The Brain Bio Centre at the Institute for Optimum Nutrition (ION) explains how a change in your diet can support your mental wellness this winter
Winter can be a challenging time for our mental health, when the air becomes chillier and the days grow shorter, and many of us want to do nothing more than curl up on the sofa. As outdoor activity becomes less appealing — or even impossible if the weather becomes truly foul — it’s only natural to want to hibernate with an endless supply of stodgy puddings.
But nourishing the brain with good nutrition can go a long way in supporting our mental health, says Lorraine Perretta, a registered nutritional therapist from ION’s Brain Bio Centre.
We can give the body biochemical support to improve mental resilience through nutritional support and supplementation. she says.
Particular nutrients are critical for healthy brain function, not least vitamin D. However, dreary weather and less sunlight in the winter mean our bodies cannot manufacture enough of it. Oily fish is a rich source, as well as some types of mushroom (check the label), egg yolks and some fortified foods. But consuming the recommended 10 micrograms a day through food can still be a challenge, so NHS advice is for everyone to supplement in autumn and winter.
B vitamins are also essential for our mental health, particularly B12. As it is only naturally available in animal products, vegans are at greater risk of being deficient, as are the elderly due to decreased absorption. B12 is available through some fortified foods such as nutritional yeast and yeast spread. A registered nutritional therapist or GP can also test for B12 deficiency and provide advice on supplementation.
Considered to be the ‘feel good’ mineral, magnesium helps to support a healthy ‘sleep/wake’ cycle and to regulate mood. Dark green leafy veg, beans and peas, seeds, nuts and wholegrains are all good dietary sources. However, magnesium is easily absorbed through the skin so an effective way to top up your magnesium levels is a feel-good soak in a bath with Epsom salt.
But whilst these nutrients are vital for brain function, eating a balanced diet overall goes a long way. Several studies have linked a colourful, varied diet that includes vegetables, fruit and wholegrains with good mental health. These all contain fibre, which is essential for feeding our gut bacteria – healthy levels of which, in turn, have been associated with better mental health.
If you’re struggling to get more veggies into your diet, try adding them to curries, stews and wholewheat pasta bakes; or just add some extra vegetables to each meal. Snack on vegetable sticks and hummus, or a handful of nuts in between meals if you find yourself getting peckish.
However, nutrition isn’t the only way to support your mental health. “At the Brain Bio Centre, we don’t just look at nutritional factors,” says Perretta. “We also look at lifestyle factors which may have an impact, including sleep, exercise and work/life balance. It’s important to remember that everyone is different and that’s why we always recommend a personalised approach to nutrition.”
Work deadlines and family commitments can all contribute to increased stress, not to mention all the festive celebrations over the holiday season. Avoiding stressors may be impossible, but having a self-care routine can make us more resilient.
Olga Preston, who is also a registered nutritional therapist at the Brain Bio Centre, adds that sweating from exercise will make you feel good and help to relieve tension and anxiety, as well as increase endorphins. And if you can’t face the cold weather, bring your workout indoors.
“At nights, try to do a yoga, meditation or a mindfulness class online to help set you up for a good night’s sleep,” she says. “If you have access to an aromatherapy diffuser, put some lavender oil in and relax.”
With a little self-care and the right diet, winter doesn’t have to be a mental battle. But if you do still find it cold and draining, working with a registered nutritional therapist who can provide personalised nutrition and lifestyle recommendations can be a great support.
Find out more about ION’s services, including the Brain Bio Centre, at ion.ac.uk/thrive