SAD, or seasonal affective disorder, is more common in the UK than we might think. Weak, watery winter sunshine, if we get any at all, doesn’t exactly encourage us to get out and about, leaving us at risk of low vitamin D and serotonin levels. So if you, or someone you know, seems to retreat into their shell in the darker months, feel down or lacking in energy, suffer mood swings or find their appetite significantly increases or decreases, they could be suffering from SAD.

Luckily,there are some easy remedies. Getting enough daylight is the most important; at least 15 minutes, preferably with forearms uncovered, but if you’re wrapped up, stay out longer. This will keep vitamin D production going, allowing your brain to keep up the levels of serotonin (a brain chemical essential for mood regulation). Eating vitamin D fortified foods, and supplementing will also help – vitamin D is fat soluble, which means you need to eat fat to absorb it. It is naturally found in oily fish (and fish oils like cod liver oil), beef liver, cheese, milk, egg yolks, button mushrooms, and oysters.

Eat foods rich in trytophan, which the body uses to make serotonin (such as chicken, turkey, fish, beans, milk, and bananas), but ensure a nutritious, fresh, unprocessed diet to optimise all the nutrients your body needs to keep mood and motivation high. Choosing complex carbs and avoiding caffeine, sugar, white flour products and saturated fat will help blood sugar levels stay stable. Exercise will stimulate the release of endorphins, promoting a positive mood, doubling your reasons to get out for a stroll in the daylight during the winter.

For those who find these steps are not relieving their symptoms quite enough, a lightbox may be the answer. Reasonably priced ones can easily be found on the internet, and they only need to be used for around 30 minutes daily to be effective. Make sure the one you buy has a strength of at least 10,000 lux units.

There are vitamin D sprays for a quick boost, but don’t overdo it – total supplementation should be no more than 5-10 micrograms (mcg). As with all nutrients, they rely on each other to be used by the body so a balanced, varied daily intake of nutrients from unprocessed, natural sources is essential. Natural nutrients from natural sources are always better utilised, so check out my recipe posts, and get cooking this winter!

We all want good mood, clear thinking, focused concentration and a sense of calmly coping with everything the day brings. Did you know that what and how you eat has a massive impact on all of those brain functions? The creation and balance of neurotransmitters, plus the interplay with your adrenal glands and blood sugar release, are totally reliant on food. So what you choose to eat (or not eat!) doesn’t just govern your physical health, it also has an impact on your mental and emotional health too.

Stabilising blood sugar levels, and optimising nutrient content and availability, are the main goals when thinking about how to nourish your brain. Eating a wide range of fruits and vegetables, especially including a ‘rainbow’ of colours daily, will give your body the best spectrum of vitamins, minerals, micro nutrients and co-factors necessary for the production of neurotransmitters (brain chemicals essential for proper brain function) such as serotonin, GABA and dopamine. Two essential points many don’t realise is that we need much more omega 3 than omega 6 to optimise brain function and mood, and that good quality protein is the bedrock of brain health – in real terms, lay off the olive oil, eat walnuts, oily fish and flax/chia seeds, eat eggs and quality meat or combine organic brown rice with beans/pulses.

It’s also crucial for the brain to have what it needs to maintain and repair itself, and for hormonal systems and energy release to be able to respond to the demands placed on us in our daily lives. Eating breakfast, and then regularly throughout the day is a must, as is staying hydrated with pure water, herbal teas and diluted veg/fruit juices. This daily eating plan, and the sample recipes, are designed to take in the spectrum of what your body needs to keep your brain happy!

An example of a good daily eating plan goes like this:

Breakfast – base around fruit/yogurt/ flax sprinkle/nuts; or porridge with almond milk, flax sprinkle/seeds; or eggs and a carb source like pitta /soda bread plus a layer of spinach, or a smoothie incorporating avocado, yogurt and spinach/cos lettuce as well as fruit.

Morning snack – brown rice or oat cakes with humous, tzatziki, a slice of lean meat, peanut/cashew/pumpkin seed butter or guacamole, with cherry tomatoes and cucumber slices.

