Mental Health Matters—A Monthly Column

Part II: Sunshine and Other Natural Mood Enhancers

James L Fleming, MD
Medical Director, Senior Life Solutions
Putnam County Memorial Hospital

Last month we focused on the effects of sunlight on mood and in particular the role of the “sunshine vitamin” (Vitamin D) in mental and physical health. By the time you read this, the days will have gotten shorter and the sun will have passed the mid-point (the fall equinox) of its daily path across the sky. This usually means that we will have less time after the usual workday outside (and less natural production of Vitamin D) but fall is still a good time to get outside for yard work, picnics with friends and family and pleasant walks in the fall colors all of which can be natural mood enhancers. In general there are two important things we should continue to do to naturally enhance our mood and help keep ourselves from getting sad and depressed especially when winter sets in: 1) stay physically active and 2) eat healthy. Ok, I know, readers probably hear that that kind of advice all the time and maybe you feel that you’ve heard it all enough! But please consider a few pointers that might be news to you or might make it easier to follow through on what you already know are healthy behaviors.

As the amount of daylight lessens we need to need to think a little more about our schedule in order to allow time for exercise. If getting outside for a morning or early evening walk doesn’t fit your daily schedule or if the weather is simply too bad, try to make arrangements for indoor exercise: join a gym, buy an aerobics or yoga DVD or find an exercise show on TV (and don’t just watch it!). Whatever you do, spend less time sitting since recent studies have shown that the longer people sit each day, the more likely they are to suffer from a wide variety of diseases. Even though mental health issues were not directly measured in these studies, obviously we know that just getting up and getting active can lift our moods. And if we are less physically impaired we are going to feel better emotionally. We also know that exercise is good for our cognitive functioning including memory and that obesity markedly increases the risk of dementia.

Of course there is a close connection between physical activity, weight control and healthy eating. And while there is no proven diet for better mood, we all have had the experience of feeling mentally down after stuffing ourselves or binging on junk food. In general, foods that feel heavy, like fried foods and rich deserts taste good and may be OK in moderate amounts eaten once in a while but create a sense of mental heaviness and lethargy when eaten too often or in excess. In addition, one of the most common contributors to depressed mood is distress about weight gain and one sure fire way to minimize this is to eat plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes and lean meats. You may have heard of the Mediterranean diet which contains all of these along with healthy oils such as olive oil. This diet has been linked to better heart health and longer life and some preliminary evidence suggests its also associated with less depression.
Also, those who are prone to rapid mood swings or sudden drop in energy level, sometimes with irritability should be sure to include some protein and a small amount of healthy oils or fat (such as in nuts) with each meal rather than eating or snacking on carbohydrates only which cause a rapid release of insulin which in turn drives down our blood sugar, often leading to depression, lethargy, irritability and of course hunger which then starts the cycle all over again.

Finally, in recent years it has become clear that the physiological process of inflammation is at the core of many chronic diseases, not only ones like arthritis but many others including depression, heart disease, diabetes and dementia. And one of the main sources of inflammation are dietary: certain foods such as sugary snacks and certain meat-cooking methods (high heat, frying, charing, broiling, or grilling) produce chemicals in our bodies which—because of their initials “AGE”—-remind that “none of us are getting any younger”! AGE stands for “advanced glycation end products” and while they are naturally produced, when we eat to many of the above foods, they build up faster than our bodies can remove them. So while I don’t want to “rain on anyone’s fall barbecue party”, now is a good time to start to re-think ways to cook that reduces our risk of producing more AGEs. You can limit the buildup of these toxic chemicals by avoiding lots of sweets and cooking (especially meats) for longer time periods at a low heat. And according to a very useful newsletter which anyone can subscribe to (see below**) marinating meats in acid-based citrus or vinegar marinade and cooking with onions, garlic or peppers which have antioxidants which counteract the AGEs. So there, by following these guidelines, you can still enjoy a tasty barbecue once in a while and if you play with a frisbee or volleyball or go for a walk after the meal, you will do wonders for your health and your mood at the same time. Enjoy!

**Information about AGEs was obtained from October 2014 edition of Mind, Mood & Memory from Massachusetts General Hospital (866-848-2412 or