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SAD? Eat and be happy

16 January 2012

For most of us, shorter days herald the imminent cosiness of winter. But for seasonal affective disorder (SAD) sufferers, they bring a dread of miserable times ahead.

Governed by hormones, our body’s internal rhythms control behaviour patterns such as sleep, energy and appetite. But our daily activities are rarely aligned with the way we were designed to live – we don’t usually sleep when it gets dark, awaken when it’s light and eat regular, healthy meals that maintain constant blood-sugar levels.

Living out of sync with our natural patterns disturbs delicate rhythms, which can result in SAD. But there’s much you can do nutritionally to ease the symptoms.

What is SAD?

SAD has many symptoms in common with depression, including feelings of lethargy, hopelessness and anxiety. But unlike those who are classically depressed, a person with SAD is likely to feel much happier in spring even without treatment

Most SAD sufferers experience extreme tiredness and have a significant increase in appetite and weight during the winter. If you are experiencing severe winter depression, you should consult your doctor.

Food cravings

Some substances in the body have a significant impact on seasonal changes in mood, energy and appetite. One is the neurotransmitter serotonin – low levels can be responsible for mood disorders.

The theory of a link is reinforced by the carbohydrate cravings that SAD sufferers experience. Serotonin helps determine our appetite – when levels are low, we feel hungrier. Carb-rich foods trigger the production of serotonin, so people with SAD may subconsciously go for starchy foods to regulate their mood.

There’s nothing wrong with eating starchy foods to improve your mood, as long as they’re wholesome carbohydrates, such as muesli, brown rice and wholegrain bread. Very sugary, refined foods are best avoided, though, as these are likely to stimulate weight gain and increase cravings.

Boost your tryptophan

Serotonin is produced in the body from the amino acid tryptophan, and eating foods rich in tryptophan – chicken, turkey, milk, yogurt, bananas, figs, tuna and sunflower seeds – can help your body create more serotonin.

But there’s no guarantee that the tryptophan they contain will be converted to serotonin in the brain. For this to occur, you need a supply of certain nutrients – such as vitamins B3, B6, C, folic acid and zinc. And too many foods containing other amino acids (i.e. most protein-rich foods) tend to beat tryptophan to the transport vehicles that carry it into the brain, leaving your serotonin raw material on the outside.

To increase your levels of tryptophan and thus serotonin, try to include some tryptophan-rich foods in your daily diet. Also make sure you have some unrefined carbohydrate-rich food with every meal (carbs increase the amount of tryptophan transported from other foods to the brain), rather than too much heavy protein. Take a multivitamin/mineral supplement so you get the whole spectrum of nutrients.

Increase your dopamine levels

When bright light hits the back of the eye, levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine have been found to increase. As dopamine is thought to improve concentration and alertness, reduced levels in darker months could well contribute to the lethargy and low moods characteristic of SAD. Certain foods can help raise dopamine levels, such as lean meat, dairy products, fish and eggs.

Balance your blood sugar

To relieve the low energy and food cravings, eat foods that help balance blood-sugar levels. Slow-energy-release foods, such as fish, meat, eggs, yogurt, grapefruit and tomatoes, give you sustained energy rather than quick bursts. Eat three meals a day and, if necessary, a few snacks in between, and avoid coffee, alcohol and sugar.

Apple bircher muesli recipe

Fragrant chicken stew recipe

Adapted from The Kitchen Shrink by Natalie Savona, Duncan Baird Publishers. Click here to buy the book.

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