In winter time when the days are short, many people (mostly women) suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
What was once thought of as a ‘silly mood’ that you should be shaking off by a bit of positive thinking and some hard work has now been recognized as a real physiological condition with real causes and luckily, real strategies to help.
Winter Blues is the most common kind of SAD. Its symptoms include: • Depression and/or hopelessness, • Anxiety, • Oversleeping, • Cravings and Weight Gain • Difficulty concentrating and processing
Everyone experiences some of these at some time so it is worth knowing how to deal with this process.
Serotonin – the Big Culprit
All these low mood symptoms are directly associated with low levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter. Proper levels of serotonin are created in the brain when there is the proper balance of tryptophan, an amino acid, certain B vitamins, and certain enzymes. It’s creation is also influenced by blood sugars, fatty acids and the proper balance of melatonin – the ‘sleep hormone’.
It’s all in the BALANCE. You can try to ‘fix’ this condition with drugs but that can throw the body balance out and create even worse symptoms. The best solutions involve using whole foods that have been proven for thousands of years to help nourish the body to happiness and simple strategies that bring our daily routine into a more natural rhythm.
10 Solutions (Fixes):
1. Eat Your Whole Grains All whole foods have amino acids (proteins) in them in different quantities. For serotonin to be produced you need a higher percentage of tryptophan than other amino acids in your blood stream. A moderate amount of carbohydrates will create this proper percentage. Whole grains certainly have tryptophan in them and their carbohydrate content also allows the tryptophan to be a high enough % so it can get to the brain where it is needed. Whole grains also contain B vitamins which help the tryptophan to be converted to serotonin.
The grain that already has the HIGHEST % of tryptophan is buckwheat but most grains work well. They are complex enough and have enough fiber that the sugars are released into your blood stream slowly. This prevents the energy highs and lows which also complicates your moods. Brown rice is one of those properly balanced grains. For a sugerless tasty brown rice pudding click here.Rice Pudding
Note: We often mention whole grains on Real Food For Life but one big exception is wheat in any form. In our testing practically no one does well on modern wheat. Diana has eaten gluten free for 15 years. All of our recipes are wheat free or gluten free and we offer BootCamps on how to cook and bake gluten free.
2. Eat Your Greens The University of Kuopio in Finland conducted a study with 2,313 men for more than 10 years and they found that leafy greens are good for your brain. Greens are high in almost all vitamins and minerals but they are particularly high in folate – a B vitamin that has been shown to reduce depression. For more about greens click here. Greens
3. Enjoy Your Banana (and other fruits) Even fruits have amino acids in them and bananas are surprisingly high in tryptophan. That along with its natural sugars makes an ideal situation for creating serotonin. This is not why monkeys seem so happy but it sure doesn’t hurt! Dates and Papaya are also high in tryptophan, but most fruits have enough to make a difference. Any food with a sweet taste will have a calming effect on the nervous system beyond its carbohydrate content.
4. Avoid Stimulants & Junk Food (that includes chocolate …sob) Stimulants like Chocolate and Coffee do create serotonin for a short time but continued use actually interferes with its production by disrupting your insulin levels.
Ice cream unfortunately is in the same category. The milk aspect will supply the amino acids and it has the carbohydrates but too much sugar and fats is just a bad combination in the long run. Any of these ‘foods’ taken in small amounts; will not harm you but don’t depend on them for energy or happiness.
5. Eat your Nuts and Seeds Most people are low in omega 3 essential fatty acids which have been shown to help increase brain functioning and moods. The brain is after all MOSTY made of fatty acids. A common way to get omega 3’s is with flax seeds and flax oils. Whole seeds and nuts have the benefit of containing protein and therefore have enough tryptophan to help out. You can learn more about the benefits of almonds, and other seeds and how to sprout them at Nuts & Seeds.
6. Let the Suuuuun – Shiiiiiiine In Yes this is much more than a 60’s song title. People with SAD have been found to have higher levels of melatonin than they should during the day. Melatonin’s effects tend to be the exact opposite of serotonin. It causes the body and slow down and prepare for sleep instead of wake up and be happy.
When your body notices there is no sunlight then the pineal gland signals your brain to convert serotonin into melatonin. Normally in the morning the pineal gland then signals for your brain to start making more serotonin. With SAD this cycle has been disrupted because of decreasing daylight hours.
The solution is to add MORE sunlight – by walks outside, drawing back curtains or even using a sun light. The timing of the light is sometimes more important than the amount. David Avery, professor of psychiatry at the University of Washington, suggests the simplest solution is to use a dawn simulator, a device that creates gradual light, or program your bedside lamp to turn on about 20 minutes before you wake up.
Also nothing can beat a good walk during the brightest part of the day. This has far more benefits than just your serotonin/melatonin balance.
7. Exercise Exercise is good for so many things that it’s not surprising it helps with your mood. Research has linked exercise with higher levels of serotonin but also increased dopamine levels, which causes relaxation, and endorphins which take away the pain. If that sounds like a powerful combination – it is.
8. High Quality Protein One can’t talk about serotonin and tryptophan without talking about turkey. Many people have heard that the extremely high levels of tryptophan in turkey is what causes that relaxed tired feeling after a Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. Many researchers now think this is somewhat of an urban myth. A turkey dinner certainly would raise your serotonin levels but much of the effect is simply from the HUGE quantity of food consumed. Your body just needs to focus all its energy on digesting! Turkey and white meats are usually more balancing for your body than beef, port or other red meats. Lowly beans contain extremely high amount of balanced proteins plus provide many other benefits for your body and the environment. 9. Enjoy your Tea Nothing is more soothing that a cup of tea during the colder months of the year. Another study from Finland shows that 2,000 surveyed Finns who drank black tea every day reported less incidences of feeling down or depressed compared to Finns who weren’t regular tea drinkers. The study also shows that the theanine naturally found in tea helps calm you down. Herbal teas can have similar benefits depending on the herbs used and they usually don’t have caffeine.
10. Get to Bed on Time If your serotonin/melatonin balance is messed up one thing you can do is develop routines that TELL your body that you want to go to sleep. This will start the melatonin cycle early so that it can be finished early and you can enjoy waking up properly the next day. The old “early to bed, early to rise” saying works.