Constant cravings? Here’s 18 evidence-backed (or anecdotal) tips that will curb them.

Are you back into the swing of things but your taste buds aren’t?  It happens! Especially around this time of year where intake of sugar, alcohol and processed carbohydrates tends to be higher for most people, and while going cold turkey can be the best move, it’s sometimes easier said than done. The good news is that by reducing these foods, you’ll begin to lose the taste for them, and they’ll no longer hold the appeal that they had. For some though, completely removing them is a better idea – even small amounts can continue to drive the appetite for them. Regardless of which camp you fall into, here are some proven, some anecdotal, and some interesting ways to combat those cravings.

  1. The basics: build your plate based around protein and fibre, with fat for satiety. Protein is well known to be the most satisfying nutrient, and along with fibre (also key for adding bulk and feeling full) will keep most people satisfied longer than either carbohydrate or fat. Any starchy or carbohydrate-based foods are best if they are minimally processed (such as potatoes, kumara, legumes, fruit) as these will provide more nutrient bang for your buck). How much of each? Protein-type foods (meat, fish, eggs, poultry) aim for 1-2 palm-sized portions. Starchy carbs (if included) at around a fist-sized amount.  Fat? 1-2 thumb-sized amounts, depending on the type of protein portion you’re eating: a fattier cut might be satisfying enough, however a lean chicken breast will likely require some added fat to help satisfy you. And vegetables? Go for gold – other than the starchier varieties (mentioned above) you could fill your boots with these. For some people, having a full plate is essential to feeling satisfied and if you can do that by adding more volume, it is going to have a positive effect on the satiety from a meal (that’s definitely me). For some ideas, check out my recipe e-book or my online coaching service.
  2. Get rid of anything that is ‘your poison’- if you are the person that hears the icecream calling you from the freezer, it is much better off out of the house. Out of sight, out of mind.
  3. Put all the ‘treat’ type food in one place in your house, preferably above eye level. This will save you seeing the Christmas cake when you are grabbing the eggs, and the chocolate almonds when you are searching for the bottle of olive oil. Constant reminders of all the things you are trying not to eat will NOT help your cause.
  4. Chew your food properly at each meal. Aim for 30 times per mouthful. That way you’ll digest your nutrients effectively, feel more nourished and less likely to be hungry an hour after eating because you wolfed that meal down.
  5. Do not substitute those refined sugars for ‘natural’ sugars. That dried fruit is pretty much just sugar – and (a few nutrients and fibre aside) no better than sugar and will continue to drive your sugar cravings. You shouldn’t rely on dried fruit (or any sweet food that is marketed as ‘refined sugar free’) as a substantial nutrient source . Any additional fibre or nutrients they provide in the diet is negligible compared to the whack of goodness you’ll get when you follow #1 above. When health bloggers or food producers market something based on the healthfulness of the ‘natural’ sugar, it is pure embellishment. 6 meedjol dates and a banana does not make a smoothie sugar free.
  6. Coconut oil – this is a favourite of Sarah Wilson’s: a teaspoon of extra virgin coconut oil can kill a craving in its tracks. If we head to the literature to find any peer reviewed papers on the topic (for what it’s worth, there is a LOT of research published by the Coconut Research Center), there isn’t a lot to definitively tell us that it will cut cravings. That said, there is some research has found that people who include more coconut oil in their diet (compared to other types of fat) have reduced food intake overall, particularly in the subsequent meals. Like most things, you have nothing to lose by trying it.
  7. Cocoa – chocolate is long associated with cravings, though right now, consumption of chocolate may well increase the cravings rather than stamp them out. It’s also not exactly useful if you’re trying to focus on reducing your intake of junk food! That said, chocolate is known for its cognitive and mood enhancing benefits. So how about some unsweetened cocoa (or cacao) in hot water with some milk to deliver the chocolate taste you are after. Add a touch of stevia if you wish. You could also do this cold with almond milk and ice – and add 1 tablespoon of psyllium husk or gelatin in there for some additional fibre or protein. If chocolate is what you’re after – go for the darkest that you can stand. Many people find they stop at 1-2 pieces of 90% chocolate instead of the 1-2 rows consumed of the 70%.
  8. Anything that lowers your blood sugar response to a meal is going to positively impact your cravings. The steep rise and fall of your blood sugar in response to a meal causes alarm bells to start going off in your brain. The body runs a tight ship and prefers when all systems are in homeostasis. Low blood sugar causes a release in stress hormones which tell your liver to dump glucose into the bloodstream, and create cravings so you can re-establish blood sugar to within a normal range. Including cinnamon can reduces glucose response after a meal (in amounts of 6g) and affects insulin response. Stabilising blood sugar is going to help reduce cravings. Sprinkle this gold dust on your breakfast, with your teaspoon of coconut oil, in your cocoa drink etc.
  9. Glutamine – can enhance secretion of GLP-1, a hormone which promotes insulin release that helps increase satiety and dampen appetite – this is only seen in some people however, suggesting there is individual variation of its effects. The flipside of this is that the insulin-releasing effects may override any satiety benefits, increasing hunger (and subsequent meal size) at the next meal. However, in practice this is a tool that many clinicians (myself included) have found useful for some (but not all) clients. The presence of glutamine in the bloodstream is associated with improved insulin sensitivity in healthy people. In addition to this, glutamine has been found to be beneficial for improving intestinal permeability and tight junction protein expression in the gut, being one of the most abundant amino acids in the body. If your cravings are related to gut dysbiosis then it could be useful from this perspective. In addition, it functions as part of neurotransmitter production. Taking L Glutamine by putting it under the tongue as a craving hits (1-3,000mg) may just work for you.