Lunch – wrap or pitta with veg, salad and protein filling – this could be lean meat, tuna, eggs (if not had for breakfast), cheese; or a bean/chickpea/ couscous/rice/pasta salad with veg and a protein source (feta, tuna, chicken, egg,) Another option is soup with pitta or soda bread. All of these can be relatively easy to take to work., or cook up batches to use through the week.

Afternoon snack – quinoa cookie/fruity protein bar (see recipe below) or fruit with a handful of seeds and nuts.

Dinner – Good quality protein source with organic brown rice/pulses/noodles and a wide variety of veg/salad (see recipe below). Fruit.

Here’s a couple of recipes to get you started –

Fruit and Choc Chip Happy Brain Bars

375g flaked almonds
250g pecans, lightly toasted
75g ground flax
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
75g dried unsweetened cranberries
7 large medjool dates, pits removed
75g dried unsweetened blueberries
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon honey
4-5 tablespoons water
75g dark chocolate (in chips or chopped up from a solid block)

Place almonds, pecans, ground flax, cinnamon, cranberries, dates, blueberries, vanilla in a food processor and process until well ground. Then pulse in honey and 3 tablespoons of water. You want the mixture to form into a ball. If it’s not after the 3 tablespoons of water add in additional water and process until the mixture begins to form a ball. Remove from food processor and stir in chocolate chips. Then press into a 8×8 inch baking dish. Place in refrigerator for an hour and then slice into bars and serve. Bars are best kept in the refrigerator. Bars can also be wrapped individually and placed in an airtight container in the freezer.

Mushroom and Cheese Crustless Quiche

150 g mushrooms of choice, sliced
butter or rapeseed oil for frying
1 tbsp onion, finely chopped
1 medium clove garlic, minced
12 eggs, preferably free range and organic
salt and pepper
150 g of grated cheese of choice (sliced or cubed soft cheeses could also be used here. Cheeses like taleggio are born partners for mushrooms!)
bacon or ham lardons
225 mls plain whole milk yogurt or creme fraiche
1/2 tsp fresh thyme leaves
dash of ground nutmeg
Other veg of choice, such as peppers, leeks, etc could also be added.

Melt the butter in a well-seasoned 10- inch oven proof frying pan (pref ceramic) over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and sprinkle with a little salt. Add a dash of freshly ground pepper. Saute the mushrooms for 5-10 minutes, until they have released
their moisture and cooked down a bit. Add the onion and garlic, and saute for a minute or so, until they are fragrant. Turn off the heat and allow to cool. Meanwhile, break the eggs into a large bowl, whisk and season. Add the cheese, lardons, yogurt, thyme, and nutmeg. Stir to combine. Stir the egg mixture into the pan with the mushrooms. Place the pan into a 180 degree oven and bake for 35 minutes until the quiche is set in the centre and beautifully browned on top. Let cool a bit, then slice and serve! This goes well with a green salad.

Hints and Tips

Drinking with meals should be limited or avoided to ensure that digestive enzymes are not diluted – ordinarily this shouldn’t be too much of a problem, but when it’s important to extract every last bit of goodness from food, limiting the amount of liquid can be an extra measure you can take. Effective digestion can also be encouraged by taking a digestive enzyme supplement before meals, or taking a dessertspoon of apple cider vinegar in a little warm water. Eating slowly, chewing well and not rushing meals sound like common sense, but it’s amazing how we stress our bodies without even noticing in the busy world we live in!

Bringing it all together……
Give yourself and your brain the best possible help by sticking to these principles as far as possible, keeping physical, emotional and mental elements in balance:
prioritising good quality food;
maintaining regular eating patterns;
including protein, carbohydrate and healthy fats in each meal;
staying hydrated; reducing exposure to chemicals/toxins/pesticides;
making time for rest and relaxation in whatever form suits you;
being aware of changes in your emotional state, and dealing with situations that cause you stress;
taking part in pastimes which allow you to let off steam and feel positive;
investing in relationships and friendships in which you can connect with those who allow you to talk, laugh and put problems in perspective.
Above all, take care of yourself. When your brain is happy, you’re happy………

Have a happy and healthy road to spring!