“Where is the sun,
Oh, clouds above me~ Song by John Redmond and Lee David – famously sung by Billie Holiday
Where are the birds that used to sing?
Oh, where is their song of love?”
January is emotionally such a tough month. Here in southern Ontario it is a month that is typically grey, cold, and without the brightness of snow to lighten the spirit. It’s easy to sink into a blue mood this month once the excitement of the New Year and new plans settles down.
While I do not have a background in psychology, I do have experience using food and exercise to help with mood issues and anxiety.* From dance fitness to seafood, there are many things within our own control that can dramatically boost brain health and positive feelings.
I first learned about the connection between mental health and nutrition through two different books – Drew Ramsey and Tyler Graham’s book, The Happiness Diet (2012), and The Mood Cure by Julia Ross (2003). For many years, nutrition research didn’t offer much in the way of connections between what we eat and how we feel emotionally. Julia Ross’ book was the first time I learned more about the connection between nutrition and mental health. For years, my father had encouraged me to eat fish because it was “brain food” and Ross explains why this is so, even noting that individuals with Celtic heritage (we are Welsh) may have a hereditary need to eat more of the healthy fats that are only found in fish.
Happiness Boosting Foods
From these sources and from my experience, the following foods can be very helpful in boosting mood:
- seafood (wild salmon, sardines, mackerel) – the healthy fats found in these foods are so beneficial for brain health and for a happier mood.
- colourful fruits & vegetables (blueberries, cherries, leafy greens, veggies rich in carotenoids like carrots & sweet potato. etc.) – eat a range of colours and variety for a happier mood and better health.
- probiotic & prebiotic food (kefir, yogurt, fermented vegetables, legumes) – to boost the health of the microbiome, which is connected to our mood. Probiotics contain the healthy bacteria and prebiotics feed the good bacteria!
- lean protein (chicken, legumes, beef) – for nutrients like zinc, iron, and B vitamins, which are essential for brain health.
- olive oil – to boost absorption of nutrients, to increase satiety, and to reduce inflammation in the body (& brain)
- tea – can lower the stress hormone cortisol and is psychologically soothing!
- healthy complex carbohydrates (whole grains like oats, brown rice, etc.)- we need these healthy foods for energy production and to boost serotonin.
This is basically the Mediterranean diet, which has been linked to better outcomes in almost every aspect of health, from cardiovascular to mood.
You can see Dr. Drew Ramsey’s antidepressant food scale here.
Happiness Boosting Movement
I love to encourage my exercise class participants to get out of their heads and into their bodies. We spend many days ruminating over stressful moments and that tension can transfer into our bodies…by moving our bodies we can bring awareness to the muscles and concentrate more fully on the joy of movement! That exercise can reduce the risk of depression is well-researched but I’m always curious about what types of exercise are most effective.
An interesting 2020 meta-analysis of 7 different exercise interventions for depression in college students found that Tai Chi, Yoga, and Dance (respectively) were the most effective for decreasing depressive symptoms. These forms of exercise involve mindfulness, focus, and often a community environment (vs. say a solitary run). Tai Chi involves slow movements connected with the breath and yoga, while there are many varieties, typically focuses on moving through postures with an awareness of the body and breath.
I am a firm believer in the mood-boosting benefits of dance and love teaching Balletone for this very reason. I grew up dancing and know how beautiful it can feel to move to music and express different emotions through movement.
In the book Dancing is the Best Medicine (2018) authors Julia F. Christensen and Dong-Seon Chang describe the research that connects dance with a reduction in depression, noting the social aspects of dance, the increase of serotonin (happiness hormone) that occurs during dance, and the opportunity to “try on” and work through emotions like exuberance or sadness. Dance involves self-expression and concentration on choreography and patterns, which can take our attention away from our troubles and into the movement.
We can’t control the weather this month or the things that happen around us, but we can build up our bodies and spirits with healthy nutrition and movement. Please let me know if these tips are helpful to you and if you have your own favourite foods or exercises to boost your mood! 💗
Guo S, Liu F, Shen J, Wei M, Yang Y. Comparative efficacy of seven exercise interventions for symptoms of depression in college students: A network of meta-analysis. Medicine (Baltimore). 2020 Nov 20;99(47)
*of course for any serious mood issues, consult with your Doctor!