When autumn turns to winter and we experience shorter days, extended darkness and cooler weather, many people — even those who live in temperate, southern climates — struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder, aptly called SAD.
SAD occurs at the same time annually, and while many people promptly dismiss the diagnosis thinking they just have the winter “blahs,” SAD has very specific symptoms. These include the desire to sleep more than usual, a loss of energy, disinterest in social activities, a loss of libido, carbohydrate cravings, weight gain and general feelings of sadness.
The etiology of SAD is unknown, but risk factors include age, genetics (a family history of clinical depression) and the body’s natural chemical composition.
Recognizing symptoms is the first step to managing this disorder, but battling the blues doesn’t have to be a prescription drug-fueled war; overcoming SAD may be as simple as eating the right things at the right time. First, we need to understand some basic biology.
Seratonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates a variety of important bodily functions, including appetite, mood, behavior and memory. In some people, reduced exposure to light can trigger a drop in serotonin and subsequently bring about depression. (Doctors prescribe antidepressants such as Zoloft and Prozac, because they increase brain levels of serotonin and bring about feelings of calm and tranquility.)
When it comes to naturally raising serotonin levels in the body, eating a small amount of carbohydrate along with food containing the amino acid tryptophan can be effective. That’s because tryptophan is a precursor of serotonin, and carbohydrates enable the amino acid be quickly taken up by our cells.
Tryptophan-rich foods include yogurt, milk and cheese, eggs, poultry and fish, whole grains, legumes, soy products and nuts.
Many people with SAD seek comfort in sweets — though relief is never sweet. Raiding the cookie jar and snacking on sugary foods packs on pounds and leads to more unhappiness. So, what do you do when craving comfort and sleep? Apply your new knowledge: Make a small bowl of plain oatmeal with milk. Try a grilled cheddar cheese sandwich on whole wheat toast. Have a small piece of pita with hummus. Or make a banana and yogurt or soy milk smoothie.
Be sure to keep portions small (limit carbohydrates to 30 grams, which is the equivalent of two slices of toast), and if you’re eating before bed, do so at least one hour prior to light’s out.
Currently, there isn’t enough science to prove that supplements such as St. John’s Wort can help, and in some cases, supplements can be dangerous, interacting with prescription drugs and causing complications.
Finally, outdoor exercise may combat SAD. Studies have shown that one hour of aerobic exercise daily can be as effective as 2½ hours of light therapy, even when the exercise is done under cloudy or pre-dawn skies.
So, bundle up, take a brisk walk or jog and get moving. It may be key to sending SAD into hibernation.
Tina Ruggiero, M.S., R.D., L.D., is a nutrition expert and award-winning author. Her newest book is “The Truly Healthy Family Cookbook.” Find Tina at www.Tina