How the Sunshine Nutrients and Exercise Can Boost Happiness

  • 21 Feb 2011
  • Reading time 4 mins
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Do you find your mood dips during the winter? If so, you are not alone – and it’s not just due to feeling gloomy about the weather. The lack of sunlight we experience in the Northern hemisphere directly affects our levels of the happy neurotransmitter serotonin, according to research by the Baker Heart Research Institute in Melbourne.

Some people, especially women, are prone to low levels of serotonin anyway, and a relative lack of light can tip them over the edge into depression. The lack of sunlight we experience in winter also depletes our reserves of vitamin D. This vital mood-boosting nutrient is made in the skin in the presence of sunlight, and many of us, especially in the winter, don’t make enough. For these people, the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder – or SAD – usually recur regularly each winter and may include sleep problems, lethargy, overeating, social withdrawal, anxiety, loss of libido and mood changes.

Most sufferers also show signs of a weakened immune system during the darker months, and are more vulnerable to infections and other illnesses. There is a growing body of research that not only links low vitamin D levels in the blood to a higher incidence of depression, but also links them to seasonal affective disorder and premenstrual syndrome. The good news is you can reverse both low serotonin and vitamin D levels. Three ways to boost serotonin

1. Increase your exposure to natural light by spending more time outdoors (eg go for a walk each day).

2. Consider investing in some ‘full spectrum’ lighting. These are light bulbs that have the same quality of light as the sun, determined by the spread of different wavelengths. Many studies have shown the effectiveness of bright light treatment with full-spectrum lights for those with SAD. It has even been found that increasing bright light exposure for non-seasonal depression is as effective as antidepressants.

3. Since serotonin is made from the amino acid 5-HTP, supplementing some 5-HTP each day may help. You’ll find more tips and information in my book, the The Feel Good Factor – or why not come along to find out in person at my Feel Good Factor Tour – see below for details. Up your vitamin D intake The average woman in Britain consumes 2.7mcg of vitamin D a day, while the average man has 3.1mcg – both below the RDA of 5mcg, which is considered far too low for optimal health. Many experts believe that we need as much as 30mcg a day in total. So unless you can relocate to sunnier climes for the winter, then you’ll need to look to dietary sources and supplements to get an optimal intake of vitamin D.

Food wise, you can boost your intake by eating more oily fish and eggs. And if you are taking a multi, ensure it has at least 12.5mcg (500iu) and preferably 15mcg (600iu) of vitamin D – or take an additional supplement on top. You may need even more, which is why I often recommend testing, especially if you suffer with deficiency symptoms. I explain this in more detail in The Feel Good Factor. Exercise away the blues Exercise plays a key part in beating the blues. In fact, it turns out to be as effective as taking antidepressants. If you exercise outdoors, thereby combining exercising with sunlight exposure, that’s all the better. In one study published in 2004, a third of depressed volunteers who exercised in full-spectrum lighting experienced a major improvement in their depression. Of course, one of the issues about exercising is that if you are feeling down and de-motivated it’s not easy to get started, but the benefits are worth it.

Also, if you follow the mood-boosting diet and supplement programme outlined in The Feel Good Factor, you will experience a big improvement in energy levels, and exercise is a great way to spend it. All the information here is explored in more detail in my book The Feel Good Factor. I’m currently on tour with The Feel Good Factor in South Africa and will be touring the UK and Ireland in March.