Tuesday, 13 September 2011

SAD Alert! The Serotonin Factor

Serotonin is the body's feel good hormone. It's a neuro-transmitter and it's function depends on the region of the brain into which it is released. For example, the serotonin neurons in frontal cortex of the brain regulates cognition, memory, and perceptions. The serotonin neurons in the hippocampus regulate memory and mood. The serotonin neurons in other limbic areas such as the amygdala also regulate mood.

Low levels of serotonin are accountable for:

Anxiety, depression, panic attacks, insomnia, obesity, fibromyalgia, eating disorders, chronic pain, migraines, alcohol abuse, negative thoughts, low self-esteem, obsessive thoughts and behaviours, PMS, SAD, and Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

The following factors can cause low serotonin levels:
  • Alcohol
  • Artificial sweeteners (aspartame)
  • Caffeine
  • Cigarette Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • Dietary deficiencies of nutrient co-factors
  • Ecstasy, Diet Pills, and certain medications
  • Genetic Predisposition
  • Hormone Imbalances (thyroid, adrenal, estrogen)
  • Hypoglycemia
  • Insulin Resistance
  • Inflammation
  • Infections
  • Poor Diet
  • Lack of exercise
  • Lack of sunlight
  • Problems converting tryptophan to Serotonin
  • Problems with Digestion
  • Stress and Anger
  • High Cortisol Levels

If you can tick a few things on this list, you are;
a) more likely to suffer with Seasonal Affective Disorder
b) not helping your PMDD or PMS

When you read this, it makes some sense of the plethora of symptoms experienced in PMDD.  Low serotonin levels are almost certainly adding to the nightmare of PMDD as women with PMDD will suffer panic attacks, anxiety, and high levels of stress every month, which affect the production of serotonin. At the same time, the fluctuating hormones will mean serotonin is depleted during the second half of the cycle (luteal) phase, adding to the low serotonin symptoms.

Obviously, it is not your fault if you have a hormone imbalance, are hypoglycemic or have a genetic problem, etc, but if you smoke, eat bad foods and don't get enough exercise, you will not be helping your situation. If you would like to read about serotonin in more detail, please go here...

Serotonin and Light

Low light levels during the winter mean that your body doesn't make as much serotonin, which is triggered into production by light. Serotonin is the chemical in our body that helps us feel awake and gives us energy. Light restricts the body's production of melatonin, which does the opposite job to serotonin... it makes us sleepy and brings about a feeling of tiredness so we can rest and sleep at night. If our serotonin levels remain low, that means were are full of the opposite chemical, melatonin, hence the heavy, tired, and lethargic feelings that SAD and PMDD can bring on.

One way light is measured is by using the term 'lux'. An average indoor room lighting is around 50-200 lux, whereas, outside the light levels will be anything from 1000 to 50,000 lux. Lux refers to the intensity of light. It is thought that an average of 2500 lux is needed to keep SAD at bay and encourage serotonin production. Household lightbulbs for instance, do not have the same intensity as The Sun! And it is this light from the Sun our bodies are craving during the winter months.

There are 3 main ways to treat SAD. Light Therapy, SSRI's and Dietary changes.

Light therapy involves sitting in front of an SAD light box for a certain amount of time everyday, usually in the morning. Light boxes can be very expensive, but it can work really well for some people to combat SAD. 10 years ago, my SAD was so severe I invested in a light box. It was a huge cumbersome thing! I found it difficult to use, as sitting for an hour in front of a night is almost impossible when you have a child running around! So now you are more likely to find me outside whenever it is bright or sunny in the winter, just absorbing the sun!
Light enters the body through the skin and eyes (obviously DON'T look direct at the Sun!). Sun screen and contact lenses/glasses will not allow the body to collect what it needs, so make sure you get the light onto your bare skin and spend sometime without contact lenses or glasses outside, whenever there is a sunny spell!

SSRI's (Selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) may be necessary for some people, but this should be researched and discussed with your doctor. Taking anti-depressants work for some people, but for others, working on diet and lifestyle will be just as effective. Remember, you should STILL work on these changes even if you are taking SSRI's, you will get more relief if you help your body rather than work against it.

Dietary changes:

Avoid the factors on the list above such as smoking, caffeine and lack of exercise, and incorporate more of the following into your diet.
  • complex carbohydrates 
  • chicken 
  • turkey 
  • tuna 
  • salmon 
  • kidney beans 
  • rolled oats 
  • lentils 
  • chickpeas 
  • pumpkin seeds 
  • sunflower seeds 
  • baked potato with skin 
  • tahini (sesame butter) 
  • walnuts 
  • avocado 
  • almond butter 
  • Eat a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables (organic if possible) 
  • Drink 6-8 glasses of water daily
By eliminating foods and lifestyle choices that will make your SAD or PMDD worse, and increasing the foods above that help boost serotonin, you will have more of a chance of getting through the winter!

Here are a few other things you can do to help yourself through the winter months:  

  • Get plenty of exercise (30 minutes at least three times a week)
  • Eat regularly throughout the day.
  • Get plenty of natural sunlight 
  • Manage stress and negative emotions 
  • Get 6-8 hours of quality sleep a night 
  • Set time aside for fun and relaxation 
  • Take a multivitamin daily 
  • Prayer and Meditation

The winter is fast approaching. September in the UK is one of my favourite months. The leaves change and fall, the wind picks up, the days are changeable and the temperature drops, but we still have some lovely sunshine popping through every now and then.  October brings Halloween and November, Fireworks...  I can usually deal with winter till December  but by then I am struggling (I'm not a Christmas fan!).  I am planning on upping my serotonin levels by eating better and getting outside when ever I can. Putting lights on in the house is also a good move when the days are dreary, and getting a good nights sleep always helps my mood.

Remember, if your symptoms are really bad and you are feeling unstable, low, depressed, maybe even suicidal, PLEASE contact your doctor and get some support. Realise that it is a temporary situation and the wheel is always turning.. it wont be long till spring is here again!

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