Banish the January blues: top nutrition and lifestyle tips for beating low mood

CLose up of happy woman in autumn winter

The month of January can make us feel pretty glum. This is mainly because the weather is generally gloomy, bank balances are depleted after Christmas, colds and flu take hold and all of this can make us often feel low. 

The good news is that there are plenty of nutrients and herbs that can help lift your mood.

Clinical nutritionist, Suzie Sawyer, shares her top tips this Blue Monday.

What effects our mood?

Mood and motivation are largely determined by serotonin, also known as the ‘happy hormone’.  Serotonin acts as both a hormone and a brain neurotransmitter and it’s pretty important when it comes to thinking about emotional wellbeing.

A plate with a picture of a brain on to represent eating healthily to support a sharper brain

Interestingly most serotonin is produced in the gut, therefore what goes on in the digestive system is inextricably linked to how we feel. Certain nutrients such as vitamin C, zinc and the B vitamins are all needed to help in its production.  It also uses the amino acid tryptophan (a protein) to get it working. All this means there are plenty of things we can do to help make sure serotonin production is as good as it can be.

Get the basics right

Our internal systems need to be in good working order for us to feel happy and motivated, not just because of serotonin production but also to prevent any toxins building up, which can make us feel sluggish.  A good balance of friendly bacteria and plenty of fibre are key.

A range of wholegrain foods

Live natural yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut, Jerusalem artichokes (in season right now), green tea and whole grain foods such as oats are great for feeding the good bacteria. They also help keep everything moving through the digestive tract smoothly.

Eat protein at every meal

Amino acids, which make up proteins, are found in foods containing protein such as meat, eggs, poultry, fish, soy, dairy, nut and beans.  The amino acid tryptophan is found in many of these foods and the levels of each of the amino acids varies in different foods.

A range of foods containing protein

In order not to over-complicate matters, the best advice is to ensure you’re eating protein at every meal. This way you’ll be eating tryptophan, plus you’ll be keeping blood sugar levels in good balance, which is essential for maintaining concentration, energy and a brighter mood throughout the day.

Try some herbal helpers

When it comes to health, herbs are very powerful: we can often forget just what a difference these naturally occurring plants can make to health.

Close up of a St John's Wort Flower with blue sky background

Top of the list for helping lift low mood is the herb St John’s wort.  It has been widely researched over the years and is now found on supermarket and health food shop shelves as a licensed herbal medicine, denoted by the Traditional Herbal Remedy (THR) mark, meaning its safety and efficacy is assured.

As with all herbs, their exact mode of action is still a bit of a mystery, but research has shown that it helps raise serotonin levels.  It can take about three weeks to work but it’s well worth sticking with it because it’s very effective if you’re feeling down.

Ramp up your nutrients

To ensure optimal production, serotonin also needs a helping hand from our diet. Vitamin C is key in this respect and the good news is that it’s found in all fruits and vegetables in varying amounts.  Top of the list, however, are red peppers, kiwis, papaya, green leafy veg and all citrus fruits, so add some colour to your plate at every meal or snack.

A range of fruits and vegetables

The mineral zinc is another hard-working nutrient, also needed for healthy immunity, but essential for good brain function and mood.  Meat, shellfish (especially oysters), eggs, nut, seeds and dairy produce are all high in zinc so include them regularly in your meal planning.

Close up of a lobster, oysters and prawns to represent shellfish

Vitamin B6 also works in harmony with zinc and vitamin C, keeping your mood in check and helping produce serotonin. Bananas make a great snack, keep energy levels on track and are high in vitamin B6 so try to eat about four a week.  Additionally, dark leafy greens, oranges, beans and fortified cereals are great choices for an extra boost of Vitamin B6.

So, with a little dietary and herbal help you can hopefully keep smiling your way through the month and beyond.

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The truth about fruit and sugar

A range of fruits

Sometimes celebrated, other times revered, there is widespread confusion within the general population about whether eating a lot of fruit is healthy or not.   

