Ever suffered with the ‘winter blues’? Symptoms of low mood, poor cognitive function, poor sleep and fatigue while craving stimulants such as tea, coffee and alcohol, as well as sugary foods and refined carbohydrates are key factors. Known in the scientific community as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), it is a type of winter depression linked to low serotonin and Vitamin D levels during the winter months. Our ‘happy hormone’ serotonin is largely produced in the gut from the amino acid tryptophan found in high-protein foods like meat and poultry.
Fat soluble Vitamin D is synthesised in the skin from cholesterol, after exposure to UV rays during the summer months and stored in the body to supply us over the winter. It is now well known that many of us in the UK are deficient in sufficient Vitamin D stores. This could be attributed to a number of reasons such as the fact that many of us work indoors or keep covered up, adverse weather conditions, lack of sunshine, skin being covered up with sun screen and the popularity of low-fat diets and increase in cholesterol-lowering therapies. Vitamin D helps encourage serotonin production and release so it is not surprising that Vitamin D supplementation during the winter months has been shown to improve mood.
Multi-strain probiotic supplements have also been shown to increase vitamin D levels and to improve mood disorders such as anxiety, depression and SAD. Vitamin D levels well known to be low in SAD, were shown in one study to increase by more than 25% after daily consumption of a Lactobacillus probiotic supplement for 13 weeks. Another study published last year showed a multi-strain probiotic to lower levels of activity in the areas of the brain associated with emotion and pain, together with increased activity in areas associated with decision making. Those in the non-probiotic group showed either no change or an increase in activity. This study was unique as it was the first to show an interaction between a probiotic and the brain in humans. Previous studies have shown that beneficial gut bacteria can affect the brains and behaviour of rats, but until now no research has confirmed that the same effect can happen in humans. It was clear that gut bacteria send signals to the brain that can change over time depending on diet.
For many of us the festive season can often mean increased parties and alcohol consumption. Excess alcohol has been shown to cause an imbalance of our delicate gut flora and damage to the gut lining which could persist for up to 2 weeks after cessation of drinking. Drinking alcohol in moderation alongside a meal opposed to on an empty stomach could help to lessen these potentially harmful effects, then later on in the evening alternating an alcoholic drink with water or a soft drink.
Ditching the processed foods and enjoying an organic wholefood diet high in vegetables, meats, fish, legumes and healthy fats should be able to sustain you for longer and prevent the energy dips and cravings for sugary treats or refined carbohydrates. Eating good quality protein such as turkey is said to keep the liver nice and healthy too! Eating a wide variety of wholefoods and autumn growing vegetables in warming soups and stews will help warm and nourish the body with a range of nutrients for optimal function during the winter months. Eating plenty of oily fish, grass fed meats, avocados, nuts and seeds could help keep up omega 3 levels and support the brains production of ‘happy hormone’ neurotransmitters. It’s advisable to get at least 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep a night. Turning off electrical products at least an hour before, perhaps reading a book, doing a meditation, considering something you are grateful for that happened today or taking a bath could all put you in a relaxing state to enjoy a restorative night’s sleep and help you to wake feeling full of energy! Regular outdoors exercise summer and winter is said to help to boost serotonin, so what better excuse to enjoy a walk in the country or local park this January, pottering in the garden at the weekend or cycle or walk to and from work.
So all in all it could be considered wise to be nice to your gut this winter. Consuming fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kombucha, yogurt or kefir and taking a daily multi-strain probiotic this winter could help keep your gut tip top. Bio-Kult Advanced Multi-strain formula is a unique probiotic with 14 different strains of beneficial bacteria. As each different probiotic strain has a slightly different beneficial effect within the body a multi-strain is believed to have more positive benefits overall. Supporting the gut, improving digestive function, absorption of nutrients and removal of waste could just make you feel lighter and more energised.
Natalie Lamb is a media friendly Nutritional Therapist for Protexin Healthcare and multi-strain probiotic Bio-Kult. She has a CNM Diploma in Nutritional Therapy, The College of Naturopathic & Complementary Medicine. She treats people of all ages with a wide range of health complaints.