The winter blues can leave you not only feeling down in the dumps, but they can also send you rummaging for sweets. Don't get caught up in this vicious cycle.
Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a form of depression that affects 25 million Americans, mostly women. Much research has been done on this mysterious disorder.
In somewhat of a simplification, the lack of light in wintertime can result in lower levels of serotonin, the mood-enhancing chemical that regulates hunger and the feeling of well-being.
Serotonin production increases with light, meaning that gray gloom creeping in the window is not kicking the production of feel-good chemicals into action.
Some symptoms include depression, marathon napping, low self-esteem, obsessiveness over little things, irritability, shyness, and panic attacks. People with seasonal affective disorder may also sleep poorly (although for many hours), partly because they don't have enough serotonin to convert to the sleep substance melatonin.
Symptoms can range from mild to severe, and people generally recover completely around April or May - once the days become longer.
Treatment includes light therapy and/or medications. However, there are things you can do yourself that can help boost serotonin levels.
3 Ways to Boot up Your Serotonin
Julia Ross, MA, is director of the Recovery Systems Clinic in San Francisco and author of The Mood Cure and The Diet Cure. She tells WebMD there are three ways to jump-start your serotonin:
- Subject yourself to bright indoor light. This is the touchstone of seasonal affective disorder treatment. Many pricey lights are available. Ross says a 300 watt bulb within three feet for 20 minutes three times a day can help, although the boost in serotonin may be temporary.
- Exercise. This is very hard to do when caught up in the seasonal affective disorder cycle. But if you can force yourself to start, 15 to 20 minutes of dancing to the radio or fast walking can reduce a sweet tooth and improve mood.
- Eat wisely. This means, pushing away the leftover cake and eating sensible carbs to stimulate serotonin. Sweets and simple carbs, like white rice and white bread, quickly raise blood sugar, flood you with insulin, and then drop you in a hole. Eating wisely also means watching the caffeine, which suppresses serotonin. "If you must drink coffee, save it for after the meal," Ross says.
More Nutritional Tips for Raising Mood in Winter
Ross also recommends a nutritional supplement called 5HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan), which raises serotonin levels. This is not for everybody -- read the label carefully. For instance, people with heart problems should not take it. Also remember that supplements such as this one are not as closely regulated by the government and may contain questionable substances. Ross says 5HTP should only be taken for a short period, to bump up serotonin levels, which will then stay elevated. "You don't take it forever," she says.
Protein, she says, should be eaten three times a day. Another good rule is to eat four cups of brightly colored veggies a day. "This is enough to fill a (pardon the expression) 1 quart ice cream container." Vegetables are carbs, but the kind that feed into your system slowly.
Samantha Heller, MS, RD, senior clinical nutritionist at the NYU Medical Center, tells WebMD it's best to substitute fruit for cookies and chocolate ice cream. In general, the good carbs of veggies, fruit, and beans help energy levels.
"If weight gain in the winter months is your concern," Heller says, "you should get a healthy eating plan from a registered dietitian."
Timing Is Also Everything
It's fashionable to urge people to eat half a dozen small meals a day, but this is an individual preference, Heller says.
"If you eat lunch at one o'clock and know you won't have dinner until eight o'clock, you may need a snack. If you eat junk food for lunch, by four o'clock you will be foraging for chocolate."
She urges people to try eliminating all white, starchy foods for two weeks -- bread, rice, potatoes. "You will be amazed at how good you feel," she says. "But you need to stick to it to see a difference."
Even as a nutritionist, she admits to having experienced the opposite. "I was going to visit my mother and bought a muffin for her and one for me," she says. "After I ate it, I felt like I had been drugged."
That's another thing about seasonal affective disorder -- the lows are lower. If you are already serotonin-challenged, what you eat will have a bigger impact than in summer.
Foods to Have on Hand
If you suffer from seasonal affective disorder, you may be too shot to run to the store. This can work for you if you keep fairly healthful commodities in the pantry. Some suggestions:
Oatmeal (original, not desserty)
Egg whites for omelets
Whole grain crackers and bread
Forget the candlelight. In winter, dinner calls for 300 watts, hold the shade!