Seasonal change normally arrives hand in hand with a change in our eating patterns and our mood, and in winter that means a craving for comforting carbs.
It's good to know that it's not all in the mind!
Vitamin D (normally in short supply during the winter) plays a big part in the release of neurotransmitters such as Dopamine (which controls the brain's reward and pleasure centres) and Serotonin (the happy hormone which also acts as an appetite suppressant and aids sleep and relaxation).
So how are low levels of Serotonin linked to Carb cravings?
The Science-y bit:
Tryptophan (an Amino Acid found in all protein) is a building block of Serotonin. Unfortunately eating protein prevents tryptophan from passing through a barrier in the blood, into the brain - where it is converted to serotonin. This is because tryptophan competes with other Amino Acids to cross this barrier.
But carbohydrates help to make it happen! When carbohydrates are digested they break down to glucose which then enters the bloodstream. When glucose circulates in the blood, insulin is released and transports nutrients (such as Amino Acids and sugar) into muscle and other organs. Insulin also acts as a transporter for tryptophan to to reach the brain, where it is converted to serotonin. This is the reason you feel happy and satisfied after eating that comforting risotto.
Those who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) would really benefit from eating the right kinds of carbs to help relieve their symptoms.
In a study by Wurtman (co-aurther of The Serotonin Power Diet) it was found that about 30gms or 120 cals of sugar per day was enough to produce all the serotonin you need.
But all carbs are not created equal!
Eating simple sugars (such as sweets, pastries, juice or white bread) all spike blood sugar levels - causing the body to release a glut of insulin. Insulin helps to quickly metabolise the blood sugar which results in a "sugar crash"... causing fatigue, headaches and irritability. Not great when you're already suffering from SAD!
So what can I eat to help boost Serotonin?
* Focus on whole grains and unprocessed carbs that won't spike blood sugar levels, but rather
release their energy (glucose) slowly.
* Limit caffeine intake, as it affects Serotonin production.
* Make sure you get enough exercise. Studies show that exercise increases both Serotonin
production and release.
* Speak to your Nutritionist about a 5-HTP supplement (which has proven effective in helping to
manage cravings for sweets and excess weight gain associated with depression).
Note: 5-HTP may not be suitable for those with heart conditions or who are Type 1 diabetic. **
**University of Maryland Medical Centre, 5-HTP; June 2013; Available at: