While some enjoy crisp winter mornings, snow angels and early nights in front of open fires, others are gripped by the bleak darkness of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
For city slickers and country folk alike, our lifestyle changes with the seasons. Most of us do not have to pickle vegetables for the long cold months of winter any more or conserve energy for a hot summer of working in the fields in preparation for autumn harvest, nevertheless our activities do alter.
From May to September we tend to spend more time outside, we enjoy longer hours of daylight, more sunshine and generally a more active lifestyle. Our dietary choices veer towards fresh produce, salads and light meals, often resulting in a small but significant weight loss. From November to March, when the nights are getting longer and the days colder, sunshine becomes a distant memory. We spend more time indoors, we seek the warmth of our beds and stock up the fridge with starchy comfort foods. People suffering from SAD find it increasingly difficult to deal with these seasonal changes, resulting in symptoms of depression, lethargy, weight gain, carbohydrate cravings and a general inability to deal with everyday tasks. SAD sufferers might be hypersensitive to the distinct change in neurotransmitters that naturally occurs due to varying hours of daylight. This biochemical imbalance starts in the hypothalamus and filters down to the adrenal glands and even the digestive system.
Our circadian rhythm is inadvertently linked to the number of hours of daylight we are exposed to. Melatonin, the major sleep hormone and a powerful antioxidant is produced in response to darkness. Levels peak during the night and are lowest during the day. Up to 16 hours of darkness during the winter significantly influences our sleep-wake cycle and production of melatonin dramatically increases. In some individuals this can lead to an overwhelming tiredness, fatigue and lethargy commonly associated with SAD. Should these symptoms be of major concern, light therapy is an excellent way of reducing melatonin levels and breathing some life back into a tired body. Lamps which mimic daylight are relatively inexpensive and can be placed at home or at the workplace. You can even buy illuminating alarm clocks which imitate sunrise at any time of the day! Artificially brightening up your day has another beneficial effect. Light therapy uses a specific frequency of rays that initiate Vitamin D production in the skin. This is relevant because a large number of SAD patients show low blood levels of Vitamin D and because of Vitamin D’s close relationship to depression and other mental disorders. Supplementing with D3 at around 2000IUs per day is an absolute must for anyone with a recurring form of SAD. Improvements have been noted after just one week in some cases.
The next big player contributing to the winter blues is serotonin. Commonly nicknamed the ‘happy’
hormone, serotonin is secreted in response to sunlight, flooding the brain with messages of wellbeing. Shorter days and longer hours of darkness cause a shortfall of serotonin and an excess of melatonin, an imbalance which seems to be central in SAD. Again, light therapy that mimics natural sunlight has been shown to be incredibly effective in alleviating seasonal depression. Maintaining intracellular serotonin levels is key and once more we look towards Mother Nature for an answer. Surprisingly we find it at Bernard Matthew’s! Not in the form of processed Turkey Twizzlers, I hasten to add, but disguised as the amino acid tryptophan, the raw material to manufacture our happy neurotransmitter and turkey happens to be one of the richest sources. There are many other tryptophan-rich foods such as seaweed, spinach, sea food, fish, lamb and game meat and all of them make delicious, winter-warming stews. If dietary sources should not be enough to lift your mood (because there is only so much turkey you can eat after Christmas), supplementing 100mg of 5-HTP a day can bring much-needed relief. 5-HTP is naturally manufactured in your body and only one biochemical step away from serotonin so your body can convert as much or as little as it needs, preventing serotonin excess.
80% of your serotonin is actually found in the digestive system where its effects are felt just as much as in your head. Low levels of serotonin in the gut lead to a number of digestive complaints, but also to an increased carbohydrate craving as seen in SAD. Besides naturally raising serotonin levels, balancing blood sugar levels is an important coping strategy to keep the extra pounds at bay. Meals rich in protein, beneficial fat and 25-30 grams of healthy carbohydrates (quinoa, oats, buckwheat, banana, sweet potato), with minimal amounts of sugars and processed foods can curb cravings and minimalise your chances of ever falling victim to a so called ‘bread binge’.
No matter if you have suffered from SAD for the first time this winter or if the condition is a recurring dark cloud creeping up each autumn, there are two supplements which should form an essential part of your supplement program. We have already heard about the beneficial effects of D3 and nobody should be without this sunshine vitamin. A high quality fish oil is just as important, considering that fish might not be on top of the menu list in winter. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for adequate and efficient brain cell communication. All the neurotransmitters in the world might not make a difference if the actual communication apparatus is not oiled properly.