  10. Magnesium is a nutrient that is involved in over 250 processes in our body, and particularly when we are under stress, it is put under the pump. Sugar (or specifically) chocolate craving is often linked to a deficiency to magnesium, but that isn’t conclusive. At any rate, magnesium is perfectly safe to take, and as our food supply is relatively low in magnesium, looking for a supplement that is a magnesium glycinate, citrate or chelated with amino acids may be useful, at amounts of around 300-400mg elemental magnesium.
  11. Chromium is another supplement that some people have found useful for stopping cravings – research has found a reduction in carbohydrate cravings, food intake and an increase in satiety when supplementing with chromium…however this is in the laboratory using mice. There’s nothing definitive in the research to support using it for people who already have adequate amounts of this mineral. That said (as with anything), it’s individual – I know many clients who swear by using Chromium supplements when a craving hits. The only way to know if it works for you is to try it, by taking 1000mg chromium in two doses in meals that contain carbohydrate (due to its suggested benefits at reducing blood sugar response to carbohydrate meals)..
  12. Branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) are three amino acids that act as nutrient signallers which may help reduce food intake . Leucine (one of the BCAAs) activates mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) which is required for our brain to respond to leptin (a hormone that tells our body when we have had enough food). BCAAs are involved with hormone release in both the gastrointestinal tract and in fat deposits. BCAAs and dietary protein enhanced glucagon like peptide-1 (GLP-1) release and reduced the expression of genes required for synthesis and adsorption of fatty acids in a human intestinal cell line (NCI-H716), suggesting an intestinal mechanism for the beneficial effect of BCAAs. Those that have successfully used BCAAs suggest 5g in the AM and every few hours while you’re adjusting your diet back to baseline awesomeness.
  13. 5htp: 300-500mg taken with a meal to increase satiety of the meal – studies have found a reduced food intake (particularly carbohydrate). Studies conducted have focused on people who have reduced availability of tryptophan in the brain (a precursor to 5htp). Increasing 5htp increases tryptophan and therefore serotonin production, reducing cravings and overall food intake. (Don’t use if you are currently on antidepressants without clearance from your doctor.)
  14. Exercise. A no brainer, really, but research has found this to be super effective for reducing cravings. In fact, any activity done while in the midst of a craving will take your mind off it. So when a craving hits, doing something active for 10-15 minutes can reduce your desire for something sweet. Go for a powerwalk, shoot some hoops, do some hill sprints…
  15. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep! It’s hard this time of year with longer days and opportunities to take advantage of summer (when it shows up…) Sleep restriction enhances activity in brain regions involved in reward in response to energy dense, nutrient-void food (think: lollies, chips, chocolate), suggesting heightened sensitivity to rewarding properties of food. This can lead to increased cravings. If you are burning the candle at both ends and not yet back to your regular 7-8 hours sleep per night, then nailing this will go a long way to helping curb that sugar demon.
  16. Meditation: decentring – viewing your thoughts as separate from yourself – has been found to help reduce food cravings and want for unhealthy food items. Mindfulness practice is also useful for not only reduced cravings, but for reduced emotional eating, body image concerns. It doesn’t require a 90 minute class three times a week (though there’s nothing wrong with that!) Headspace, Calm or Buddhify are three smart phone applications which may help you get going and provide guided sessions of between 2-20 minutes long. It’s consistency and frequency that makes a difference (like any habit).
  17. Clay modelling to reduce cravings: yep. Researchers found that visual imagery plays a key role in reducing craving. Participants who worked for 10 minutes constructing shapes from plastacine had reduced cravings for chocolate compared to people who were left to their own thoughts or who were given a written task.
  18. Your gut bacteria can influence your cravings. There is indirect evidence for a connection between cravings and the type of bacteria lurking in your gut. For example, people who enjoy and crave chocolate have different microbial metabolites (i.e. bacteria by-products) in their urine than “chocolate indifferent” individuals, despite eating identical diets. In addition, gut bacteria can influence the production of our ‘feel good’ and motivation hormones (serotonin and dopamine), thereby influence food decision-making based on our mood. Finally treating mice with a probiotic reduced hunger-inducing hormones and food intake. Action points here? Yes, you could start with a probiotic, particularly when you’re in the thick of it all, as this will help ensure there are beneficial bacterial strains present in your gut. However, for ongoing gut health, the regular addition of probiotic and prebiotics through food will help you maintain a healthy gut microbiome. Therefore:
  • Include fermented vegetables into 1-2 meals daily, working up to 1-2 tablespoons at a time.
  • The addition of unsweetened yoghurt (dairy or coconut) as part of your everyday diet (as it contains beneficial bacteria).
  • Kombucha, at around 100-150ml per day (check the back of the label to ensure a lower sugar variety).
  • Water, milk or coconut kefir, start with around 100ml per day.
  • Raw apple cider vinegar in water – start with 1 tsp in a small amount of water, working up to 1 tablespoon. This will help stimulate stomach acid when taken prior to meals, helping you digest your food properly, and delaying gastric emptying, so your glucose response to the meal will be slower too.
  • Vegetables, in abundance, to include fibres that feed your gut bacteria.

