All good diagnoses start with a long list of questions. For one condition that many people suffer from at a particular time of the year, those questions are all about food and mood.
Do you ever go through phases of wanting to eat all the time? Not only constantly hungry, but craving the wrong kind of foods? It has to be chocolate or crisps or bread with lots of butter on it.
Do you crave food again right after finishing eating a main meal? No amount of food seem to be filling you up?
Is there also correlation between these food cravings and your mood? Do you find you are also more emotional? Sadder? Cry at the drop of a hat? Or feel irritable and short fused? Find yourself biting people’s heads off (or wanting to!)?
Now that you are really thinking about it, is this all going on during winter?
If you’ve answered yes to some or all of these questions, you could be experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or the ‘winter blues’ is a form of depression that people only begin experiencing in late autumn when the weather gets cooler. Your mood is fine in the warmer months, it’s just winter time that it drops. With that come feelings of sadness, loss of pleasure in things you usually enjoy, a drop in motivation, low energy and for some a change in sleeping and eating patterns.
The reason for this seasonal depression is a drop in the amount of sunlight stops our hypothalamus in the brain working properly and, as a result, hormone changes occur. Less serotonin and melatonin is produced, and this throws your body clock out of whack.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays a few different roles in our bodies. We all know it is involved in mood and how we feel. People associate low serotonin with being sad or depressed. This is true, but serotonin deficiency can manifest as aggression and irritability too.
Serotonin also plays a role in sleep regulation. It is the precursor for making melatonin, our sleep hormone. You need adequate exposure to sunlight to make good amounts of it. If you are excessively hungry, snappy or sad and sleeping poorly it could all be due to low serotonin and melatonin.
Serotonin is also involved in appetite regulation. When serotonin is low we will often crave carbs. We eat those carbs and then insulin is released pack away the excess energy in those foods to be used another time. Our production of neurotransmitters like serotonin is dependent on our insulin response. The insulin release triggers serotonin production and that’s why we feel calm, happy and even sleepy (for a short time) after eating that chocolate.
So, why the cravings and mood (and potentially sleep) issues?
As mentioned above, not enough sun in winter is the main reason. But there can also be a depletion of the cofactors needed to make serotonin happening. You need good amounts of tryptophan from protein and vitamin B6 (which plays a big role in stress support) to make serotonin.
The problem with giving in and eating every carb in sight
While you will get a hit of serotonin after eating those carbs, what you end up doing is further depleting your lower levels of serotonin. Sleep can become disrupted by blood sugar spikes after eating high-carb foods in the evening and consistently eating quick carbohydrate foods results in systemic inflammation. Nobody needs a constant low grade inflammation state going on in their body.
What you can do
Look into getting a dawn simulator light box to help you start the day in the winter months. Set it for 5.45am or 6am to get more ‘sunlight’ in your life. Check out the Philips Hf3470 Wake-up Light, White
Speak to your health practitioner about nutritional strategies for raising your body’s serotonin levels.
When you crave carbs, eat protein. It will fill you up and levels your blood sugars.
Focus on eating warm, comforting but healthy foods. Try:
Oat porridge - warm and soothing, you can pack this with defrosted berries, chopped nuts and seeds and cinnamon
Chicken soup - have batches in the fridge or freezer you can just warm up.
Lamb shank and barley or brown rice soup
Slow cooked meals like osso bucco, braised lamb shoulder with vegetables or beef cheeks with red wine
Pasta bakes packed with vegetables and using gluten-free, pulse or wholemeal pastas
Healthy fruit crumbles using rhubarb, apples or pears. Ensure toppings include oats, nuts, seeds and spices