Combating winter depression - Seasonal Affected Disorder (SAD)

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During winter months in the UK, the dark nights draw in and the weather is dismal, and many people feel depressed, lethargic and lack in energy. This ‘condition’ has been labelled as Seasonal Affected Disorder or SAD and is said to affect over half a million people in the UK. Obviously SAD is not good for our bodybuilding, and as carbohydrate cravings are a symptom, it can also be hard to lose body fat.

Lack of sunshine in the winter months causes a reduction in the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin, the so-called ‘happy hormone’ in the brain. Serotonin promotes feelings of relaxation and happiness and contains very high levels of the amino acid tryptophan found in protein rich foods. Ironically eating protein rich meals actually lowers tryptophan and serotonin in the brain, while carbohydrate rich snacks have the opposite effect. This is due to the fact that tryptophan is a large amino acid and competes for entry to the brain through a gate it shares with several other amino acids. When you eat a protein rich meal you flood the blood with tryptophan and other competing amino acids which all fight for entry to the brain. Only a small amount of tryptophan is able to get through so serotonin levels do not rise appreciably.

In contrast, snacks high in carbohydrates stimulate the release of insulin, which opens up entry gates for amino acids to enter cells. However, insulin has little effect in this respect on tryptophan, which is not absorbed so readily into cells. This means, though, that with other amino acids out of circulation, relative levels of tryptophan in the blood rise and tryptophan can freely enter the brain, causing serotonin levels to increase.

So the best advice for bodybuilders who feel depressed at this time of year is to keep a good intake of protein rich foods throughout the day, eat little and often and include carbohydrate in these snacks. There are also some foods which naturally directly raise serotonin levels, e.g. bananas, walnuts and dates. The other major stimulator of serotonin release is exercise, so if you're lethargic and can't be bothered to train, go to the gym, you’ll feel much happier afterwards.

However don’t rely on sugary foods for a boost, as these will spike blood sugar and cause a subsequent crash, leaving you lethargic and depressed again - this is the trouble with chocolate! Instead go for the slowly release complex carbs like basmati rice, granary or rye bread, oatcakes, oats and sweet potatoes. Many people who suffer from SAD find that using a light box which creates artificial daylight also helps. Sunbeds can also help due to their sun mimicking UV rays. There are also several effective anti-depressant ingredients, such as St.John Wort,which have proven to be effective in helping to boost your mood.

James Collier BSc (Hons) R Nutr is an experienced nutrition consultant and is head of the Nutrition Consultancy Healthy Action who provide completely tailored and personalised nutrition and exercise advice for all sports, fitness, bodybuilding, weight loss, food intolerance and all nutritional issues. Consultants are also available for writing, seminars, lecturing and larger nutritional projects.

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