The winter connection between carb cravings, depression and insomnia 

by | Jun 9, 2022 | Mental Health

Have you noticed that when the weather gets colder you experience a new set of signs and symptoms you didn’t have in the warmer months? 

Do you experience periods where you want to eat carbs? Not only are you constantly hungry, but you are craving the wrong types of foods. All you want is chocolate, biscuits, crisps or a bag of lollies. You eat them and then not long after you want more. 

Do you also struggle with low mood, depression or being aggressive toward others? Or do you find that along with your carb cravings you struggle with insomnia. Either you have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or find yourself waking up early when you should still be sleeping? 

If you’ve answered yes to any or all of these questions you might be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder. 

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a condition that people only experience in late autumn or winter. You may have no mood issues throughout the year, but once you hit the winter months your mood heads south with the temperature. People with SAD tend to experience feelings of sadness, a decrease in enjoyment in activities they used to enjoy, a loss of energy and motivation and a change in sleeping and eating habits. 

SAD occurs because of a decrease in sunlight exposure impacts how our hypothalamus in our brain is operating. It causes a change in neurotransmitter and hormone production and the result is seasonal appetite change, sadness and insomnia. What’s happening is melatonin and serotonin are being produced at lower levels, disrupting the body’s natural circadian rhythm.

Serotonin’s role 

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that has several functions in the human body. We are all aware of its role in mood and how we feel. Low serotonin is associated with sadness and depression, but it might also induce aggressiveness and irritation.

Serotonin is involved in sleep regulation as well. It’s the starting point for melatonin, our sleep hormone. To create adequate quantities of it, you must be exposed to plenty of sunshine. Low serotonin and melatonin might cause you to be excessively hungry, irritable, or depressed and sleeping poorly.

Serotonin has an important role in hunger control. When serotonin levels are low, we frequently experience cravings for carbohydrates. We consume those carbohydrates, and then insulin is secreted to pack away the extra energy in the foods for later use. Neurotransmitters like serotonin are impacted by our insulin response. After eating that chocolate, our bodies produce more serotonin as a result of the insulin release, which explains why we feel calm, happy and sleepy.

So, why the cravings, mood (and potentially sleep) issues? 

Not enough sunlight in the winter is responsible. However, there can also be a lack of necessary cofactors for serotonin production. To produce serotonin, you need adequate amounts of tryptophan from protein and vitamin B6 (which also aids with stress management).

The problem with giving in and eating every carb in sight 

While eating carbohydrates will give you a hit of serotonin, what you end up doing is depleting your lower serotonin levels. Consistently eating high-carb foods in the evening and experiencing blood sugar spikes after meals can further interrupt sleep. Systemic inflammation is also created by persistent consumption of quick carb meals. Nobody needs a constant low grade inflammatory state going on in their body.

What you can do

Consider acquiring a dawn simulator light box to assist you begin your day in the winter months. Set it for 5:45 a.m. or 6 a.m. to increase the amount of ‘sunlight’ in your life.

Consult your naturopath or nutritionist about ways to increase serotonin in your body.

When you want carbs, eat protein. It will fill you up while also balancing your blood sugar levels.

The most important thing to do is eat healthy and nutritious meals. Focus on eating warm, tasty but nutritious dishes such as;

  • Oat porridge – warm and soothing, pack this with defrosted berries, chopped nuts and seeds and cinnamon 
  • Chicken soup – have batches in the fridge or freezer you can just warm up. 
  • Lamb shank and barley or brown rice soup 
  • Slow cooked meals like osso bucco, braised lamb shoulder with vegetables or beef cheeks with red wine
  • Pasta bakes packed with vegetables and using gluten-free, pulse or wholemeal pastas 
  • Healthy fruit crumbles using rhubarb, apples or pears. Ensure toppings include oats, nuts, seeds and spices

REFERENCES

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2197075

https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/seasonal-affective-disorder

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4728667/

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