Sunshine, where are you? Because frankly, it's getting a bit silly now. Judging by the (even more) sour expressions (than usual) on the London Underground, this extended winter is making us miserable, prompting even the cheeriest among us to invest in an S.A.D. lamp and extend the hibernation period.
But, even if you can't control the weather, there are a few easy ways to put a spring in your step even on the dreaded morning commute. And it starts with your diet. Research has shown that the foods we eat have an impact on mood, proving you really are what you eat. Here’s the sciencey bit: “Serotonin is commonly known as a ‘happy hormone’ produced to control our mood, emotions, and sleep," says Zoe Copsey, managing director of Lomax Food & Nutrition Planning at Lomax Bespoke Fitness, Nutrition & Wellbeing. This can be processed effectively by consuming L-tryptophan (an amino acid found in eggs and more) and vitamins B3 and B6 (in avocado, nuts, and seeds, amongst others).
And there’s more – choline can make for a clearer outlook, magnesium boosts energy, essential fats help regulate mood, and antioxidants enhance blood flow to the brain. And, don’t even get us started on trace nutrients – those little guys can work wonders. Sadly, these foods aren't magic (drat!): “Unlike medication, nutrients work slowly and their effect is cumulative. Don’t expect instant results.” says nutritionist Ian Marber.
Want to find out where you can find these happy nutrients? We’ve chatted to some of London’s most trusted nutritionists to find out what foods we need to be chowing down on, plus the best – and tastiest – ways to eat them. Load up your plate and turn that frown upside down.
Madeleine Shaw, a holistic nutritional health coach and chef, recommends a regular plateful of mussels. “These wonderful delights contain trace nutrients that are important for balancing your mood”, she says. “These include zinc, iodine, and selenium, which keep your thyroid – your body's master mood regulator – on track.”
Ever wondered why Popeye was so cheerful? It might have been all that spinach-eating. Spinach contains phenylethylamine, which may be impossible to pronounce but “can reduce monoamine oxidase break down in the same way that old-fashioned pre-Prozac anti-depressants did,” says Marber.
What’s more, spinach is packed with magnesium, a nutrient essential for the biochemical reactions in the brain that boost energy. Shaw recommends sautéing some of this leafy green with coconut oil for a few minutes on a medium heat. “Coconut oil is antibacterial, anti-fungal and antioxidant, so it’s incredible for digestion and gives the dish a sweet taste!”
“Animals that have been raised on grass pastures contain much higher levels of healthy conjugated linoleum acid (CLA)”, Shaw advises. “This happy fat stops stress hormones protecting our brain cells.” She suggests slow roasting – “Cooking at high temperatures damages these nutrients so try cooking at 120°C.”
“Serotonin is commonly known as a ‘happy hormone’ produced to control our mood, emotions, and sleep,” says Copsey. This can be processed effectively by consuming tryptophan.” Asparagus is full of the stuff, so stack these emerald spears high.
“These babies taste best simply steamed for 5 minutes, then covered in olive oil, lemon juice and a pinch of Celtic sea salt,” says Shaw.
Sweet tooth? Try a drizzle of honey on top of yoghurt or in herbal tea. “It contains quercetin and kaempferol that clean up the free radicals and reduce nasty inflammation which is super important for a slim physique and a healthy brain,” Shaw says. “Try and buy raw honey, and don't cook it at high temperatures as it can denature all the beneficial nutrients.”
Another serotonin-boosting ingredient is vitamin B3, which can be found in avocados. “They also contain omega-3 fatty acids, which don’t necessarily produce serotonin directly but have been linked with brain health and function and mood regulation," says Copsey. Try placing an egg in the well of an avocado half and baking at 180°C for about 15 minutes for a filling and healthy breakfast.
Nuts & Seeds
Patrick Holford, author of New Optimum Nutrition for the Mind, advises eating raw, unsalted seeds and nuts, such as flax (or linseed), hemp, pumpkin, sunflower, and sesame. “You get more goodness out of them by grinding them first and sprinkling on cereal, soups and salads,” he suggests.
Cold-pressed seed oils are another great way to consume the nutrients in seeds and nuts. Holford advises, “Choose an oil blend containing flaxseed oil or hemp oil for salad dressings and cold uses, such as drizzling on vegetables instead of butter. Don’t cook with these oils as their fats are easily damaged by heat.”
An egg a day may just keep the blues away. Egg yolks not only contain choline – which “has been shown to be required for mental acuity and outlook,” says Marber – but are also packed with L-tryptophan, known to boost those happy hormones.
Holford recommends eating a portion of salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, or trout two to three times a week, as these oily fish are rich in omega-3. “Fatty acids help to keep our brains stable,” advises Dr Ursula Werneke, Royal College of Psychiatrists. We advise keeping a supply of mints nearby…
“Antioxidants of all types are required to combat the deterioration of cells and to enhance blood flow,” says Marber. Did you know that vegetables – particularly leafy greens – have antioxidant effects? Shaw favours juicing to get a morning veg hit. “Start the day off with a veggie juice to dose your body up with some goodness. I recommend having a juice in the morning when your body is at its most dehydrated after fasting all night.”