Fruit contains naturally-occurring sugars – glucose and fructose. So, is eating fruit going to exacerbate our ever-growing obesity crisis? And which are the best fruits for us to eat?

With Sugar Awareness Week around the corner, Clinical nutritionist Suzie Sawyer explodes some of the fruit myths and looks at what’s good and what’s not.

The good

To be clear, fruit contains some amazing health benefits.  All fruits contain lots of vitamin C, one of our hardest-working vitamins.  Vitamin C is essential for many body functions but is key in the health of the immune system, the skin and formation and repair of muscle.

Additionally, fruits contain a whole range of plant compounds with varying health benefits.  For starters, they’re very high in antioxidants – essential for helping prevent degenerative diseases and supporting the immune system.  Watermelons, for example, contain some of the highest levels of antioxidants of any fruits.

Whole watermelon and slices of watermelon

Fruits contain other plant compounds called anthocyanins which are also incredibly powerful antioxidants and supportive of all body systems.  It’s all about the colour and the darker the colours, the more anthocyanins the fruit provides.  Blueberries have championed the super-fruit title, partly because their dark colour makes them very rich in these plant compounds. Blackberries and blackcurrants have the same qualities.

A wooden bowl of blueberries

Another wonderful benefit to eating fruit is it contains plenty of essential fibre.  In our heavily processed western diet, fibre is sadly lacking.  We all need around 30 grams of fibre daily (bananas have around 3 grams), in order to keep the bowel working efficiently.

A bowl of cut up lineapple next to a whole pineapple

Some fruits contain some more unusual health benefits.  For example, pineapples contain bromelain which is an effective protein digester so is often used as a digestive enzyme.  Plus, bromelain is a great anti-inflammatory so will help ease painful, inflamed joints.  Apples contain plenty of quercetin, a natural antihistamine, so help fight allergic reactions.

The not so good

There is of course a downside to eating too much fruit and that is its sugar content.  However, this isn’t all bad news.  Fruit contains high levels of a fruit sugar called fructose.  The chemical structure of fructose is more complex that that of simple glucose, and it must be broken down in the liver.  This means you don’t necessarily get a huge sugar ‘hit’ when you eat certain fruits. Cranberries, apricots, raspberries, strawberries and clementines, for example, are all low in sugar overall.

a punnet of strawberries

It all depends on the fruits you eat. They vary in how much fibre they contain (this slows down blood sugar rushes), their balance of fructose and glucose, plus their total fructose levels.

A bowl of prunes or dried plums

Figs, grapes, dates and prunes (dried plums) have some of the highest sugar content.  But this needs to be balanced against their other benefits: prunes, for example, contain some of the highest antioxidant levels per 100 grams of all fruits.

As with everything in life, it’s all about balance.

The not too bad at all!

The body needs a constant supply of energy and eating fruit provides a healthy way of achieving this, due to its high carbohydrate content.  When it comes to blood sugar, it’s a balancing act. Eating carbohydrate with protein will slow down the sugar rush, making energy distribution more sustained.  For example, eating some sliced apple with a few almonds is a perfect afternoon snack when you’re feeling energy levels starting to flag. Additionally, eating fruit with some fat and fibre slows down its absorption; nut butter with sliced banana on wholemeal toast is an incredibly easy and sustaining breakfast option.

Avocado on rye toast showing healthy breakfast

Interestingly, nature also demonstrated this concept well with the avocado.  Categorised as a fruit, avocado is high in both the heart-healthy monounsaturated fat and fibre.  Avocados are incredibly health-giving. It makes a brilliant breakfast on toast on its own or with egg or smoked salmon. They’ll certainly keep you feeling full all through the morning.

Fruit is certainly not the enemy.  Within a healthy, balanced diet, fruit will provide amazing health benefits without too much damage to the waistline (or teeth!)

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Veganuary: how to ramp up your vegan diet

The word 'vegan' spelt out using plant-based foods

Unless you’ve been hiding under a bush, you’ll be very aware that it’s Veganuary; in other words, Vegan January! Eating a plant-based diet provides many health benefits but it is important to make sure you are getting everything you need.

