Seasonal Affective Disorder

For all of my followers in the northeast United States, it’s that time of the year again!

The sun is rising late and setting early, the sky is cloudy, and the temperature is dropping. All this can contribute to a condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.).

S.A.D. affects about 6% of the United States every year. Common symptoms may include oversleeping, low energy, carb cravings, poor focus, social withdrawal, lack of pleasure, and hopelessness.

It is believed that S.A.D. is caused by a lack of sunlight, resulting in a skewed circadian rhythm and lowered serotonin levels.

Fortunately, there are many things one can do to combat symptoms and improve their emotions and outlook.

The first step is to purchase a “lightbox” for light therapy. These emit a much brighter and whiter light than typical lamps. Exposure to this bright light, particularly first thing in the morning, will simulate the sunrise, improving serotonin production and establishing a healthy circadian rhythm.

I am in the process of purchasing such a light source and will provide a review of my personal experience with this protocol.

The second recommendation is to stay active. Find 30 to 60 minutes every day for exercise. Exercise is known to improve mood by providing a sense of success as well as releasing endorphins in the brain.

The last recommendation I can make is to eat healthy. This means starting your day with a large serving of protein and ending your day with a moderate serving of carbohydrates such as sweet potatoes or fruits. Adequate protein in the morning, and throughout the day, will provide the body and brain with amino acids necessary for healthy cognitive function and stable emotions. Carbs at night will help induce sleep and up-regulate serotonin production. Eat fewer carbs throughout the day to avoid blood sugar crashes, causing lethargy and furthering negative emotions.

Many people find success with certain supplements. I personally have tried 5-HTP (a serotonin precursor), GABA (a dopamine precursor), and melatonin (the brains natural sleep chemical). Thus far, the melatonin seems to be the most effective, but only at regulating proper sleep-wake cycles. I noticed no results from any other supplement, regardless of timing or dose.

I do increase my supplemental Vitamin D in the winter from 2,000 to 5,000 or 10,000 a day. I don’t notice a direct result from this but I’m lucky if I get 5 minutes of direct sunlight a day when the temperature drops below freezing. Sunlight is our only significant source of vitamin D, and low levels have been linked to depression as well as many physical conditions.

Finally, there is always the option of medications. If feelings of hopelessness or despair become strong enough, visit a doctor to discuss further options.

I will post a follow up after I experiment with light therapy / dawn simulation for a few weeks. Try these tactics and let me know if you have some of your own!

SAD

One Size Fits All

In exercise and fitness training, a “one-size fits all” approach does not work.

This is one of my favorite aspects of being a personal trainer and health coach.

Every single day, I encounter something new. Whether it’s a client’s specific goal, preference, injury, or condition, everyone has different wants and needs. This requires alterations, to say nothing of completely different programming.

My oldest client is 91. My youngest is 13. I have middle-aged clients trying to lose weight. I have young men playing soccer at division 1 colleges. I have new mothers that want to return to their favorite sports. I have seniors reversing rheumatoid arthritis and regaining balance and energy. Some of my clients want to get off a long list of medications. Others just want a fun and challenging workout a few days a week.

These differences between individuals contribute to my hesitation to recommend routines based entirely around weight machines.

Machines allow you to adjust the height of the seat, and sometimes make an adjustment for leg length, but beyond that, you’re pushing or pulling in a pre-determined range of motion. Different people will need to move differently based on their build and body mechanics. And, just as importantly, these types of actions won’t transfer as effectively to real life.

When you pick something up, push a heavy object, or take a very high step up, there is nothing guiding your body through space. Your muscles and joints will be working on their own, free of outside influence.

Machines are useful to isolate a muscle group, and help an individual develop a mind-body connection with that muscle, but they should not be where you spend the majority of your time.

I start most my clients with a series of assessments, performing different movements that are common in everyday life. Their ability to execute these actions, along with the goals they have stated, will specify exactly what we must do together.

These assessments usually consist of a gait analysis, squatting down into a chair and back up, bringing the arms overhead, and holding a plank or pushup position. But, as previously mentioned, I may omit some of these, use alternatives, or do something completely different based on the client.

The same mistake of using a “one-size fits all” approach is apparent in our nations nutritional recommendations. The USDA recommends that everyone consume 45-65% of their calories from carbs, 10 to 30% from protein, and 25 to 35% from fat.

This is akin to recommending that 15% of all calories come from dairy…or that 5% of calories come from peanuts. What if an individual is lactose intolerant or allergic to peanuts?

