‘Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire: it is the time for home.’ – Edith Sitwell
IT’S entirely natural at this time of year to want to curl up by the fire with some comfort food or a comfortable old companion. While some of us might be feeling a little blue, a bit drained maybe by the weather or the post-Christmas anti-climax, four to 20 per cent of people (on a scale of severity) will be affected on a biochemical level. December, January and February see a peak in the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
Women are four times more at risk than men of this seasonal depression, which is most common between the ages of twenty and fifty, although men can have a more severe experience. Symptoms can range from the mild (tiredness, lack of enthusiasm, carbohydrate/sugar cravings leading to weight gain) to, more rarely, the severely distressing (suicidal thoughts). A small proportion of sufferers experience SAD in the summer, when symptoms are more likely to involve insomnia and poor appetite.
It’s thought that a lack of natural light interferes with the biological clock, and affects levels of the brain chemicals melatonin – which governs sleep patterns and mood – and serotonin, the feelgood neurotransmitter that controls mood, appetite and sex drive. The cause of those carbohydrate cravings is probably the fact that carbs promote the production of serotonin.
Some people find cognitive behavioural therapy, yoga, meditation, acupuncture or massage therapy helpful, but the most effective (in 85% of cases) external remedy is light therapy, using a specially designed, extremely powerful light box. You can source your own from www.brighterday.ie, from €149.
If you can get out in the daylight for some exercise you’ll also benefit greatly from the endorphin boost and the stress relief; for mild to moderate depression thirty minutes activity outdoors every day has been shown to be as effective as medication or light therapy, whatever the weather. But rest and nurture yourself too, if you feel like it; talk to your friends or family, and eat well.
The main consideration would be to avoid foods and drinks that upset your blood sugar balance, providing a high that will swiftly be followed by a low – sugar and all refined (white) carbohydrates, fizzy drinks, even fruit juice. Carbohydrates are needed for the brain to access serotonin but only in small amounts, so go for those in vegetables and calming, uplifting wholegrains such as oats and brown rice. Wholegrains are a good source of the B vitamins that are also part of the serotonin picture. And always combine carbs with a protein (fish or animal, or plant proteins like nuts and seeds, quinoa, beans or lentils which feature the perfect ratio of protein and carbohydrate). Most protein foods contain amino acids such as tyrosine, tryptophan and phenylalanine, which are the building blocks of serotonin and other feelgood brain chemicals. Vitamin C-rich foods, especially berries, are needed to manage the stress response, while dark chocolate is a treat that you can enjoy in moderation because of its measurable effect on brain chemicals and lower sugar content. Dark chocolate covered Brazil nuts will give you several of the helpful nutrients including the selenium that can protect against low mood, anxiety and poor immune function. Vital calcium and magnesium are found in dairy products, leafy greens, nuts and seeds, beans and lentils, and wholegrains like quinoa and millet. These last three food groups, along with vegetables, liver and oranges also contain GABA, another neurotransmitter that will work to ease anxiety.
Star of the proteins is oily fish. It’s the richest source of omega-3 oils and of vitamin D (the sunshine vitamin), both proven to raise serotonin levels and to reduce inflammation, which is now known to be a feature of depression. Recent studies found that vitamin D supplementation can have very positive outcomes, while regularly eating oily fish reduces the risk of depression by 17%. In other new research, taking probiotics or eating fermented foods also slashes the incidence of depressive conditions, which isn’t surprising given that nearly all of our serotonin is manufactured in the gut. And people who drink two cups of coffee a day are 24% less likely to suffer from any form of depression. A UK study, conversely, showed that those eating sugary and processed foods were significantly – 58% – more likely to experience it, which only goes to underline the central role played by something as simple as the food you eat.
Oily fish, tuna, organic poultry, meat and liver, game, dairy (especially live yoghurt), eggs, nuts (especially Brazils), seeds, beans, chickpeas, lentils, soya; leafy greens, broccoli, peppers, avocados, beetroot, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, sea veg, berries, citrus; oats, brown rice, barley, quinoa, wheatgerm; yeast extract; dark chocolate (minimum 70% cocoa). Supplement vitamins B complex (high strength), C and D, magnesium, omega-3 oils (if you don’t eat oily fish), and a good probiotic. MindCare do a supplement called LIFT, which combines omega-3, vitamin D3, magnesium and 5-HTP with other micronutrients.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
Feelings of sadness, anxiety, hopelessness, futility, emptiness, worthlessness, guilt, irritability, restlessness or profound tiredness. Oversleeping and overeating; cravings especially for sugars and carbs, leading to weight gain. A withdrawal from social/academic/career life, loss of libido, loss of interest in things, difficulty concentrating/recalling, lowered immune function, aches and pains or heaviness in the limbs.