Whether you’re going vegan for the month of January, are flexibly vegan or have always eaten that way, then now is a great time to ensure your diet is delivering all the essential nutrients.

Clinical nutritionist Suzie Sawyer looks at how to get your vegan diet in great shape.

Protein is king

Protein is an essential macro nutrient. It’s needed for maintaining healthy bones, joint and muscles, and plays a key role in the immune system. It is also essential for hormone production.  Without enough protein, the body literally starts to break down.

Protein from animal sources contains all the essential amino acids the body can’t make. Some vegetable sources don’t contain all these amino acids, or they’re low in some of them.  However, the great news is that soy foods, such as tofu and tempeh, and quinoa are complete protein sources. Rice and beans can also be combined to deliver the full quota. The body doesn’t need to have all nine essential aminos at every meal but there should be an overall balance ideally.

A pile of different beans and pulses

Make sure you’re eating some protein at every meal – there are loads of great choices.  Any type of bean, quinoa, rice, buckwheat, lentils, chickpeas, nuts, soy, hemp and chia seeds are all healthy, low fat options.Don’t over promise yourself

Some fats are essential

Whilst it’s important not to overdo foods high in saturated fats such as butter and meat (good to remember if you’re a ‘flexi’ vegan), the body needs the essential omega-3s and 6s.  These are essential for many body functions including a healthy heart, skin, brain, muscles, eyes and hormones.  Omega 6 fats are often easier to obtain because they’re found in a variety of vegetable oils (including soy), nuts and seeds.

A bowl of walnuts

However, it’s the omega-3s that are frequently deficient in so many western diets, partly because the best source is from oily fish which many people don’t like and obviously vegans don’t eat.  However, walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds and pumpkin seeds are all good sources of omega-3s so make sure they’re on the menu every day in some way.

Supplement with vitamin B12

This vitamin is the only one that can’t be found in any vegetable sources so ideally needs to be supplemented if you’re vegan.  Many soy products and cereals are fortified with vitamin B12 so do keep a watchful eye on labels.

Vitamin B12 is essential for preventing pernicious anaemia which isn’t dissimilar to iron-deficient anaemia.  The bottom line is that if you’re deficient in B12, energy levels will be noticeably low, and your nervous system and brain won’t function at their best.

Keep a watch on iron intake

Unlike vitamin B12, iron is found in many vegetable sources including nuts, beans, green leafy vegetables, and fortified grain products.  Whilst the most usable source of iron is from meat, vegetable sources are much better absorbed when eaten alongside some vitamin C.  For example, half a glass of orange juice with your morning fortified cereal is a great way of boosting iron levels.

A selection of green leafy vegetables

The only way of knowing for sure if iron levels are low is to get the doctor to perform a serum ferritin blood test.  It’s always worth having this checked if you’re feeling unusually tired or you find you’re out of breath even doing light exercise.  Otherwise, include the above vegan sources of iron as much as possible in your diet.

Load up on orange and red vegetables

Why? Because these colourful fruits and vegetables have the highest amounts of beta-carotene which is turned into immune-boosting vitamin A as needed by the body.  Just like vitamin B12, vitamin A is only found in animal sources. However, this doesn’t generally present any problems because the body produces what it needs if enough beta-carotene is being consumed.

A range of orange vegetables

Many colourful fruits and vegetables contain pro-vitamin A beta carotene. However, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, mango, apricots and carrots are the best choices.

There are many health benefits to following a vegan diet.  You can make it even healthier by taking care of these watchpoints.

FOR MORE GREAT DIET AND LIFESTYLE ADVICE:

Sign up to receive our blog and get a weekly dose of the latest nutrition, health and wellness advice direct to your inbox.

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Follow and Chat with Suzie on Twitter @nutritionsuzie

For everything you need to know about vitamins, minerals and herbs visit our sister site Herbfacts