If you are feeling the winter blues settling down on you just like the millions of snowflakes that have fallen outside, you may need more than a regular dose of vitamin D.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter connected to overall feelings of happiness and well-being. Sunlight exposure and regular exercise will help keep serotonin levels up, but if you tend to hibernate in the cold or have been less physically active, chances are you have lower levels of serotonin than in sunnier seasons.

Lower levels of serotonin are related to increased depression, anxiety and poor sleep quality. Although serotonin is not a nutrient found in food, there are foods that are associated with its production. One of these nutrients is the amino acid tryptophan. It needs iron, vitamin B6 and B2, to be converted into niacin, which then plays an important role in the production of serotonin.

Tryptophan supplements are not recommended, and since it is an essential nutrient, it must be obtained through your diet. Fortunately, many common foods are good sources of tryptophan. It absorbs best when foods high in tryptophan are eaten in combination with quality carbohydrates, since they contain the necessary iron, B6 and B2. Include a few of the following meals below everyday to give your mood and energy levels a boost until this snow melts into spring.

» Eat your eggs how you like them. Egg yolks are a good source of tryptophan, so scramble two eggs over whole-wheat toast for breakfast. Add a serving of colorful fruit on the side to round it out.

» Go nuts for oatmeal. All varieties of nuts contain tryptophan, and in combination with the heartiness of oatmeal, this vital amino acid will absorb better. I love 2-3 tablespoons of chopped walnuts on my oatmeal with antioxidant-rich cinnamon to start my day.

» Indulge on dairy. Milk and cheese are creamy sources of tryptophan, especially when combined into a homemade macaroni and cheese. Whole-wheat pasta is the key to better absorption of the tryptophan, and may result in a higher rate of serotonin production. Limit your portion of this high-calorie dish to about 1 cup and fill the rest of your plate with a leafy green salad to keep the meal lighter in calories.

» Savor a little soy. Soy protein contains all the amino acids including tryptophan. Tofu will take on the flavor of whatever it is cooked with. Make a mean stir fry by combining your favorite Asian sauces and vegetables. Use brown rice as a better carbohydrate base over white rice.

» Mix in some chicken. Chicken breast is a lean, complete protein, making it a great source of tryptophan. Chop it into sautéed vegetables and a ½ cup of wild rice for a balanced meal that keeps lunch at work interesting.

In addition to these meal ideas, regular exercise, sun exposure, a high-fiber diet and a positive outlook are all associated with higher levels of serotonin.

As the snow piles up, anything you do to keep your mood stable will help keep you focused on staying healthy and ready for the change of season.

Niki Kubiak is a sports-certified registered dietitian, competitive runner and owner of Niki Kubiak Sports Nutrition and Weight Loss. She blogs regularly for livewellnebraska.com.

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