(As a side note, any change to your gut environment can result in unintended (and unwanted) changes to your digestive tract! If you’re new to the fermented foods and/or probiotics, then start small and work your way up. If you end up spending way more time in the bathroom than you wanted, reduce back further. Consider yourself warned.)

You won’t need to do all of these – but I think #1-5, #14, #15, #16 and #18 would completely diminish that sugar demon so you can get back to feeling awesome.

cravings

Grab that cupcake and bin it immediately. Underneath something that will stop you from retrieving it later on. (PC: SamadiMD.com)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

11 things you may not know about perimenopause (and 10 things you can do about those symptoms).

I know what you’re thinking. She’s too young to be writing about perimenopause, right?! Actually, no. I might feel 24 years old, but it only takes being around younger age groups to remember I’m not! Despite the ‘M’ word being almost a taboo, unwanted phase of life that some women fear (and men too!) it is a natural part of our lifecycle. What isn’t natural are the symptoms associated with menopause. Like premenstrual symptoms, the discomfort experienced through perimenopause may be common, but it’s not normal. This was reaffirmed in my mind when I listened to a fabulous interview with Lara Briden (naturopath who works with women with hormone imbalances, based in Sydney and Christchurch). A wealth of information who had some great information around why we can experience symptoms and (importantly) what we can do about them.

