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By Gwen Bastian-Enright, MSc, dipNT, mNTOI
January – when Christmas and all its festivities and frivolities are over it can be a harsh return to reality. It can seem like the longest month of the year, cold, dark and with nothing to look forward to except a big credit card statement.
There are a number of things that can be used to help improve mood, such as exercise and a very simple thing is to get out in daylight and go for a walk. The benefits of walking are outlined by Shane O’Mara in his book “In Praise of Walking: The New Science of How We Walk and Why It’s Good for Us” with one benefit of mindful walking being to repair the brain (Thompson, 2019). 30 minutes a few times a week is a good start but aiming for 10-15,000 steps a day is even better!
However, it may be due to seasonal affective disorder (SAD) that you are not feeling like yourself. Signs and symptoms may include feeling depressed, comfort eating and not wanting to leave the house. People with SAD may have a lack of vitamin D and serotonin (NIH, 2016). Let’s look at vitamin D first. Living in Ireland many of us are aware that we lack in the ‘sunshine vitamin’ owing simply to where we live and how little sunshine we get, as well as less time spent outside. Vitamin D is made in our skin when we are exposed to UV B radiation from the sun (it’s made from cholesterol!). Testing your blood levels for vitamin D can be very useful to establish whether you have sufficient levels or not, and you can supplement this easily as well, for example by way of an oral spray. In Ireland, the HSE recommends all young babies take a supplement and that for adults, supplements of 25mcg a day is unlikely to cause harm (HSE, 2011), however others would suggest that higher levels of twice this (50mcg or 2,000iU) are a better place to start with supplementing (Chow, 2019).
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is essential for mood regulation and happiness, the synthesis of which is promoted by bacteria in the gut (Mills et al., 2019). In fact, the majority of the body’s serotonin is made in the gut! Our gut bacteria communicate with the brain, in what’s known as the microbiome-gut-brain axis. If the gut microbiome is disrupted and changed, which can be due to many reasons such as emotional stress, this can have a negative effect on cognitive function and neurological conditions such as anxiety and depression (Lima-Ojeda, Rupprecht, & Baghai, 2017).
You may consider a probiotic to help improve mood: The word probiotic comes from the Greek and means “pro life”, which is so interesting considering the myriad of health benefits that are attributed to them. A probiotic supplement or probiotic foods and drinks such as kefir, kimchi and kombucha, may increase the diversity in bacterial strains in the gut, some of which have been researched due to their specific impact on mental health. For example, Bifidobacterium longum, which has been studied for effects on anxiety and depression as well as Bifidobacterium infantis. This means if you are looking for a probiotic supplement to support your mood, you might choose one with these strains in it.
Chow, Z. (2019) Can vitamin D cure depression? [online] available from: https://examine.com/nutrition/vitamin-d-and-depression/
HSE (2011) Vitamin D [online] available from: https://www.hse.ie/eng/health/az/v/vitamins,-minerals-and-supplements/vitamind.html
Lima-Ojeda, J. M., Rupprecht, R., & Baghai, T. C. (2017). "I Am I and My Bacterial Circumstances": Linking Gut Microbiome, Neurodevelopment, and Depression. Frontiers in psychiatry, 8, 153. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5572414/
Mills, S., Stanton, C., Lane, J. A., Smith, G. J., & Ross, R. P. (2019). Precision Nutrition and the Microbiome, Part I: Current State of the Science. Nutrients, 11(4), 923. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6520976/
NIH (2016) Seasonal Affective Disorder [online] available from: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/seasonal-affective-disorder/index.shtml
Thompson, S. (2019) Why walking words as a self-acting repair tool for body and soul [online] available from: https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/travel/ireland/why-walking-works-as-a-self-acting-repair-tool-for-body-and-soul-1.3968370