Christmas doesn’t always bring festive cheer for everyone and can actually be a great source of anxiety, low mood, and tension for many.
Looking after your mental health at Christmas may need to be a priority particularly if you are alone, unwell, or simply have tensions and stress within the family that become magnified in the run up to and during the festive period. Financial pressures, entertainment and hospitality expectations can create a melting pot of emotions including anxiety, depression, low mood and sleep disturbance.
There can be a number of reasons why the festive season isn’t joyous for many such as those already mentioned, lost loved ones and it being a time of reflection which can amplify painful memories. In this blog we want to provide nutrition and lifestyle tips to help navigate this seemingly happy period when you might not be feeling the festive cheer.
FOOD AND MOOD
What we eat (and don’t eat) plays a huge role in our mental health and how we feel for a few reasons.
Your brain is made up of fat, carbohydrates, protein and water and so providing your brain with these nutrients each day is vital to keep its integrity intact. A healthy brain helps manage mood and anxiety. These foods are important for the structure of the brain itself but also provide the raw materials needed for the production and communication of your brain chemicals (neurotransmitters), such as serotonin (our feel-good chemical), melatonin (the sleep chemical), GABA (the anti-anxiety calming chemical) and dopamine (the focus and motivation chemical). For all these to be firing off at the right times and in the optimal amounts we need to feed our brain the right nutrients.
THE BLOOD SUGAR ROLLERCOASTER AND ANXIETY
Diets high in refined carbohydrates and sugar and low in protein, fats and fibre result in fluctuating levels of sugar in your bloodstream, also known as the blood sugar rollercoaster! When blood sugar levels are high the hormone insulin moves excess sugar out of the blood stream pretty fast; resulting in low blood sugar. Low blood sugar signals the hormone cortisol to be released because low blood sugar levels are perceived by your brain as a stressor, and overtime this increased cortisol can result in increased anxiety. Low blood sugar also causes symptoms such as brain fatigue, low mood, confusion, lack of concentration or focus and irritability. The key way to keep blood sugar levels stable is to balance your meals (and any snacks) for protein, fat and quality carbs that break down SLOWLY into sugar, plus of course plenty of fibre, vitamins and minerals from colourful vegetables and berries.
TOP HEALTHY BRAIN FOOD AND A BALANCED PLATE
Fats such saturated, monounsaturated, omega 3, omega 9 and even cholesterol play a crucial role in the integrity and structure of brain cells. Omega 3 fats (EPA & DHA) are especially important because they keep the membrane of the cells fluid and flexible which allows nutrients to pass in and waste to pass out efficiently. All of this is KEY for mood health including depression and anxiety. WHAT TO INCLUDE: Avocado, extra virgin olive oil, olives, oily fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines), coconut oil, coconut milk, nuts and nut butter (especially almonds, walnuts, cashews, brazil nuts and hazelnuts), flax, sesame, chia, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, eggs (yolk) and butter.
Protein foods break down into amino acids which are the raw materials for the brain to make those all-important brain chemicals. A low protein diet can be a disaster for mental health. WHAT TO INCLUDE: Fish, eggs, chicken, turkey, grass fed beef and lamb, tofu or tempeh, nuts & seeds, beans and lentils, quinoa and good quality unflavoured protein powder to add into smoothies or porridge. Turkey is rich in the amino acid tryptophan which is a pre-cursor nutrient for serotonin production in the brain, hence turkey being a staple in the season of good cheer.
This is an umbrella term for MANY foods, some of which break down quickly into a lot of sugar and some that break down into a lot less more slowly. Refined carbohydrates such as wraps, bagels, pastries, baguettes, crackers, rolls etc. break down quickly into sugar leading to those blood sugar spikes we just described. Obvious high sugar foods also do this. The key when it comes to carbohydrate consumption is to opt for foods that are ‘complex’ to break down which means they break down much slower and provide a steady drip feed of glucose, keeping blood sugar levels within a healthy range. WHAT TO INCLUDE: oatcakes instead of regular crackers and sugary snack options. Berries, oats, sweet potato, beetroot, butternut squash, buckwheat, beans and lentils, rye or sourdough bread, quinoa, brown rice.
LIFESTYLE HABITS AND MOOD
Your day to day lifestyle habits can make a profound difference to how you feel plus how you deal with or cope in various situations. What we do and don’t do in a day can help improve not just our mood but our resilience too. Here are our top Christmas health tips for supporting better mood and less anxiety at Christmas and throughout the winter months generally…
Get outdoors daily, preferably in nature, first thing in the morning if you can once the sun is up and again around midday. This can be helpful for boosting your mood and reducing cortisol levels (stress) in the body.
Use a 10,000 LUX light box each morning as soon as you wake up. Studies have shown that 30 minutes of exposure to a light box in the morning can be the perfect “dose” for improving mood. This means sitting, or even better, exercising in front of your box for half an hour each morning (although not staring directly at it) can be a great way to safeguard your mental health and wellbeing at Christmas and boost your mood.
Exercise/movement is key for helping to increase levels of serotonin and dopamine in the brain. Serotonin is our happy mood boosting chemical and dopamine improves focus and motivation. Walking, yoga, Qi Gong and Tai Chi are excellent ways to move your body each day, plus lifting weights or other resistance style exercises, and cardio. Exercising outdoors gives you the double whammy of movement, daylight and hopefully nature too to boost your mood even more.
Keep alcohol low. Alcohol is used in celebration but for some it only increases anxiety at Christmas. Alcohol passes through the blood-brain barrier, which means it reaches the brain and can impact the balance of your brain chemicals directly, somewhat “pickling” your brain. If done to excess or too often this can lead to increased anxiety, low mood and disturbed sleep. Try to reduce your alcohol intake over the festive period and replace some (or all!) of your drinks with non-alcoholic alternatives in a fancy or decadent glass with a straw such as kombucha, soda water or low sugar tonic water with fresh lime, orange peel, or crushed berries and a sprig of mint or rosemary to keep it festive.
Stay Hydrated. with plenty of warming herbal teas, water and Junius juices and shots. Your brain is the first organ in the body to feel the effects of dehydration and some of the symptoms include headaches, confusion, forgetfulness and lack of focus – none of which are helpful for looking after your mental health at Christmas.
Test your vitamin D levels. (ask your GP) as there is strong evidence to suggest a link between mood, mental health and vitamin D status. Add a couple of drops of the Junius D3 supplement onto your tongue each morning to maintain or improve your levels.
Talk about it or write it down. If you are having a hard time, it’s so important that you tell someone and talk it through. The age old saying “a problem shared is a problem halved” really does hold true and so simply talking things through with a person you trust can be so helpful. Writing things down on paper or in a journal can also help you to work through situations or concerns in your mind.
There is a lot to be said for nutrition and lifestyle habits, and they really do pack a powerful punch! Hopefully we have provided you with some health tips and helpful takeaways in this blog.
We hope our tips can support your mental health this Christmas and boost your wellbeing all year round, but during the darker winter months some of us just need that little extra support. If Christmas is not a time of joy and celebration for your or someone you know, then see where you can slowly start to add in some or all of these tips.
A 'HEALTHY MIND’ ONLINE EVENT
Our founder and functional medicine expert, Maria King, is one of the speakers at ‘A Healthy Mind’ online event on Tuesday 16th November, created by Lucy Brazier, OBE. with ticket sales going to charities. MIND, StrongMinds & Rethink Mental Health.
We hope this blog supports you and your mental health this Christmas, and helps to relieve some of the pressure or anxiety the festive season brings.
Wishing you all the best for the festive season, the Junius Team.