Feeling down? Try packing some heat

Cathleen Kronemer, NSCA-CPT, Certified Health Coach, is a longtime fitness instructor at the Jewish Community Center. 

By Cathleen Kronemer

One look at the endless gray skies, snow-covered sidewalks and slushy highways and it should come as no surprise that so many individuals slip into some sort of “blue funk” this time of year. Last week I found myself wearing boots even when the walkways were clearly shoveled, just for the warmth they provided against the frigid temperatures.

Short of packing up the family and hightailing it to Maui, there are some easier and much less costly options for lifting your mood…and warming your insides at the same time.

For an easy fix, head to the kitchen.

I am a big fan of traditional Indian cuisine. Delicious curry dishes contain a hidden secret: curcumin, a staple in these recipes and the substance responsible for the rich golden color we find in the spice turmeric, possesses natural qualities to stave off depression. In animal studies, this compound has demonstrated the ability to protect neurons in the brain from the deleterious effects of chronic stress. Other research has shown that curcumin is linked to increases in both serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain, both of which are well-documented mood elevators.

As you experiment with various recipes calling for turmeric, you might also give a few grinds of the pepper mill. Piperine, the main component in ordinary black pepper, enhances the body’s ability to absorb turmeric, contributing to a long-term anti-depression effect. This combination of spices lends itself nicely to stir-fry dishes as well as Indian fare.

You are probably thinking, “But I need a mood-booster right now!” Stay in the kitchen–help is on its way. Set your taste buds to adventurous and add some chili peppers to your cooking. Upon ingesting capsacin, the key component that packs the heat into chile peppers, momentary pain sensors are set off in your mouth, sending an instantaneous message to your brain to pour on the endorphins, those highly sought-after feel-good compounds found in our bodies. According to research studies performed in the Horticulture Department at New Mexico State University, this effect is powerful enough to mimic the “high” often experienced after a strenuous workout session at the gym. 

Last weekend, my husband and I were fortunate enough to enjoy a mood-lifter in Marco Island for a few days. However, if time constraints and work responsibilities keep you grounded in the throes of a Midwestern winter, cook up a batch of delicious heat-laden recipes and get happy.