At this time of the year when the light levels drop and the rain and cold puts a dampener on going outside we tend to plummet in our natural synthesis of Vitamin D – which is a precursor of serotonin aka the happy hormone. It is a neurotransmitter that is not only a natural antidepressant but it peps up the body with a sense of alert, energized wakefulness. Evolutionary biology would say that’s just the perfect state we needed to go hunt and gather in daylight.
Later in the evening when the daylight dims we cease producing serotonin and shift to production of melatonin aka the sleepy hormone – this neurotransmitter slows the brain and body to a more relaxed, soporific state as befits going home to the cave and having a good night’s sleep. At night the darkness causes a flood of more melatonin and that tranquilizes us into a state of heavy rest and eventual sleep.
So these chemicals are the triggers of our sleep wake cycles. The problem is at this time of the year for many the lower light means we produce less serotonin and even produce melatonin during the day. So the low energy is actually a rise in the sleepy hormone and the deflated mood is battling the tiredness and not having the serotonin zip to fire up your cognitive function and sense of wellbeing.
To some it just a case of the winter blues and the distractions of Halloween, Christmas and other festivals of light are and were societies’ way of trying to boost up the populace. For many those distractions work or the blues are not heavy to bear but for others this seasonal dip is a recurring winter type depression with all of the clinical dangers (and beyond the help here, do seek help- a CBT councillor, a GP, a family member or friend or helpline)
Whichever end of the spectrum you fall there is help and it’s the same help – get more sunshine. Take your break outdoors. Sit by a window in the daytime. Resist the urge to nap or pull the curtains and instead get outside for a walk or a spot of gardening or a jog. The more light exposure then the more serotonin, the less melatonin. Bright light therapy is a clinical treatment to supplement and often replace antidepressant medication. Daylight bulbs and day-lamps can be purchased to catch the right rays indoors.
Winter type depression can be though off as starting with a deficiency in vitamin D – which we humans mostly derive from the sunshine but there are foods that are rich in it; mushrooms, fortified milk and yoghurts , some soya and tofu products but it is abundant in oily fish. With supplements there is always the risk of an overdose or damage to the organs by misuse but with food it’s not just a tasty dose its good nutrition to keep you going too.
Some depressions are complicated by a deficiency in B-complex vitamins. Well, brassicas all have good b-complex as well as being jam packed with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. Trendy Kale has plenty of brain fuel and health extending vitamins as well as essential dietary fibre and omega-3 fatty acids. Sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, Asian greens and other darky leafy are full of vitamin C and vitamin K to help the body eliminate environmental toxins and help manage stress related illness.
The lean in to comfort food and sugary snacks at this time of year is believed to be an inherent or intuitive intelligence to get tryptophan activated in the body. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that is a precursor of serotonin. Consumption of carbohydrates triggers the release of insulin which supports tryptophan to cross the blood brain barrier.
Now as to the ‘intelligence’ – this is the quick fix with a whole array of complications from sugar spiking, sugar crashing, potential weight gain and further cravings – so not the cleverest option – especially when sweetness and carbs are so readily available – unlike in the early stages of mankind. Evolutionary biology is lagging behind, from climbing a tree for honey to drive through fast food and a sugary beverage on every corner.
One of the issues with Seasonal affective disorder that makes it different to summer depression is the craving and binge eating situation. But we can trick ourselves out of this with another food related hormone – leptin. That’s a hormone made by your fat cells when they are at capacity to tells your brain oak switch off hunger we are full of stored energy now.
So high leptin in the blood means low hunger, low leptin and you will crave food. Foods that supply leptin to the bloodstream or increase our sensitivity to leptin include oatmeal, nuts and seed, broccoli and greens, low-fat yogurt, green tea, eggs, Lean proteins and fish. And here we can see cross overs in foods that support D and B vitamins deficiency too.
All of this is about foods that do the pharmacology for your brain to re-correct to the tilt of winter triggers but if you are having emotional crisis and upsetting thoughts then please talk to someone while you wait for the nutritional changes to kick in.
Beyond food – If you want to develop more resilience and look to CBT and mindfulness base therapies and tricks to stay on course then do investigate my new book – by time is everything revealed – via amazon or a book store near you.