In the past when I was feeling down, crabby, ‘hormonal’ or just thoroughly fed up, my go-to solution was edible. If life just didn’t feel sweeeeeeet enough then creamy, sickly cake or ice-cream was the ideal solution to make me feel better
…. wasn’t it?
Well – actually … no. And I knew it deep down. I knew it didn’t do me any good, but I ate it anyway. Usually quickly and quietly. Not really enjoying it, just shovelling it in and then feeling worse afterwards … (with a health dose of guilty self-loathing too!).
Highs and Lows
When you reach for something sweet to give you a boost, there is, of course, the initial sugar ‘high’ which can give you a nice rush of energy. But then the insulin kicks in and your blood sugar plummets bringing with it your mood, your energy levels and making you feel hungry and crabby …. again …. and so the cycle repeats.
These days I have some better coping strategies. I’ve learned to choose how I respond to my mood – rather than just blindly reacting and reaching for another bar of creamy milk chocolate. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not immune to a bit of sweet comfort, but if I do choose to indulge, I do it with an awareness of what I am doing, and I make damn sure that I really focus on enjoying my treat – eating it slowly, with my full attention on finding the pleasure in every last mouthful.
Perhaps the first step to managing our moods more intelligently (and without chocolate), is to understand what actually makes us feel good. In a nutshell, its down to our hormones – seratonin and oxytocin being two major players with a liberal sprinkling of the lovely pain-relieving endorphins.
So, to boost your mood (without food), you need to find some simple ways to influence production of these hormones and also pay attention to things likely to mess them up …. lack of sleep, junk food, stress and drugs like caffeine to name a few.
So here are my seven best hormone-balancing, mood-boosting tips. All with a sound evidence base that you can trust.
- BALANCE YOUR BLOOD SUGAR – This can make a huge difference to how you feel. Avoiding processed carbs and sugar reduces the likelihood of the big blood sugar peaks and troughs that can leave you feeling tired, fed-up and grumpy. Junk foods are terrible for our moods (read more in this book). If you make a concerted effort to eat more healthy, whole, real foods and choose low GI carbs (see this list), you will notice the difference.
- AVOID BORROWED ENERGY – Quick pick-me-ups like caffeine (or other ‘drugs’) should be treated with extreme caution. The basic natural law that what goes up must come down applies to your body and your energy levels too. In a nutshell, you don’t get anything for free. So if you’re using a strong Americano to pick you up in the morning you need to be aware that for each additional modicum of extra buzz and focus that your cuppa delivers, there is an equal and opposite reaction in store for you later in the day. I used to wonder why I slumped mid afternoon and found myself reaching for a quick chocolate fix as a pick-me-up, sometimes barely able to stay awake. But once I kicked my morning coffee habit, miraculously these slumps evaporated too. I realised that my sluggish afternoons were due to the ‘come down’ from the caffeine ‘high’ that I used to fuel my hyper-productive mornings.
- GET MORE NATURAL LIGHT – During the winter months, when daylight is more scarce and we tend to spend more time indoors, hormone levels can get out of balance. Research has shown that exposure to bright light in the morning helps to regulate our hormonal cycles and has an especially strong influence on melatonin production (which helps to protect us against insomnia, PMS and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Light exposure can also help to maintain good day-time levels of serotonin (the feel good hormone) keeping our moods positive and our outlook calm. By making a concerted effort to get outside during daylight hours you can help your body to balance itself and improve your mood. Several of my clients swear that their mood improves dramatically when they use a sunlight lamp during the winter months.
- GET MOVING – I know, I know – its been repeated ad nauseum but its true – we need regular exercise. If we are physically active we feel much better and our bodies our healthier. There is no magic answer to this – you just have to find a way of getting moving that you enjoy and get on with it! Six weeks ago (at the grand old age of 42) I decided to take up running. There is no way I could have done this 10 or 15 years ago – my body wasn’t in good enough shape – but I have been pleasantly surprised how well it seems to be coping now. My 10-year-old daughter has been persuaded to join in with my project and together we are following the NHS couch to 5 km App. The more we do it, the more we are finding we look forward to our runs (albeit v short and with quite a bit of resting walking in the first few weeks) plus we feel energised, positive and vibrant afterwards. Yes its wet and cold, but its surprising how warm you get once you start and we have invested in some decent waterproofs. If running isn’t for you then try going for a brisk walk to blow away the cobwebs or put on your favourite track, get the hairbrush out and have a sing/dance. Find something you enjoy and make it a priority – it may seem like a struggle to get going (and there are plenty of excuses you can drum up at this time of year to convince yourself you don’t want to do it) but you will ALWAYS feel better afterwards. Guaranteed. Its a fact – down to those lovely endorphins.
- CONNECT – make a list of people who make you feel good and find time to pick up the phone and talk to them. We have become more and more lazy about maintaining friendships – social media sites such as facebook make it very easy for us to feel like we are in touch, but without any real nourishing interaction with our nearest and dearest. There is nothing like a good chat, so make some time for it. Your friends will appreciate you making the effort and you are guaranteed to feel much better for it.
- SMILE – yes there really is some wisdom in the old saying ‘just grin and bear it’. Recent research has shown that the act of smiling actually changes our physical state – reducing stress hormones and helping us to deal with stress better. Its that simple – just by just making yourself smile for a minute each day you can have a positive influence on your mood – amazing huh?
- PHYSICAL TOUCH – we release oxytocin when we are cuddled, massaged or stroked. This is the intimacy hormone that makes us feel calm and increases social bonding. Book a massage, get a pedicure and foot rub or a manicure. Treat yourself. Or if you’re on a budget then allow yourself some indulgent TIME – Take time to massage some luxurious oil or moisturiser into your wonderful body after a shower or bath (better still find someone else to massage you), or give someone a hug (have you heard about Amma – the ‘hugging saint‘?).
Making Sustainable Good Mood Habits
As with my approach to food, I believe strongly in setting up good habits that are sustainable for the long term. We are all familiar with the advice that we should be eating our five portions of fresh fruit and veg a day to keep physically healthy. But do you know the five things we should be doing each day to take care of our mental wellbeing? Researchers at the New Economics Foundation identified five daily practices that seem to make a real difference to keeping us mentally healthy and happy.
They are: ‘connect’, ‘be active’, ‘take notice’, ‘keep learning’ and ‘give’. See more info here.
If you find yourself feeling like comfort food really is the only answer, you can still make an INTELLIGENT choice over what sort of food you reach for. There are stacks of healthy options that honestly deliver the same pleasurable feelings of indulgence, but contain some real healthful ingredients that you can feel good about eating, instead of being empty packages of calories in the form of unhealthy processed sugars and fats. Try this healthy raw chocolate brownies recipe, or take a look at my pinterest boards.
Finally, please share any additional tips or comments that you might have about boosting your mood either below or on our facebook page. I’d love to hear from you.