Do you find your mood drops as soon as the clocks go back? Do you find yourself snapping unreasonably at family members or friends, feel lethargic, low or even depressed? Do you get out of control cravings for carbs, especially chocolate, cake, bread and pasta to raise low serotonin levels?
Trust me, You are not alone. Now we know why some animals hibernate in winter to get away from it all!
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is associated with the symptoms above and may be due to a variety of causes, such as:
- hormone imbalances (particularly serotonin and melatonin)
- high stress as a result of a trauma you've experienced
- a change in diet
- physical illness.
It can be useful to explore all of these areas to find out how you can help yourself recover from SAD and prevent or manage it in future.
Let's look at some of the causes above:
1. Hormone Imbalance: serotonin and melatonin and effects of light
The relationship between serotonin and melatonin and light is still unclear. Melatonin is a hormone made from tryptophan via serotonin and is important for sleep-wake cycles. The amount released from the pineal gland is related to the amount of darkness in a 24- hour period. The longer the night, the more melatonin is released as we are naturally encouraged by this circadian rhythm to sleep when the sun goes down. Light falling on the retina of the eye reduces the amount of serotonin that is converted to melatonin which is why so many SAD sufferers benefit from using light boxes to create artificial daylight which drops the melatonin to normal.
It's the light hitting the eye that controls the messages affecting sleep, as well as appetite, sex drive, temperature, mood and activity. Therefore low light means these activities slow down. Therefore, it's clear how less light in winter disrupts our body clock.
With depression, we have lower levels of serotonin, which is why we are tempted to eat carbohydrates to cheer us up, and so the cycle continues.
However, some people need more light than others and even with correction may still experience SAD or feelings of depression. For more information about SAD, including causes and how you can access treatment and support, have a look at the MIND website here: http://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/seasonal-affective-disorder-sad/causes-of-sad/#.WCRHEeZ74q4
2. Effects of Stress
Stressful events and how we react to stress is another factor. And lack of sleep compounds the issue. The stress hormone cortisol can disrupt sleep by waking you up which makes you feel lethargic the following day, when you really need the cortisol to do its work. Keep a journal to see how stress affects you and carry out an adrenal stress test to assess levels of hormones in order to guide supplementation.
3. Diet lacking in mood boosting foods, vitamins and minerals
There are many ways that diet can cause problems with both sleep cycles and stress. The food stressors such as sugar, caffeine and alcohol in excess can disrupt hormones. Nutritional deficiencies, such as key vitamins and minerals, omega 3 fats, and protein may be the route cause of mood disorder.
Often if you check the side effects of any medications, you may see that mood can be affected, if that's the case speak to your doctor to see if there is a better alternative.
5. Physical illness
Many health conditions have lethargy and disrupted sleep as side effects. For example, if you have a health condition that causes chronic fatigue, accept that this takes a toll on your sleep patterns and energy levels. Take time to recover and make sure that you have self care strategies in place rather than pushing yourself through hectic events in your life.
What can we do to manage SAD?
As a starting point SAD can be managed with nutrition, exercise, counselling and mindfulness methods
Here's an Action Plan to help:
1. Firstly make some key changes to your diet:
- Eating tryptophan-containing foods is one way of potentially boosting brain serotonin levels. Choose from turkey, chicken, tuna, salmon, eggs, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, kidney beans, rolled oats, lentils, chickpeas, tahini, walnuts, avocado and almond butter. However, the absorption of tryptophan is enhanced by eating carbohydrate-rich foods. Now, you don't want that carbohydrate source to be fast-releasing high GL sugars found in biscuits, cakes, pasta and bread. Rather you want it to be from wholefood sources like oats, quinoa, brown rice, vegetables and fruits, lentils, sweet potato and beans. Combine these foods at meal/snack times. You can also try supplements such as 5htp which directly converts to tryptophan or valerian which also aids sleep, however seek the advice of a qualified nutritionist to ensure safety with supplementation.
- Eat regular meals and snacks containing protein, not only for tryptophan, but also to keep blood sugar in balance. If you are skipping meals, your blood sugar will get very low and you may experience low mood, anxiety and possibly headaches. Reduce or avoid sugar where you can and replace with healthier snacks/desserts. Avoid or reduce alcohol intake, and if this is a problem for you, seek help for this.
- Drink regular water to keep hydrated and prevent lethargy.
- Ensure a daily intake of a handful of nuts and seeds, plus 3 portions of oily fish per week. People who don't like or are allergic to fish, vegetarians and vegans will need to supplement a suitable source of EPA/DHA which is required for the brain.
- Ensure a varied diet and take a multivitamin and mineral if you suspect deficiencies. Speak to a nutritionist for further help to choose the right one for you. Have an adrenal stress test and check your levels of vitamin D as this is actually a hormone, the deficiency of which is now being linked to SAD.
- Check out www.foodandmood.org website for further information.
2. Find Ways to Manage Your Stress
It's useful to work out your triggers for stress and find ways to cope, whether it's committing to a form of exercise, (walking in nature is my favourite!), dancing or yoga, taking up a mindfulness class or talking to a counsellor or therapist. Set aside 10 minutes a day for meditation. Reiki and Bach flowers are my stress relievers and I would be happy to help you, if you are interested.
Local mindfulness courses are run at Heart in Twickenham by Cheryl Edwards (firstname.lastname@example.org) and you will be able to find a wide range of talking therapies at Asana Health in Kingston (www.asanahealth.co.uk).
I hope that you are now prepared for the winter and festive season ahead and let me know if you have any questions about nutrition for SAD or the tests I carry out in my clinic. I am happy to help put you in the right direction with my free 20-minute no-obligation coaching call (contact me on Kathleen@kfnutritioncoaching.com or call 07880 353964).