a certain amount can be absorbed at any one time) it is important to replenish them daily with nutrient rich foods. Excellent sources of B vitamins include: pulses (beans/lentils); a host of dark green vegetables (including notably: spinach, turnip greens, broccoli, edamame, okra and asparagus); wheat germ; poultry; fish; milk and yogurt. Fortified cereals also contain B vitamins.
Note: vegans and those who do not absorb vitamin B12 are at higher risk of developing pernicious anemia – a type of anemia associated with symptoms that include: weakness, fatigue, confusion and depression. B12 levels can be tested through blood work – ask your health care practitioner.
2. Building a Thriving Intestinal Ecosystem (‘microbiome’)
Most of us are aware of the link between serotonin and mood but may not be aware that an estimated 90% of the body’s serotonin is made in our digestive tract by our bacteria.
Building a robust microbial ecosystem that allows our beneficial bacteria to thrive may play a role in supporting serotonin synthesis. While research is ongoing, the influence of gut microbia on behavior, cognition and mood is becoming increasingly clear (study, study).
Through the process of eating and digesting we feed our gut microbiota and influence its diversity and composition. Diets high in sugar and pro-inflammatory fats have been implicated in altering gut microbia giving rise to an imbalance in harmful bacteria relative to beneficial bacteria (a condition known as dysbiosis).
One of the best ways to support gut health is to eat a diet based primarily on whole foods (foods that look the way they did when they were growing in nature) — the specific composition of which should ideally accord best with our biochemical uniqueness.
Other strategies for supporting the microbiome include the intake of prebiotics, a form of dietary fiber that acts as fertilizer for good bacteria and probiotics, live active bacteria that can assist in restoring the balance of beneficial bacteria in the intestinal tract (particularly in fertile environments).
Food sources of prebiotics are found in many fruits and vegetables including the peel of apples, bananas, onions, garlic, artichoke, leeks, asparagus, chicory root and soybeans.
Reliable food sources of probiotics can be a little trickier to come by because of the diminished amount of live bacteria found in processed and heavily sweetened foods such as commercial yogurt, kefir and kombucha. Traditionally fermented foods such as tempeh, miso, kimchi and sauerkraut may be better sources. Probiotic supplements that offer billions of live active bacteria may also be worth investigating (be sure to store your probiotic supplements according to directions in order to preserve their living status).
3. Sourcing Omega 3s
Several neuronal and cognitive functions depend on omega-3 fatty acids (EPA/DHA) to keep the lining of brain cells flexible and communication fluid. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to exert an anti-inflammatory effect on the body/brain and studies have implicated low levels of omega-3 fatty acid to reduced resistance to stress and a higher incidence of mood disorders. Other studies have shown that diets lacking in omega-3 fatty acids may cause the brain to age faster, diminishing memory and cognitive abilities (studies here, here, here).
The best sources of omega-3 fatty acids come from cold water fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, anchovies, rainbow trout and black cod. Plant-based omega-3 fatty acids in the form of ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) can be found principally in flaxseed, flaxseed oil and walnuts but they are less beneficial than those from fish, because our body has to convert ALA into EPA/DHA, something it does not do very efficiently.
While there is no official recommended intake for omega-3 fatty acids (different global organizations recommend varying amounts), many experts advise consuming in the range of 1,000 mg per day for general health – an amount that can be met by eating 12 ounces of omega-3 rich fish per week (for example: 3 servings of 4 ounce fillets per week).
If you don’t eat fish (or eat very little of it), you may wish to consider adding a fish oil supplement to your regimen. Like all things, individual supplementation levels will vary depending on health goals and therapeutic needs, so be sure to discuss appropriate levels with your health care practitioner.
Note: vegans may wish to supplement with an algae-derived source of DHA
4. Balancing Blood Sugar
Keeping blood sugar levels stable is not only important for physical health (avoiding insulin fatigue/type 2 diabetes) it’s also a key factor in balancing mood and supporting cognitive function — memory and concentration.
Studies have shown that diets rich in high glycemic carbohydrates (carbohydrates that convert quickly into sugar in the body) and high glycemic load carbohydrates (carbohydrates that deliver hefty amounts of sugar per serving) are associated with increased symptoms of depression, mood disturbance and fatigue (studies here, here and here).
Many of us struggle with reducing sugar not only because it tastes good but because of its highly addictive pleasure producing effects on the reward center of our brain — making it even harder to resist when mood is low. But it’s a vicious cycle because when blood sugar levels are fluctuating and start to drop our brain naturally cues us in to seek the quickest form of energy available to correct the imbalance, which is generally another carbohydrate/sugar. This is a normal, adaptive response but the result is that we end up jumping from one sugar to the next never feeling quite satisfied (but often feeling lousy).
One of the most practical and effective strategies you can use to blunt this response (that doesn’t require you to memorize the glycemic index!) is to ensure adequate protein (and health promoting fats) in the diet — not only at meal time but also with snacks. Unlike carbohydrates that are metabolized relatively quickly into sugar in the body, protein requires more work for our bodies to break down and metabolize improving our sense of fullness and satisfaction and assisting in keeping blood sugar levels in check.
Simple things like hummus, a handful of nuts/seeds, butters made from nut/seeds (spread on whole grains or pieces of fruit), natural yogurt, cheese — are wonderful ways of enjoying the benefits of protein and fats. One of my personal favorites is a hard-boiled egg (I keep a few in the fridge – they travel well in cold packs) with a handful of almonds – there’s a snack/mini meal in the range of 12 grams of protein that will keep you satisfied and humming along steadily through those gap periods between meals.
This transition is not always easy at first (and your body and mind will resist it) but if you can stick with it consistently even for a few days, you may be surprised to discover just how effective this strategy is at promoting clarity, supporting mood and energy levels while diminishing those pesky cravings. And if you slip back, as we all do on occasion, just start again.
More information on sugar and strategies for gradually diminishing it here.
The information in this post is provided for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician or other health care professional directly before beginning or changing a course of health treatment.