It's winter. There's a recession on. And Christmas is less than a month away. Under the circumstances, you could be forgiven for feeling less than your best. Whether it's seasonal stress, cold-weather blues, or just a case of grumpiness, this time of year can bring on all sorts of unwanted moods. To make matters worse, you're likely to be juggling a hectic social schedule, something that doesn't always lend itself to a stable eating regime. Yet food – be it in the form of our five-a-day or the odd treat from the sweet shop – can be crucial to dictating our mood.
"It is important both in terms of what you consume and how often you eat it," explains Bridget O'Connell, head of information at the mental health charity Mind. From 2002 to 2009, Mind collaborated with a team of scientists to put together the seminal Food and Mood project. Its findings, O'Connell says, have helped to identify the ways in which changes to our diet and lifestyle can alter the extent to which we suffer anxiety, mood swings and depression. Eating right might not be a catch-all but, when it comes to feeling good, it can certainly help.
Cold weather got you down? You're not alone. According to the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association, winter depression affects some 7 per cent of the population. Ensuring that you have the right nutrients during the dark months means that you'll be in a better position to resist it. Earlier this year, researchers found that those who got the correct amount of vitamin D – the organic compound associated with the sun's mood-altering abilities – were less likely to suffer than those who remained deficient. Good sources include oily fish – such as salmon or sardines – and eggs.
The psychological implications of our eating habits shouldn't be overlooked either. Professor Louise Dye specialises in nutrition and behaviour at the University of Leeds's Institute of Psychological Sciences, and argues that – while ensuring that we have a generally well-balanced diet – we may be just as well off treating ourselves to a square of chocolate when feeling low. "Whether it's down to its chemical composition or its status as a treat in our society, there is good evidence that chocolate enhances mood," she explains. So if that box of Milk Tray is calling your name, there are worse things you could do than indulge.
"When it comes to handling stress, there are certain basic principles that should be adhered to," says Stephanie Moore, nutritionist and author of the forthcoming title Well Fed for Stress. "People under pressure tend to reach for quick and easy solutions rather than healthier meals with plenty of wholegrains and protein. In combination, B vitamins and magnesium can affect the adrenal glands, which control the release of stress hormones, so they can be very good." Getting plenty of magnesium means having lots of green leafy vegetables, as well as nuts, bread, fish, meat and dairy products – in other words, eating a balanced diet.
Relaxation can frequently be just as much a matter of psychology as physiology. "The most powerful medication is the placebo," Moore explains. "If you've built up a food association – such as Horlicks to calm you down – it doesn't really matter what's in it; if it works for you, that's enough."
There's nothing quite like a rumbling stomach to exacerbate feelings of frustration. The problem lies in low blood-sugar concentration; without sufficient glucose being supplied to the brain, our neurons struggle to function. Symptoms extend from a general feeling of malaise, to dizziness and fainting. To avoid this, nutritionists recommend sticking to foods that release energy slowly. Protein-based foods will release energy more gradually than simple carbohydrates – although, if you choose the right ones, carbs don't have to be off the menu. "Try and choose complex carbohydrates, such as wholemeal bread or pasta and oats," O'Connell says. Porridge (without too much sugar) is a good breakfast option – and snack on nuts or cottage cheese instead of crisps and chocolate.
Low blood-sugar doesn't just leave you grumpy; it makes you tired and lethargic. Substituting quick-release, short-lived energy sources for more sustainable ones can help you to battle that fatigued feeling. Certain minerals moderate blood-sugar release, too. "Chromium is fantastic in that regard," Moore says. "It controls insulin levels – if they're all over the place, you're much more likely to feel tired and gain weight." Adults are recommended to have a minimum of 0.025mg of chromium per day – a quota that can be fulfilled by consuming plenty of meat, wholegrains, lentils and spices.
Another common cause of exhaustion is a lack of iron. Some 27 per cent of girls were found to have low iron stores at the last National Diet and Nutrition Survey, making it one of the most common deficiencies. Red meat (especially liver) and pulses are both rich in iron, as are nuts, dark green vegetables and dried fruit. For those struggling to get their fix, an iron-fortified cereal can provide a quick and easy hit – though be warned: caffeine is thought to block iron absorption, so hold back on the tea and coffee around mealtimes.
Finally, if you're confident that your iron consumption is fine, and you're steering clear of the sugary snacks, but are still feeling exhausted, the solution might lie in avoiding that glass of wine before bed. Alcohol reduces your REM (rapid eye movement) sleep – meaning your eight hours' sleep is likely to feel like much less.
Nothing exacerbates anxiety like caffeine. It ups your heart rate and, when consumed in excess, can cause dizziness, an upset stomach and hot flushes. To make matters worse, it interferes with sleep patterns – making anxiety-induced insomnia all the worse. So if you've got to start your day with a skinny latte, make sure it's decaf. Preferably, though, go for a green or white tea instead. "Both have caffeine in them, but they also contain the amino acid theanine, which has a calming effect on the brain," Moore notes. "They don't trigger your adrenalin in the same way as coffee."
The National Association for Premenstrual Syndrome (Naps) recommends eating little and often to regulate symptoms of anxiety and tension, as well as maintaining a healthy approach overall. "If your body is under stress, you are more likely to suffer PMS," dietitian Gaynor Bussell says. Bussell has worked extensively with Naps on the way diet affects the condition. She advises sufferers to pursue a "low GI diet" – that's a diet dominated by foods with a low glycaemic index, such as pasta, granary bread and pulses – and to consume plenty of low-fat dairy. "Having lots of calcium can make a real difference. Skimmed milk, low-fat yoghurt – they're all good things to start eating." Finally, make sure you have plenty of fibre. PMS is frequently associated with constipation, and a fibre-rich diet is crucial to curing that.Reuse content