It seems to strike every year around this time. Waistlines expand, depression rears its head, and energy lags. We crave carbohydrates and sugar, sparking a vicious cycle of blood sugar peaks and crashes. Not only does this routine promote sluggishness and pack on the pounds, but it also fosters moodiness and a bleak outlook. Somehow, we accept this seasonal state of affairs as normal.
In truth, we should be slimming down (not to mention slowing down) in the cooler months after a summer season of abundantly available food. One of the biggest mistakes that we make in winter is to eat a vast amount of carbohydrates. The problem lies with tryptophan or, specifically, the lack of it.
The science of SAD and carbohydrate cravings
In 1984, Norman Rosenthal, M.D. pioneered research into the causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) — a syndrome of depression resulting from reduced exposure to sunlight. Rosenthal noticed that 79 percent of participants in the study experiencing SAD also had significant carbohydrate cravings. It turns out that ingesting carbohydrates helps increase the availability of the amino acid tryptophan, a precursor to the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin. Unfortunately, carbohydrate-laden foods don't actually supply tryptophan — you need to consume seafood, poultry, grassfed meats or leafy greens to receive a decent dose of the amino acid.
Nora Gedgaudas, certified nutritional therapist, believes that carbohydrates provide a short-term energy and mood fix, but then leave us tired and foggy once blood sugar levels plummet. Solvie Karlstrom explains in the article Why You Need to Eat More Fat (In the Winter):
"[Carbohydrates] tend to flood your system with tons of energy all at once, and then you experience a blood-sugar crash that causes you to crave more carbs, and the cycle goes on and on. Even carbohydrates such as brown rice and beans can have the same effect, [Gedgaudas] says, but at less severe levels."
She adds, "Grain-based diets are part of the reason people are so deficient in tryptophan. Grains don't contain this essential amino acid, and eating grain-based diets depletes tryptophan."
Gedguadas recommends a better fuel source: fat. Since it's long-lasting and even-burning, fat helps keep our energy levels consistent and mind sharp. What's more, healthy fats like organic coconut oil and ghee, paired with tryptophan-rich foods, support balanced weight and elevated moods. Interestingly, a study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that volunteers given tryptophan supplements experienced the same benefits as those using light therapy for SAD symptoms.
In addition to reducing carbohydrates and increasing healthy fat intake, we can also include more of the following edibles into our diet to cultivate a bright outlook:
Mussels - Rich in energy-supporting and brain-protecting vitamin B12, as well as thyroid-fortifying nutrients like zinc, iodine and selenium. A well-nourished and healthy thyroid gland helps keep us energized and slim.
Grassfed lamb - Abundant in conjugated linoleic acid, pastured animals supply ample amounts of this healthy (and slimming) fatty acid. Grassfed lamb also contains highly bioavailable heme iron, which is important for stable moods and clear memory.
Dark chocolate - Brimming with mood-enhancing and health-preserving compounds, a square or two of chocolate can sharpen the mind, uplift energy and improve blood flow to the brain. Opting for at least 70 percent cacao content ensures that you will reap all the benefits of chocolate without the drawbacks of excessive sugar.