  1. Defined as 10 years before going through menopause, practitioners often view this as highly variable, with women from 35 years to 55 years in this perimenopausal state. The average time spent here is around 4 years. Though, as with any ‘average’ this might not reflect your experience!
  2. All hormone levels change during perimenopause. There is first a decrease in progesterone, which changes the balance of progesterone to oestrogen (some describe this as ‘oestrogen dominance’, though not all practitioners like using this term). Testosterone also declines, and this is an important hormone for sex drive. Finally oestrogen drops – and while we will continue to produce oestrogen (as this occurs not only by the ovaries but by the liver, breasts, adrenal glands and by fat tissue, it is at amounts of around 30-60% lower.
  3. Oestrogen is a major regulator of a number of processes in the body, and the sex hormones and our glucocorticoid hormones (the most ‘known’ one, cortisol) are controlled by the hypothalamus -the part of our brain who is also the controller of our sex hormone regulation – therefore it makes sense that a change in one will result in a change in all of them.
  4. Some of the main symptoms of perimenopause are
    1. Heavy periods
    2. Hot flashes
    3. Breast tenderness
    4. Worsening of premenstrual symptoms
    5. Lower sex drive
    6. Headaches or migraines (due to sudden removal/reduction of oestrogen)
    7. Fatigue
    8. Decreased sense of wellbeing (research shows that extended periods of low oestrogen, fluctuating levels of oestrogen and sudden withdrawal of oestrogen – via surgery or stopping oral contraceptive pill – is affected with lower mood)
    9. Irregular periods
    10. Brain fog and memory – oestrogen helps consolidate both episodic and spatial memory in the brain, and protects against cognitive decline as we age.
    11. Vaginal dryness; discomfort during sex
    12. Urine leakagewhen coughing or sneezing and an urgent need to urinate more frequently – due to oestrogen’s role in maintaining the vascular mucosa folds in the vagina, acting as a watertight seal.
    13. Mood swings (via fluctuating levels of hormones)
    14. Trouble sleeping
  5. Some women are ABSOLUTELY FINE and sail through perimenopause. Generally, though, those that have been on the oral contraceptive pill are more likely to experience symptoms than those that haven’t. This may be due to the difference in the hormonal balance once the pill is removed. The pill provides large amounts of synthetic hormones, and it is a huge adjustment to go back to the normal (lower) levels of hormones. Approximately 147,000 women in New Zealand take the oral contraceptive pill, of which 80% of them are on a combined pill, delivering oestrogen and progesterone.
  6. The types of hormones in the pill are synthetic and are not ‘bioidentical’ – meaning that the amounts are higher than what the body would produce AND they are in a form that the body can’t use. The pill doesn’t regulate hormones, it shuts them off.
  7. During perimenopause, women can have fluctuating oestrogen levels due to variable concentrations of FSH (released by our pituitary gland in response to a low oestrogen environment – it isn’t necessarily all low oestrogen. This could also be a result of an inability to detoxify and clear out oestrogen metabolites.
  8. A well-functioning liver is required to remove oestrogen from our body and prevent build up and associated symptoms. Our liver packages up oestrogen metabolites and removes it through our detoxification pathways. We need our inbuilt antioxidants to be firing, along with certain nutrients (selenium, B vitamins and glycine (not present in large amounts in the standard diet) to do this.
  9. Many women going into perimenopause are insulin resistant (oestrogen has an insulin-sensitising role in the body and influences glucose uptake) – this partially explains the increase in body fat (particularly around the middle) that many women experience as they progress through. This makes it harder for their body to metabolise and use carbohydrate effectively
  10. Many women going into perimenopause have a low thyroid function due to age-related changes in thyroid physiology. These include a reduction of thyroid iodine uptake, synthesis of free thyroxine (FT4) and free triiodothyronine (FT3) and the conversion of FT4 to reverse triiodothyronine (rT3). TSH levels may be slightly elevated. Luteal-phase spotting, or lumpy breasts may indicate this.
  11. Your gut? SUPER IMPORTANT!!! The oestrogen might get detoxified (packaged up ready for removal) via pathways in your liver only to be unpackaged (deconjugated) again by nasty gut bacteria which pushes it back out into the blood stream as more toxic forms of oestrogen.

These 11 points may or may not have been news to you – certainly probably not to those experiencing some of the symptoms, or who have dug a bit deeper to determine the cause of the symptoms. This wasn’t a post for you to sigh in resignation and decide there is nothing you can do. Yes these symptoms and health outcomes are common – but (as stated earlier) they are not normal. Like many things, we normalise a lot of health issues because so many people experience them. We just think they are an inevitable process in ageing and moving into a different phase of life. Certainly (I gotta say), some health professionals don’t suggest otherwise so it’s no surprise many are led to believe this.

Some awesome tips from Lara as to how to start the process of mitigating symptoms – some are great DIY ones that you can put into action immediately; others will likely require the help of a practitioner who has a solid understanding of how our hormones interact – this may be your open-minded doctor, which is excellent – or naturopath, nutritionist or dietitian.

  1. Limit alcohol consumption – it impairs oestrogen clearance rates from the liver and may be one of the influencing factors in the relationship between alcohol and breast cancer risk
  2. Limit or omit dairy –dairy can increase oestrogen in the body, increase insulin release and the A1 caesin in dairy is pro-inflammatory and increases gastrointestinal inflammation (which could then push inflammation out to rest of your body).
  3. Ensure adequate vitamin D status – optimal is around 100-150nmol/L which is required for the production of all hormones, and related to other hormonal issues such as endometriosis
  4. Reduce intake of carbohydrate if following a higher carbohydrate approach, and get rid of processed, refined foods and sugar.
  5. Eat your brassicas: broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage – all provide di-indolylmethane (DIM) which targets certain proteins in our body that help reduce inflammation and balance hormones (particularly detoxifying oestrogen). Supplementing with this is also really helpful, but only once you establish that oestrogen clearance is an issue for you – super unhelpful otherwise (a practitioner can help you find this out – and there is a test I’ve started using with clients called the D.U.T.C.H test which is able to measure each hormone and it’s metabolites in much more comprehensive detail than a blood test alone.
  6. Ensure a healthy gut: bloating, excessive gas, cramps and diarrhoea or constipation are not the normal consequence of eating (though they are extremely common). Keep a food diary to establish what might be causing your digestive upset by connecting your symptoms to your food intake. Work with a health practitioner experienced in the ‘real food’ digestive health to help not only heal your gut, but seal it too.
  7. Turmeric in therapeutic doses (more than you can get from food) helps reduce oestrogen related oxidative stress, reduce prostaglandins (inflammatory biomarkers) – opt for one that is also combined with bioperine (to make it more bioavailable) such as this Good Health 15800 Turmeric complex. The alternative is one that says it is formulated to have smaller, more bioavailable particles, and the Meriva formulated varieties have this.
  8. Iodine: low dose supplementation can be extremely helpful in supporting the pathways associated with thyroid hormone production which in turn affects the sex hormone production pathways. Again, talking to a practitioner is a good idea to establish your own requirement. However, 150 micrograms per day (and having 2-3 brazil nuts to balance this with selenium) is a safe amount.
  9. SLEEP. Hands down, the most often overlooked yet important restorative, nourishing thing you can do to support your hormone health.
  10. Meditation. Journalling. Yoga. Diaphragmatic and full belly breathing. Slowing down. Yep – stress reduction.

Regardless of if you are pre, peri or post menopausal, I think there is some excellent information here that will be helpful for hormones in general actually, and if you are experiencing some of the unwanted (and unnecessary in most cases) symptoms of hormone balance, this may give you some pointers as to how to combat them. Definitely check out Lara’s site for accessible and informative hormone related content.

PC www.gazetteinterviews.com

Let this not be you. Or your mum. Or your wife. PC http://www.gazetteinterviews.com.

 

Like what you read? For more, check out mikkiwilliden.com for individualised nutrition plans, or sign up now for online nutrition coaching and meal plans.

AHSNZ Wanaka: a taste of what you missed

ICYMI, the second Ancestral Health Society of New Zealand symposium took place over Labour weekend, giving me a great excuse to head down to the South Island and reconnect with the geographical region I’ve spent much of my time over the years, and with the people who are part of my ‘tribe.’ I love love love the South Island and particularly Central Otago. It was so great to reconnect with fellow Ancestral Health New Zealand crew, meet up with old Dunedin friends and meet other like-minded people.

I am not going to give a detailed account of each presentation – in fact, I don’t need to as the presenters are each writing up a post that summarises their talks – two of which   I am sharing today so you can get a taste of what you missed. As a brief overview, there were a mixture of practitioners and advocates of evolutionary health – touching on topics from sustainable farming to endurance training to perceptions of body size ideals. While our first symposium had more of a focus on nutrition, this conference extended well beyond that.

The programme from the conference can be found here, and below are two posts already written up by Kate and Andrew. Read, ponder, and definitely keep an eye out for details of our next symposium looking to be held in the first quarter of next year.

Kate, the Holistic Nutritionist, an Australian import, did a detailed talk on the importance of the gut microbiome in determining our health

Dr Andrew Dickson (from Massey University), self-proclaimed Clydesdale and lover of trail running spoke about body mass and endurance athletes: perception via psycho-sociology

The day ended with a movement session that didn’t involve exercise; Max Bell (from MovNat New Zealand), Aaron Callaghan (Peak 40) and James Murphy (of Synergy Health) took us through movement and activity patterns that challenged the uncoordinated amongst us (i.e. me) but was suitable for all levels. This enabled pretty much all of the conference attendees to take part. Check out some of the pictures from this (and the conference in general) on the AHSNZ Facebook page here.

Overall – it was a brilliant day and a taste of things to come over the coming year. Along with the  one-day symposiums in the pipeline, we have our first international event planned for Queenstown next Labour weekend – with Melissa and Dallas Hartwig (Whole 9) and Dr Emily Deans already booked to present. I’m already counting down the days to this one – it’s 346 sleeps away.

Feeling SAD?

Damn. We Aucklanders are getting our share of terrible weather. That’s the problem with being smug and posting pictures of our awesome non-winter winter climate… eventually it comes back to bite us in the butt. Usually in spectacular fashion: this week has been almost torrential storm-like conditions, with power outages and garden furniture strewn across the driveway (or is that just me?) Naturally this dip in temperature to below 15 degrees comes with it a sense of gloom as the sun fails to make an appearance. Grey clouds are oppressive, huh? Does that make you feel a bit blue? It does me – once the temperature drops and I haven’t seen the sun in four days I feel utterly miserable, diagnose myself with mild depression, and more specifically Seasonal Affective Disorder – or SAD. It’s a particular type of depression that starts in the autumn and doesn’t let up until the daffodils are out. In reality, I don’t think I would be diagnosed with SAD, and population prevalence is in the realm of 1-12% depending on your location, a higher prevalence in areas with longer winter days and lack of sunlight hours (one reason why I couldn’t live in ‘middle England’; not only does it sound horribly dull (it’s up there with ‘original flavour’) but daylight hours are limited during winter. And I know it’s worse elsewhere). But I digress. However, I feel a bit blue all the same.

Interestingly, there are two types of seasonal affective disorders – some curious people feel more depressed in summer than they do in winter, therefore the reverse is true. That to me is like a fate worse than death, quite frankly. Up there with Man Flu. SAD is diagnosed by the presence of symptoms such as: 

  • Decreased energy levels
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue
  • Increase in appetite
  • Increased desire to be alone
  • Increased need for sleep
  • Increased irritability
  • Increased anxiety
  • Weight gain

Scientists have pinpointed a few reasons why the lack of sunlight can disrupt our mood. This is largely due to our levels of melatonin – this is a hormone which plays a role in how our body regulates its sleep/wake cycle. The longer periods of darkness in the winter months may stimulate melotonin production and potentially people with SAD overproduce melatonin or are hypersensitive to melatonin in the winter months. While melatonin is recommended on an infrequent basis for people who struggle with sleep (for example, during periods of travel where jetlag can set it), too much melatonin can result in headaches, day time sleepiness, and depression.

Other evidence shows that decreased levels of neurotransmitters (chemicals that transmit signals between nerve cells) such as serotonin or dopamine may also play a role in triggering SAD. Low levels of serotonin in particular have been associated with carbohydrate cravings in people with SAD, and with sleep disorders and depression in the population at large. So not only does the reduced amount of serotonin trigger carbohydrate cravings (carbohydrate facilities the production of serotonin), this subsequent increase in food intake can lead to weight gain and further feelings of despair. Lose-lose, really. Even in those that don’t feel particularly blue during winter, the stodgy, starchy carbohydrates that can lead to weight gain and increased carbohydrate cravings are the warming foods we naturally gravitate towards.

As serotonin is largely produced in the gut I went searching for studies that looked for a link between digestion and SAD, as without the nutrients required to produce serotonin – including tryptohan which is an amino acid and key in the process – levels will be lower. I didn’t come up with any though, but with the clear link between the gut and brain, it makes sense that there would be.

Lastly I also found interesting relationships between SAD and other conditions. It’s not just weight gain that could be a problem – A Finnish study found there was a significant association between seasonal changes in mood and behaviour and metabolic syndrome, with risk of metabolic syndrome increased by 56% in those with seasonal affective disorder. The researchers noted that the metabolic syndrome is related to changes in the circadian rhythm – and that circadian, sleep-wake and seasonal cycles may each be regarded to reflect an intrinsic metabolic cycle. Sleep onset is a switch for the metabolic and cell repair systems from daytime to night-time settings and if the right signals aren’t there, the circadian clockwork relies more on the metabolic cycles producing time-giving signals needed for adaptation – insulin plays a role in this and helps set the circadian rhythm.

So what treatments exist for helping improve melatonin and serotonin levels and hopefully offset the low level depression that many people experience?

Light therapy: helps with regulating melatonin production and can indirectly affect serotonin levels by blocking the mood-lowering affects of acute tryptophan depetion. exposure to intense light in the early morning has been found to be most effective, as this suppresses melatonin. The treatment involves sitting in front of fluroscent lights which are installed behind a diffusion screen, and carrying out normal activities for anywhere from 30 min to 2 hours depending on the intensity of lights. The critical factor is that the light matches that of either early morning or just before sunset. he dosage most often found to be effective is 5,000 lux per day, given as 2,500 lux for two hours or 10,000 lux for 30 minutes. This isn’t just sitting in front of a desk lamp.

I talk about sleep all the time… but in addition to adequate sleep, getting up and going to bed at around the same time most days can also help regulate levels of melatonin, particularly combined with the light therapy as above.

Get outside and exercise: it might be the last thing you feel like doing but honestly – nothing is as energising and invigorating as getting outdoors, particularly in cold, windy, inclement weather. This helps boost serotonin levels by increasing availability of tryptophan to the brain. This is particularly important as we tend to spend a lot of time inside. The added bonus here is getting natural light – this helps boost overall mood.

Fight against the desire to stay at home and make plans with friends or family. It’s all too easy to hibernate, inevitably making you feel worse.

Diet: while there are foods that are high in serotonin or tryptophan, few actually cross the blood brain barrier to enable their action in the body to improve mood. Typically high protein foods containing tryptophan were recommended, though this doesn’t actually increase serotonin levels in the brain when studied  , as amino acids compete for transportation in the body and most protein containing foods are relatively lower in tryptophan than other amino acids. Hence perhaps changing the ratio of tryptophan to other amino acids is useful, and research has shown that supplementing with a dietary protein alpha-lactalbumin (a constituent of milk) can increase serotonin through this strategy. While interesting, it’s not very practical for people in every day life. Insulin helps set the circadian rhythm and perhaps a diet that focuses on high protein for breakfast and lunch, with small amounts of carbohydrate at night can maximise insulin secretion at night and help appropriately reset circadian rhythm. Unsurprisingly, the importance of a whole food diet rich in nutrients to support digestion and absorption of nutrients cannot be overstated given the link between serotonin and mood.

