There are foods that help with depression and will alleviate symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, but the first step is to banish those really bad foods that make you feel worse.
People with SAD often have an appetite for foods rich in carbohydrates such as bread, potatoes, pasta and rice, along with cookies, doughnuts and deserts. The problems with this is such foods give you a short lived mood boost – for a little while you feel great, but very soon hunger, lethargy and irritability will set back in and you feel the only way you can treat this is with another carbohydrate hit.
Certain kinds of foods make you hungrier and therefore cause you to eat more calories – these foods are carbohydrates, especially high-glycemic carbohydrates.
What are high-glycemic carbohydrates?
All carbs contain sugar molecules. These are absorbed from the bowel into the bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream, these sugar molecules cause the pancreas to secrete insulin. The insulin pushes the glucose molecules into the tissues, such as fat storage depots, thus lowering the blood sugar once again.
Certain foods consist of carbs that are rapidly dumped from the bowel into the bloodstream – these are said to have a high glycemic index and are known as simple carbs. Complex carbs release their sugar molecules more slowly into the bloodstream and are said to have a low glycemic index.
Essentially all foods are measured on the glycemic index which tells you the speed at which food is digested and converted to glucose by the body. The slower the speed, the less effect it has on blood sugar levels and the better it is if you suffer from SAD.
Longer digestion helps maintain blood sugar at relatively more constant levels, with no dramatics ups and downs. A doughnut has a glycemic rating of 76, whereas an apple has a rating of 36 and kidney beans 27. If you have SAD look for foods with a low glycemic rating.
Why are high-glycemic carbohydrates so bad?
Their sugars are quickly dumped into the bloodstream, provoking a dramatic increase in insulin release and a sharp drop in blood sugar. Result? You are hungry again and a vicious circle of bingeing on high-glycemic carbs, yo-yo swings in your blood sugar levels, more craving and more bingeing, is set off.
How does this link in with SAD?
People with SAD have too little serotonin in key parts of their brain during winter – this accounts for many symptoms including carbohydrate craving.
When someone consumes high-glycemic carbs the insulin release by the pancreas has some other effects – it also pushes the amino acid tryptophan from the blood into the brain – where is serves as the key building block for serotonin. This goes some way to explaining why people with SAD crave carbohydrates in the winter – a handful of cookies, etc, gives them a boost in energy and mood and when that boost quickly passes, there is only one solution… another handful of cookies.
It is thought light therapy boosts brain serotonin levels in a healthier and more stable way.
What foods should people with SAD avoid?
Avoid carbs that consist of empty calories – so foods that don’t contain useful nutrients, such as sugar and white flour and as mentioned before things like bread, potatoes, pasta, rice, cookies and doughnuts.
So what can I eat if I suffer from SAD?
There are many ways you can avoid carbs, so for instance for breakfast avoid cereal/toast/orange juice. Instead consider:
- Eggs or egg substitute
- Fish – something like steamed shrimp or canned tuna or salmon
- Whole wheat tortillas
- Slow cooked steel cut oatmeal
An excellent lunch is green salad with chicken or fish. You can sprinkle health carbs on it, such as walnuts or sunflower seeds over it.
Dinner should be a well-balanced meal containing protein, green vegetables and fruit. Try to avoid white bread and pastas.
For between meal snacks try part skimmed mozzarella or a handful of unsalted walnuts or almonds.
Stick to a diet like this and you should lose weight, gain energy and no longer have carb cravings. Of course no diet is right for everyone but this is my suggestion.
Try going back to nature
Today we eat too many processed foods – so seek unprocessed foods whenever you can. These foods come in the form of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Get rid of white bread and switch to whole grain.
What about fats?
A small amount of fat can slow the absorption of sugars, although the kind of fat you consume can make a difference:
Hydrogenated oils or trans fats: Avoid these like the plague – it will clog your arteries and raise you risk of heart disease. If you see the words partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated on a food label don’t buy it! These fats are found in abundance in cookies, chips, crackers and other processed foods.
Monosaturated fats: These are beneficial in moderation. They are contained in nuts, olives and seeds. They can decrease the effects of cholesterol and have important anti-oxidants. Olive oil is a monosaturated fat and a healthy alternative to butter when cooking vegetables, etc.
Polyunsaturated fats: Vegetable oils such as sunflower and corn oil are polyunsaturated fats. They remain liquids at room temperatures. In limited quantities they may protect you from health problems. Omega 3 is an especially important polyunsaturated fat, contained in fish, flax seed and some grains and nuts.
Saturated fats: These aren’t good for you. They include animal fats within meat, coconut oil and palm oil and the fats in butter and cheese. They raised your bad cholesterol and increase your risk of heart disease.
Protein is essential for repairing and building new cells and helps you feel full and satisfied. So when it comes to protein things are simple:
- Have a little protein at every meal
- Eat low fat protein when you can – ie skinless chicken breasts are better for you than fried chicken
- Low fat yoghurt is a good source and better than ice cream
- The best and healthiest choice of protein are beans – they are low fat and high in fiber.
And some fiber?
There are two types of fiber and they are both good for you:
- Insoluble fiber: This binds to water, creates bulk and helps you feel more full. It also keeps your digestive system going to help produce bowel movements! Whole grains, wheat breads and vegetables contain insoluble fiber.
- Soluble fiber: This is broken down by bacteria and binds to fat in intestines and lowers cholesterol. You will find it in oatmeal, citrus fruits and beans.
Recommendations on the amount of fiber you need range from about 25 grams up to 50 grams per day.
Herbs, Vitamins and Supplements
The problem with supplements these days is that there are so many different tablets, vitamins, fish oil extracts, herbal remedies, etc, etc that it is difficult to work out what really makes a difference and what doesn’t.
You can make arguments for many of them, but essentially the majority of experts universally agree there are a handful that are beneficial, namely:
- Fish oil extracts (concentrates of omega-3 fatty acids) – suggested amount: 2 grams per day
- Calcium citrate – 1,260 milligrams per day
- Vitamin D3 – 5,000 units/day (varies from person to person though)
- Multivitamin – 1 per day
Omega-3 fatty acids are helpful for cardiac function and may have a beneficial effect on depression and bipolar.
Vitamin D3 is a hugely important vitamin. Many of us are deficient in it as we use sunscreen to quite sensibly protect our skin from sunburn and skin cancer – but it can also render us deficient in this essential vitamin.
There is much evidence to suggest the worth of St. John’s Wort and many people take it to good effect. However one problem if you have Seasonal Affective Disorder and are considering using it is that it makes the skin extra sensitive to the sun.
Also watch out for marijuana and alcohol!
Try and avoid simple carbs like candy, soda, chips and doughnuts. The give a rapid rise in your blood sugar levels, a quick mood boost, but it soon passes and is replaced by another craving for similar foods. Eat healthy unprocessed foods, add in a couple of the supplements mentioned above and you will feel better!