As evidenced by our current diabetes and obesity rates, most Americans cannot tolerate upwards of 50% of their calories coming from carbs. Through years of trial and error, I’ve learned that if I average more than 40% carbs, more than 4 days a week, I start to gain fat, even in a calorie deficit.

Remember, carbs are fuel for high intensity activity, while dietary fat is truly essential for optimal health. After a lifetime of consuming more carbs than the body can safely store and burn, it loses its “insulin sensitivity”. This means that the sugars last too long in the blood (causing inflammation and cardiovascular disease) and are eventually forced into fat storage.

I work with my clients to find the most sustainable and healthy nutritional path for them. I base my nutritional recommendations not only on their dietary restrictions, activity level, and current conditions, but also their preferences and lifestyle.

I personally cook a few big meals on weekends so I have leftovers available on weekdays. However, I may have to suggest a different approach for clients that don’t have the time to, or interest in, trying this. Some of my clients are vegans or vegetarians that require more vitamin supplementation and creative protein options. If a client has sugar or chocolate cravings, we’ll work to find the healthiest options and optimal timing for indulgences.

Some foods are healthier than others, but I’ve never insisted that a client consume a certain food or avoid another. I merely work within their parameters, to find out what will guarantee them success in the long term.

These examples show the importance of individual personalization. Personal trainers, and health professionals of all kinds, must be able to tailor the theories learned through education, to best serve each client.

No two people are the same, so why should their exercise and diet be the same?

diverse

Reducing Cardiovascular Disease Risk

As a logical follow-up to last week’s post, let’s look at what we can do to reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease.

So far, we learned that eating cholesterol does not increase the risk of cardiovascular events. In fact, 75% of people that suffer a heart attack have normal or low cholesterol levels in the body. Furthermore, taking cholesterol-lowering medications (such as statins) does not reduce the risk of heart attacks in 98% of the population.

So, if cholesterol consumption is irrelevant, what is causing our nations deterioration in cardiovascular health?

One word – inflammation!

It is the process of inflammation that damages the arteries, signaling the body to send cholesterol to protect the area. And it is, once again, inflammation that damages the cholesterol in the blood, causing it to harden, leading to plaque formation and clogged arteries.

There are a few things that cause inflammation. The first is consumption of unstable, easily-oxidized fats . The worst is man-made trans-fats. These are found in most butter replacements and aerosol cooking oils. Another problematic fat would be omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids. The biggest offenders here are corn oil, soy oil, and other modern vegetable oils.

Many natural foods, such as nuts and avocados, are quite high in O-6’s but, as long as they are consumed fresh and in moderation, without extremely volatile processing methods, they should not be problematic.

The second biggest cause of inflammation is excess sugar in the blood. If an individual consumes more carbohydrates than their muscles can store, the excess sugar will wreak havoc in the body until insulin forces it into fat storage. Sugar is toxic in very high amounts so it is no surprise that too much, idling in the blood, causes inflammation and damages the arteries.

The third biggest cause of inflammation is eating foods that are detrimental to the gut. Eventually I will have an entire post on gut health but, to put it simply, if you eat enough foods that have the potential to damage the gut lining, the offensive compounds will pass through the gut (a condition referred to as “gut permeability”) and cause inflammation elsewhere in the body. Grains and legumes contain many of these compounds…predominantly lectins. Lectin content can be diminished through extensive soaking, sprouting, and cooking but it’s still not wise to base a diet around such a problematic food.

So, man-made vegetable oils, excessive carbohydrate consumption, and grains cause inflammation…what does that leave?

Instead of using vegetable oils, try cooking at high-temperatures with coconut oil or grass-fed butter. Save your olive oil, avocados, and nuts for raw consumption.

No need to count every gram of carbohydrates; rather, focus on more nutritional sources such as vegetables and fruits (which will also have far less calories and sugar per serving than grains or legumes).

Finally, avoid grains when you can. I personally replaced them altogether with vegetables and locally, humanely-raised meat, but I know the idea of eliminating a food group we have grown up with can be daunting. So, maybe try only eating grains when you go out to your favorite pizza joint or restaurant.

Also, don’t forget to eat your healthy fats! Monounsaturated fats and even saturated fats will be far less inflammatory than grains and legumes. Since you’ll be limiting your intake of problematic carbs, that are high in calories and low in nutrition, a few extra calories from good fats will help keep you feeling satisfied and well-fueled.

As a personal trainer, I always have to mention to stay active as well! The more relaxing walks you can take the better. Throw in a couple weight-training workouts a week and an occasional high-intensity-interval-training session (sprints, rowing, etc) and you’ll be on the path to having a perfectly conditioned heart.

Best of luck!