How nutrition can help manage holiday stress

By Danielle O’Keefe and Kate Ueland, guest contributors

This article was originally published in November 2020

Family gathered around a healthy turkey meal

Usually when people think of using food to deal with holiday stress, they think of polishing off a plate of Grandma’s fudge or a bowl of mashed potatoes. Comfort foods and sweets do have their place, but a thoughtful approach to nutrition can do a lot more to bring us up when we’re feeling down.

It’s well-established that what we eat and how we eat have significant impacts on how we feel. At a fundamental level, our central nervous system (CNS) needs proper nutrition in order to develop, grow and function. Our brains need a steady supply of glucose for energy, protein for growth and repair, and polyunsaturated fat for development and performance. Recent research suggests a connection between low blood levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAS) like omega-3 and omega-6 and psychiatric disorders like depression and anxiety. Studies show following a meal pattern that includes PUFAS, like the Mediterranean diet, is associated with lower risk of mental disorders such as cognitive decline and depression. The Mediterranean diet is characterized by consumption of primarily plant foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes and seeds, but its hallmark feature is its emphasis on eating PUFAs from olive oil and fish.

In addition to our brain, CNS components like neurotransmitters require essential nutrients too. Neurotransmitters, chemicals in our bodies that transmit nerve signals from neurons in the CNS to target cells, play a sizeable role in regulating our moods. Key neurotransmitters involved in mood regulation, sometimes called “happy hormones,” include dopamine, serotonin and endorphins. Low levels of these chemicals are associated with mood disruptions. Because they are largely made up of amino acids from the protein in our diet, it’s essential to get enough protein at regular intervals throughout the day to keep our mood and energy levels stable. Production and function of neurotransmitters important for mood also require several other important nutrients such as minerals and B vitamins, which can be obtained by eating a wide variety of foods from all the major food groups.

Vitamin D, best known for its crucial role in bone health by aiding calcium absorption, is also needed for proper function of every cell (including CNS cells) in the body and is involved in the production, protection and release of neurotransmitters. Sunlight is our main source of vitamin D and we normally synthesize enough from skin exposure to ultraviolet rays in the spring, summer and autumn. However, in northern latitudes like the Pacific Northwest, the angle of the earth increases the length UVB rays have to travel to reach earth’s surface. This hinders our ability to synthesize enough vitamin D to meet our needs. Luckily, we can supplement it in winter months or ingest it from our diet. The best food source of vitamin D is wild-caught fatty fish like salmon or trout, with the added bonus of providing omega-3 fatty acids and B vitamins. Meat, egg yolks and milk fortified with vitamin D are other viable sources.

Eating balanced meals at regular intervals throughout the day and honoring your hunger and fullness cues can help avoid mood swings. This may mean packing protein-containing snacks when gift shopping or traveling between relatives’ houses (or the virtual versions of the same, depending on the COVID situation). Crankiness, sugar cravings and low energy can all be signals that you waited too long to eat. Eating large amounts of refined sugar by itself can cause abrupt increases in dopamine and blood sugar with a subsequent mood and energy crash later, as well as more sugar cravings. For a reminder of how pairing sugar with protein, fat and fiber-containing foods mediates these effects, see “Added Sugar: Finding the Sweet Spot”.

Several studies show that nutrient deficiencies can sometimes be linked to depression, in which case a nutritional supplement may be beneficial for alleviating symptoms. If you suspect a possible nutrient deficiency could explain your low mood, it’s important to be evaluated by a physician or registered dietician (RD) before starting any supplements. For most healthy people, including a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes in the diet is a safe way to ensure getting all the vitamins, minerals and essential nutrients needed to support good mental health.

Researchers have also identified a substantial connection between the health of our gut microbiome and our mental health, but the research is too new to make specific recommendations. For a review of what we know about how nutrition can support the general health of our gut microbiome, see the September Sound Consumer.

Even without pandemics, stress around inclement weather, social commitments, shopping, cooking, gift wrapping and enjoying holiday foods can take quite a toll at the holidays. Family interactions can cause stress, too, whether arguing about politics, career decisions or how to pronounce pecan. And the holiday season, despite all its joy, can also elicit difficult feelings related to cultural differences, gray weather, and painful reminders of lost loved ones. Taking care of your mental health during the holidays sometimes means having a slice of pumpkin pie, but don’t forget that eating nutritionally balanced meals throughout the day is crucial in the connection of food to mood.


Sample Seasonal Menu to Support Mood:

Breakfast: poached eggs over sweet potato hash with carrots, onion and parsley

Snack: broccoli and whole grain crackers with hummus

Lunch: pumpkin soup, mixed green salad with shredded turkey and pumpkin seeds

Snack: apple with walnuts or
nut butter

Dinner: baked salmon, potato leek soup, wild rice pilaf with onion, dried cranberries, mushrooms and chopped pecans

Snack: Greek yogurt with pomegranates and ground flax seed

Danielle O’Keefe is a student in the Master of Science in Nutrition and Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology dual degree program at Bastyr University.

Kate Ueland is an assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Science.

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