It is hard to avoid. Since Labor Day, supermarkets, drugstore chains and convenience stores are bulging with packaged candy. The garish orange and black wrappers are occasionally adorned with witches, ghosts, or pumpkins announce the coming of national candy binge day, Halloween. The candy, packaged as a one or two-bite tidbit, is supposedly for the trick-or- treating neighborhood kids. Given the tons of it for sale, it is hard to believe that the only ones besides dentists who are benefiting from this candy consumption are children.
I have a friend who dutifully gives out mini-chocolate bars on Halloween but confesses that she turns off the porch light early in the evening when her stash dwindles. “Halloween is the excuse I give myself for buying candy. But to be honest, I really buy it for myself and get annoyed when I have to pass it out to the kids. I need it more than they do.” She told me that by mid-Fall, the darkness that descends by late afternoon erodes her good mood and energy. “By the end of October, I am grumpy, lethargic, sleepy and can barely keep myself from bingeing on candy.”
Her symptoms are not unique. She is suffering from a seasonal mood change called Winter Blues or its more clinical name, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Darkness upon awakening and darkness by 4 or 5 PM seems to, in ways that are not understood, effect mood, sleep, eating and energy. The start of standard time puts the last nail in the coffin of well-being for many who live in the northern segment of the country, and they do not feel better until the longer days of mid-to-late spring.
When Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) was first described in the mid 1980’s, researchers thought melatonin caused this seasonal change in mood. Melatonin, a hormone made by the pineal gland, increases in our blood every night but disappears by early morning. Light is responsible for its daytime low levels, and so it was believed that early morning darkness of fall and winter keep melatonin too high and caused this seasonal depression.
Destroying the melatonin with artificial light that mimicked the spectrum of sunlight was tried with some success. Patients sat in front of a light therapy box upon arising in the morning and within days experienced some relief from their depressive symptoms. The melatonin connection to Seasonal Affective Disorder is now in doubt, but light therapy boxes are still available and recommended. For some, natural sunlight at midday seems to bring some relief, and the more severely afflicted may even consider moving to states with longer hours of winter sunshine.
But light in a box or overhead in the sky is not the only option for winter depression. Animal research suggests a connection between inadequate serotonin activity and winter darkness. Antidepressants such as Prozac, Zoloft that increase serotonin activity have been effective therapies.
A craving for sweets is one of the early signs of Seasonal Affective Disorder, and indeed is a diagnostic symptom. People find themselves no longer content eating lean protein, salads and fruit for dinner but rather long for meals of brownies, ice cream and fudge sauce. This craving for sweet carbohydrates characteristic of SAD is also found among women with PMS. In both cases, the craving signals the brain’s need for more serotonin.
Why or how lack of sunlight should affect serotonin is still an unanswered question. But the route to increasing serotonin and improving the depressed, lethargic, sleepy symptoms is to eat carbohydrate. Any carbohydrate food, from candy corn or steamed brown rice, will do.
Fructose, the sugar in fruit and soft drinks, is the only carbohydrate whose consumption does not increase serotonin. After the sweet or starchy carbohydrate is eaten and digested, insulin is secreted and tryptophan, an amino acid, enters the brain. Once there is it is quickly converted to serotonin.
Unfortunately, as a means of overcoming the winter blues, Halloween candy is more of a trick than a treat. The high-fat content of mini-chocolate candy bars delay digestion and thus delay the synthesis of serotonin. And of course, who needs those extra fat calories? Low-fat candy pumpkins, candy corn and the exceeding sweet marshmallow Peeps are a better choice. But they are low or lacking entirely in nutrients.
A few sweet treats are fine on October 31st; subsequently, the sweet craving should be satisfied with healthy carbohydrates such as rice, whole-grain breads and cereals, pasta and sweet potatoes. They won’t taste sweet (other than the aforementioned potatoes) but a dinner of black bean soup and crusty French bread or a bowl of pasta and garlicky tomato sauce will make serotonin, chase away the blues, and make the darkness of winter more bearable.