Seasonal Affect Disorder and Carb Cravings

Adina Gilliam
Stronger U Coach

If you are experiencing profound symptoms of depression, please seek help. This blog is focused on NUTRITION and not mental health. 

It’s that time of year again- the days are shorter, the weather is colder and depending on where you live it could be the start of grayer and rainier weather. For some people, it also brings on the onset of Seasonal Affect Disorder, or SAD. 

Did you know there is a real correlation between Seasonal Affect Disorder and carbohydrate cravings? When we experience a disruption to our serotonin synthesis, our body will look for ways to produce more and guess what? Carbs are a quick and accessible way for our brain to achieve that regulation. 

So, what do you do if you’re trying to stay consistent to a nutrition plan? 

SAD: What is it?

SAD is a marked increase in depressive symptoms that affects approximately 6% of the population during this time of year as our days shorten. 14% of the population experiences a milder version of SAD that is perhaps better known as “the Winter Blues”. Approximately 75% of people afflicted with SAD are women though it is not really understood why. What we do know, is that it is, in part, caused by the disruption of Serotonin production, a neurotransmitter that effects mood regulation. Because of this, people who have chronically low Serotonin may be more likely to be affected.

Symptoms: 

  • Tiredness/fatigue
  • Difficulty finding motivation
  • Lack of interest in activities you normally enjoy
  • Foggy headedness/difficulty with concentration
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Increased pain sensitivity
  • Changes in blood pressure regulation
  • Difficulty with Mood regulation
  • Craving for carbohydrate-rich foods

Wait…what? Carb Cravings??

This is where nutrition fits in. 

Studies have found a direct correlation between reduced Serotonin syntheses and carbohydrate cravings namely because ingesting carbs actually increases Serotonin synthesis! It’s no wonder we crave it!

For most, carb cravings grow stronger as the day goes on. This could be for a variety of reasons- we’re less busy so have fewer distractions, our resources are drained, we are just more tired. Imagine your day like video game lives. You start the day (beginning of game) with all your lives in tact. Your well-meaning kids don’t like what you made for breakfast and you have an early morning episode (there goes 1 life). You get in the car and realize your gas light is on and now you’ll be late (another life gone) and then you get to work and the meeting scheduled for noon just got moved to 10am and you have 5 minutes to prep (3rd life) and so on… it makes sense that we start the day feeling like we have all the resources in the world only to end the day feeling completely depleted. Even if we’re not talking about organically-driven food cravings, you can see how everything from frustration tolerance to impulsivity around food choice could be impacted.

So what can you do to stay consistent to your nutrition plan?

  1. It’s super important to plan your day to allow for more sweet and starchy carbs during the periods when your cravings are the highest. Studies show that approximately 30C (120 cal) has been associated with improved mood when ingested alone (without protein). Since most people do struggle later at night, making sure you are planning something that feels satisfying during those times is important.
  2. Be careful not to make high carb foods into high carb AND fat foods. 30g of cereal, pretzels, popcorn, etc may be effective. Don’t make this an excuse to eat all the Apple cider donuts!
  3. Think of foods/beverages that take a while to consume. Hot chocolate, for instance, can hit the spot and it’s really hard to guzzle it
  4. Plan for starchy carbs for dinner. Maybe add potatoes or rice to soups and stews. Again, it doesn’t have to be an enormous serving size!
  5. Limit temptation. Each time we open the pantry door, we’re basically testing our will power to the max. Especially if that’s where the crunchy, hyper-palatable snacks reside. If you can’t totally avoid having those foods in your house (hello, living with other people), then control how many times you actually confront the temptation. This can be done 2 ways: First, plan what snacks you are going to have. Have it in a serving size container, if possible; and second, put those highly tempting snacks out of view. Maybe it means putting them in a different shelf or a different container but create a small roadblock that makes an impulsive reach in almost impossible.

Other methods of Improving Serotonin Levels

While there may be an organic root for why you are feeling these cravings, it also doesn’t mean you HAVE to give in. There are other ways to improve Serotonin production that aren’t food related at all. Here are a few:

  1. Mood induction:  The amazing thing is just thinking about things you are grateful for, happy for, people you love etc. improves Serotonin levels.
  2. Exercise: Getting your heart rate up, at any level, is associated with improved mood and increased Serotonin.
  3. Light exposure: Try to get outside for 10-15 minutes each day while the sun is out.
  4. Massage therapy: Massages can boost both Serotonin and Dopamine levels. PS- it doesn’t have to be a professional massage!

Why is this important?

Serotonin is a critical neurotransmitter that effects everything from sleep to bowel movements to mood. While there are pharmacological methods of treating symptoms, not all cases of SAD require that level of intervention. It is also important to our well-being that we feel we have some control over how we feel! 

References

Young SN. How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs. J Psychiatry Neurosci. 2007;32(6):394–399. [PMC free article] [PubMed] [Google Scholar]

Wurtman, RJ, Wurtman, JJ. Brain serotonin, carbohydrate-craving, obesity and depression. Obesity Research 1995; Nov (3):477S-480S.

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