The Nutritionist: Winter Blues

Light 1 - Hans Thoursie

Seriously. How depressing is this? You're sitting in the office while it's pitch black outside, realising you still have to work three more hours, when all you want to do is cuddle up on your couch with a duvet and a big bowl of comfort food (usually found in forms of simple carbohydrates).

Know that feeling? Congratulations. You're likely to suffer from the winter blues.

Research suggests that 10% of the population of Northern Europe suffers from some mild symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also referred to as winter or seasonal depression. I wouldn't be surprised if most of these 10% are living in London.

SAD is widely identified as being linked to a lack of exposure to sufficient sunlight during the winter months, causing feelings of low energy, fatigue, cravings for junk food (and weight gain), and feeling of cold and sleeping disorders. Can't stop pressing the snooze button in the morning? That's sad or SAD!

But what's going on in your body with the lack of sunlight?

The lack of bright light causes hormonal changes within your body associated with the disorder. With less sunlight, the brain does not produce enough serotonin, the soothing neurotransmitter in the brain - often referred to as the 'happy hormone' as it greatly influences an overall sense of well-being. Serotonin helps to keep our mood under control by helping with sleep, calming anxiety and relieving depression.

On the other hand, there's melatonin, the hormone responsible for regulating our sleep/wake cycle. Normally melatonin levels begin to rise mid-to-late evening, remaining high for the night and dropping in the morning. Light affects how much melatonin our body produces, and with less light, our bodies are likely to produce more melatonin, causing drowsiness. Melatonin is also responsible for regulating female hormones; this explains why SAD is also recognised to affect women more frequently than men. Melatonin is also linked to a drop in one's body temperature in the winter months, and this may then result in lowered energy levels and contribute to the feelings of winter blues. Furthermore, research studies have linked high levels of the hormone to an increased craving for food containing carbohydrates, which explains our love for comfort food in the winter months.

To avoid the winter blues, the junk food cravings AND the muffin top, it is important that you follow a mood-boosting diet and keep eating regular meals following the circadian rhythm. The main two food groups that stimulate serotonin production are protein and carbohydrates (complex not-simple carbs). Protein helps you to stabilize your blood sugar levels and provides you with the essential amino acid tryptophan, which is used by the brain to make serotonin. Carbohydrates help tryptophan pass into the blood stream so that it can actually reach the brain. A balance of complex carbohydrates and lean protein at each meal, therefore, is best to avoid the symptoms of SAD. Boost your tryptophan levels by eating turkey, chicken, red meat (once a week), fish, oats, brown rice and nuts.

You may also consider light therapy treatment to help keep your circadian rhythm on track. There are some great light boxes and body clock dawn simulators that wake you with a sunrise, naturally re-setting your sleep/wake cycle, to help you feel refreshed, alert and energised all day, reducing the production of melatonin.

Now you just need to cancel your snooze alarm for the morning!