Beat the January blues
Are you finding it increasingly hard to get out of bed in the mornings? It’s not surprising – it’s still dark and cold out there and some mornings it feels like strong coffee is the only answer. No wonder our motivation is very low for any sort of exercise! As hard as you try, it is impossible to keep upbeat the whole time and for many, this time of year is the hardest.
When we feel low on energy and motivation, it’s very easy to succumb to the natural desire to snuggle up on the sofa with a blanket, eat comfort food and wait it out. But, to get out of the winter blue rut, it’s worth taking some time to add a few more good things to your life – exercise, nutrition, sunlight and, importantly, having fun. Start with the one that you think you will do most willingly! If you are already doing all of these things but finding it tough, perhaps try increasing one or two during this time of year as an annual MOT pick-me-up.
Exercise is one of the key ways to combat the blues – it helps you feel healthy and boosts immunity and it gives you a sense of achievement. Exercising releases endorphins and serotonin which are feel-good chemicals. This has a knock-on, positive effect on your sleep, since serotonin is converted to melatonin (the sleeping chemical), which in turn makes you feel healthier and happier.
If you’re able to squeeze in some exercise during daylight hours, then it’s even better at boosting mood, than working out in a gym or at night. This is because our brains produce more serotonin in daylight and because daylight provides us with Vitamin D, which is required for many things, including proper (and happy) brain function and energy levels.
So we need serotonin and endorphins as mood boosters.
Diet can also help provide other nutrients to encourage the release of these feel-good chemicals in the brain. For instance, in order for your brain to produce serotonin, it needs an amino acid (a building block of a protein) called tryptophan. So, a diet high in tryptophan can help, but to ensure that your body uses the tryptophan effectively, it requires a carbohydrate companion. Something like cottage cheese on an oat cake is a great example – the cottage cheese is high in tryptophan and the oat cake is a good carb companion. Other good combinations are a poached egg on wholegrain toast, spinach omelette and mac and cheese. There are some carbohydrate foods that contain tryptophan, such as bananas and lentils, so can do the job on their own.
Many of us reach for the chocolate to cheer us up but is there any real nutritional fact to that feeling? Well, some of dark chocolate’s benefits come from its antioxidant (immune boosting) properties, in the same way as red wine, and it also has the ability to boost brain levels of endorphins and serotonin. And usually the darker the better.
Other important nutrients that can help lift your mood are:
- Selenium – an antioxidant (immune booster) mineral found mostly in nuts, particularly Brazil nuts. Oats have high levels.
- Omega 3 – essential fats found mostly in oily fish (mackerel, salmon, sardines, fresh tuna).The brain needs these to keep supple and to function properly.
- B Vitamins – especially B6. In order for the body to convert tryptophan into serotonin, we need B vitamins. Foods that are rich in this are essential – spinach is particularly high in them, but so are most green leafy vegetables.
- Zinc – another mineral that can help the body’s chemical process producing serotonin. Foods rich in zinc include nuts, seeds, fish, spinach, oysters.
- Water – it is always important to keep hydrated. Water makes up 85% of brain tissue, so a happy brain is a hydrated one.
There are also substances that can hinder all of this good effort. The usual three culprits are caffeine, alcohol and sugar. Caffeine mainly because it causes dehydration, even if it does give you a quick high! Likewise, sugar gives you a high in energy, but the low is never far behind and low energy often leads to low mood. Finally alcohol, again, the low that comes with a hangover can be much more severe if you started off feeling a bit blue.
So following a healthy, colourful diet of lean meat and fish, good carbs, good fats and lots of fruit and veg will supply you with the necessary nutrients to help keep you happy, keep hydrated. Coupled with some outdoor exercise and you should be feeling happier and more motivated within days. And while it may not feel like it, right now, Spring is only around the corner.
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