Oh, and hopefully the increased protein, the exercise and the sleep helps you combat those carbohydrate cravings. In addition to this, find some equally warming winter substitutes. It’s not like you need to completely avoid carbohydrates at all (see above re insulin) – it’s about avoiding Richard Dreyfuss amounts of the white stuff. That’s not going to make you feel any better I promise.

  • Mash: cauliflower mashed with butter or olive oil, herbs and seasoning.
  • Fries: slice swede and boil until a little bit soft. Dry off and coat in coconut oil and some almond flour and roast. Or just roast from raw.
  • Pasta: zucchini noodles (or as my friend Helen likes to call them: courgetti) or use leeks (cook)
  • Rice; cauliflower rice

There are certainly people who are diagnosed with SAD, and equally there are people (like me) who wouldn’t meet the diagnostic criteria yet still feel a bit less awesome. All of the above tips then will help you keep feeling awesome over the winter months. And we are almost half way through! That’s enough to make me feel happier :-).

 

The power of consistency (…keep being awesome)

The best piece of advice I received when I was completing my doctorate was from friend and colleague Erica. Like many people, I was working full time and studying at the same time. While allowances within my job were made for me to carry out the research, there were times when the demands of the teaching superseded any ideas of blocking out time for the PhD. Erica advised me to spend an hour each day working on my it, non-negotiatable. Obviously there were days and weeks that would be devoted to focus solely on the thesis, but even on the days where I couldn’t imagine there would be time to complete anything useful, I spent an hour on it. Though I am a person who works much better to a (looming) deadline, following that piece of advice was the best thing I could have done. On the days that I thought I was just opening up my computer, flicking through some statistical analysis information and perhaps running two or three statistical tests, I took comfort in the fact that spending the hour in that time meant it was one less hour I had to spend at the end of the road. However short or unproductive it could have felt, it was more productive that not doing it. This consistent practice got me to the end of the PhD journey in relatively one piece.

The power of consistency. Winter is a good time to reflect on the ability of this to keep you on track with your health-related goals. Remember how awesome you were? Getting outdoors for a run, making salad as a staple for dinner, and incorporating seasonal summer fruit into your diet becomes second nature when the weather is warm. Come June and the start of winter, it is this time of year where the snooze button on the alarm is utilised more, the running shoes are left in the cupboard and the gym carpark starts to thin out. Motivation tends to diminish along with the sunlight hours and even the most dedicated among us start to waver in the face of the cooler temperatures and shorter days. The number of missed training sessions can start to accumulate without realising it and suddenly, instead of hitting the gym 5 days a week, the number of sessions barely add up to 5 in a fortnight. More often than not, when exercise goes out the window, our motivation to eat well also tends to slide. Again – part of this is habit. When we are in the routine of going for a run or swim, we tend to also have to be a bit more organised around our meals. Yes, exercising does make us busier but, equally, when in a routine, it’s often easier to have a set plan in place when it comes to deciding what to eat. Many people get home from work, pack their bag for the next day (if training away from home) and then prepare breakfast and lunch. It’s routine. If the gym falls by the wayside, then there is no need to pack a bag, therefore things tend to get more relaxed around organising meals. In addition, our priorities around food tend to change. If you’re an athlete and are training for an event, the focus is on fuelling properly for the training sessions. In the off-season, there is less perceived need to be concerned about diet, and poorer choices around food tend to creep in, particularly if diet has only really been used as a tool in training and not in ‘life’.

If your mood, sleep, health and overall well being weren’t affected by these blips in training and eating habits, then it wouldn’t matter. You’d make it through winter and dust off the running shoes to go for a jog come September, no worse off than you were in May. However more often than not these are what are affected the most. Perhaps (like me) you notice a slight shift in the aforementioned due to winter anyway (heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder?) This is only exacerbated when the very habits that help support emotional and physical well being fall by the wayside. In addition, often in this instance people start to fall further down the rabbit-hole rather than lift themselves out of it – a cycle of events perpetuated because we feel bad. We can turn to food in an effort to feel better, knowing full well that it will only make us feel worse.

So let’s not even go there. Let’s stop this cascade of events from ever eventuating. Even if you’ve been hitting snooze on your alarm clock or have grabbed a dirty muffin from the café near your work a few more times than usual over the last couple of weeks, all is not lost. At all. You are still awesome. Here are my top tips to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and charge into the cooler months knowing you’ve got it covered.

