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

Supplements

In last week’s post I touched upon the use of supplements to aid in recovery. I thought it may be helpful to discuss my professional opinion on certain supplements.

I always like to optimize my health and performance in the most natural ways possible – tinkering with diet, training, and recovery. However, I think some supplements are almost necessary due to our lifestyles and modern environment. There are other supplements that can push us beyond our genetic potential. Finally, there are supplements that are useless and sometimes dangerous.

Vitamin D – I believe this is necessary for anyone not living near the equator and spending 8 hours in the sun a day. Vitamin D appears to increase bone mineral density; decrease mortality from cancer and cardiovascular disease; improve immune function; prevent multiple sclerosis; decrease inflammation; and play a role in almost every bodily function.

Have your vitamin D levels checked and supplement with 5,000-10,000 IU’s a day until your blood levels are above 60 nanograms per milliliter. At that point, maybe take 2,000 on the days you spend a significant time in the sun and 5,000 on the days you do not.

I recommend the NOW Foods brand. Vitamin D is fat-soluble meaning it must be suspended in oil. NOW Foods uses olive oil while most other brands use soy or corn oil (rather ironic considering the detrimental effects of these cheaper oils).

Magnesium – The Earths soil and waters have been depleted of magnesium over time, due in part to unsustainable agricultural practices. Also, calcium supplementation and fortification has skyrocketed over the past century, particularly in the United States. Calcium and magnesium interact to control blood pressure, muscle contraction and relaxation, and maintain healthy tissue (including bones). Most Americans now consume over 2 times as much calcium as magnesium when it should be the exact opposite.

The best sources of magnesium are green leafy vegetables, bone broth/chicken soup, small fish that still contain bones, and nuts. However, I have experienced such positive effects from a magnesium bath or teaspoon of Natural Calm before bed that I plan to continue supplementing. The only risk is, if you haven’t used it before, and consume too much, it will have a laxative effect.

Fish Oil – This has come under a great deal of fire recently. Fish is the best source of essential omega 3 counteract out the detrimental effects of a diet high in omega 6. We now know this is not the case.

If you recall my post about fats, omega 3 may be anti-inflammatory and essential for life but it is an unstable polyunsaturated fat. This means heating, transportation, storage, and exposure to light will risk oxidization and rancidity. For this reason, I consider fish oil a short-term option while people perfect their diet. I personally consume one teaspoon of Nordic Naturals fish oil on the days I don’t eat wild-caught fish and consume omega 6 rich nuts.

Digestive Enzymes – This is one supplement I still am on the fence about. The idea behind digestive enzymes is that they break down carbs, fats, and proteins. However, the breakdown of foods does not always increase assimilation.

People with legitimate digestive issues (GERD, gastroparesis, etc) may benefit from hydrochloric acid in digestive enzymes. I have not done enough research to recommend them for all, but I would suggest people with any issues review the anecdotal successes others have had.

On the days I am consuming excess calories, particularly from starches, I take NOW Foods Super Enzymes and have noticed far less bloating, gas, and trips to the bathroom.

Whey Protein Powder – The consumption of whey by athletes, particularly weightlifters, goes back decades. There are still debates regarding efficacy but, it is more insulinogenic and bioavailable than any whole food. This is useful for shuttling amino acids to fatigued muscles post workout. However, consuming anything that significantly spikes insulin on a regular basis is never a good idea.

For these reasons, I use one scoop of Optimum Nutrition whey after my workouts only during the months of the year I am trying to gain weight. The rest of the year, a meal of solid food, such as chicken and sweet potatoes, is perfect.

Creatine – This is another common “bodybuilder” supplement. Creatine is in every living animal and helps muscles function, particularly during short bursts of high intensity activity. It is formed in the body from 3 different amino acids and is also present, in small amounts, in raw meat.

Supplementing with creatine appears to increase power, strength, recovery, and intramuscular water retention. I am not using it at the moment because I want to get closer to my genetic potential first. But, this would be another sensible supplement to utilize in cycles.

There are some concerns amongst physicians regarding creatine but there are no proven risks associated with a 5 gram dose a day (except among those with renal impairment).

Amino Acids – These fall in the same category as creatine and whey protein powder. Amino acids are the foundation of protein and aid in muscle repair, neurotransmission, stimulation and relaxation, as well as many other functions.

I am currently relying on whole foods for amino acids but, certain combination of amino acids, particularly branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), seem to be beneficial for recovery and maintenance of muscle mass during periods of fasting.

This is by no means a complete list of available supplements…these are the ones I’ve experimented with and benefited from. There are many other things (high dose B vitamins, stimulant concoctions like Jack3d, and “mass gainers”) that are, at the best, a waste of money, and at the worst, very dangerous. If you have questions about a specific product, please post a comment or e-mail me requesting further evaluation.

In closing, I’ll quote a knowledgeable trainer I work with: “If one single element of your training or diet affects your performance a few percent, each single supplement will have a tenth of a percent affect.”