  1. Re-evaluate your goals around healthy living – this will help you reprioritise where necessary. Setting short goals (month by month) makes them far more salient. Even day by day goals (exercise, prepare lunch, feel awesome) can help refocus when you find yourself going astray.
  2. Stop hitting snooze. Well that’s a no brainer, isn’t it? Getting out for your morning training session isn’t going to kill you. Put the alarm clock at the other end of the room so you have no choice but to get up to switch it off.
  3. No-one regretted a session they ever completed, but plenty of people regret the one they missed. Of course, if you do miss one – don’t dwell on it. Make sure you don’t do the same the next day. If you’re someone who usually gets up and goes in the morning but would rather not go out in the dark, perhaps shift the time that you exercise to lunchtime. Or, if you have the flexibility in your job, go to work earlier to clear emails (and miss the traffic), then go out when it’s beginning to get light. You can do a lot in ¾ of an hour and would be back at your desk ready to go by 8.30am. There are options. Use them.
  4. Look at your exercise routine. If you’re in the habit of getting up and going for an hour run every single day, then perhaps it’s time to rejig that so you start doing training to mix it up and keep it fresh. Shorter, sharper sessions not only take up less time, they are far more effective for cardiovascular and muscular health, but also can provide a big boost of endorphins in far less time. Too many people I talk to think that if they don’t have an hour to train, then it’s just not worth it. The smarter people I know spend 25 minutes and are those that are physically in the best shape. Yes, this isn’t going to suit you if you are training for a marathon – those long runs have to happen. But not every day and in fact, you’d probably benefit more from the aforementioned sessions.
  5. Get to bed earlier. It’s too easy to feel warm and cosy rugged up by the fire or on the couch, and how often is the TV left on later than necessary because we feel too comfortable to move and get to bed. If this is you, make a deal with yourself to use the time between the last couple of ad breaks in the programme you DO want to watch to organise yourself. Brush your teeth, sort your work gear, and clear the dishwasher – whatever. Do what you need to do so once the show is over you are done.
  6. On #5: set an alarm. We set one for the morning – so why not set one at night. It takes discipline to go to bed at a reasonable hour, and an alarm will signify that it’s time to turn in for the evening.
  7. People always equate ‘comfort’ foods as being stodgy puddings, potatoes and chocolate. Sure they might make you feel awesome when you (over)eat them at the time, but there’s seldom anything awesome about how you feel the next morning. Stay consistent in your healthy eating habits by keeping them fresh. Investigate new winter dishes that will provide the same level of comfort and warmth in winter but without the associated carb-coma that inevitably follows. Soups, slow cooker meals, cauliflower-based dishes (aka the AMAZINGLY versatile vegetable), butternut, swede or pumpkin based dishes can all take the place of stodgier items that can weigh you down at dinner time. I’ve plenty of ideas in the recipe section or (more up to date) my facebook page.
  8. Keep eating salad but make it a winter one. Who said salad always had to be lettuce, cucumber, tomato and a $4.99 avocado, thanks very much. Mix it up with a different one every week (coleslaw, roast vegetable, silver beet as a base), throw some seeds, a different home-made dressing etc.
  9. Investigate taking a vitamin D supplement. We need vitamin D to synthesis hormones in the body responsible for thyroid and overall energy (among other things). Many people in New Zealand are vitamin D deficient as the sun doesn’t hit the earth in the right position to deliver the UVA rays we need to synthesis it. Doctors often find it unnecessary to test for vitamin D levels (expensive compared to other tests) so if you’re someone who wants it checked, then ask them for it. They may well suggest just taking a vit D3 supplement.
  10. Have you heard of the 100 Happy Days project? Or of a gratitude journal? What about the 30 days of dancing challenge? These are just some of the wellbeing projects you can put some energy into which, when you carry them out, will make you feel better. I’ve completed the 100 Happy Days challenge, posting a photo every day of something (anything!) that made me feel happy that day. Most of the time, it was relatively easy. But some days it wasn’t and I really struggled (I’m a largely positive person too!) However I liked the focus on being happy – so much so that now I’m on a 100 foam roller day challenge (strange, no-one has joined me…) and the 30 dancing days challenge. These require no additional explanation – the name says it all. If you start any of these (or your own challenge) now, winter will fly by.
  11. Get out into the sunlight during the day. Nothing is as refreshing as time outside where you can get rejuvenated by the elements, be it rain, wind or sun.
  12. Hug someone. There’s nothing nicer.

Note: these aren’t all food and exercise related – in fact, if we support our emotional well being, it can drive the maintenance of physical health behaviours. And vice versa. The key is to do them today. Then wash, rinse and repeat tomorrow. And the next day. Consistency is arguably the key to good health, as long as those habits serve the purpose. Keep on being awesome.