It isn’t necessary to live in the Arctic Circle in the dead of winter to feel the effect of too little sunlight on your mood, eating and energy. A cluster of cloudy overcast days, even in the middle of the summer, can give some individuals a case of the winter blues. The impact may be subtle; a nagging feeling of wanting to snack more and a willingness to put off exercising because one feels too tired to do so are classic symptoms.
All other things being equal, you are more apt to feel positive and energetic when the sun is shining, the sky is blue and the temperature in the comfort zone. But for many people, when the weather turns gloomy, they stop losing and may start to gain weight. In fact, often the longer the bad weather, the more pounds are gained.
Some of the reasons are obvious. Exercising outside is hard when rain is coming down in sheets or there is a windy snow storm. Extremely hot and humid or brutally cold conditions also prevent most people from considering and especially enjoying outside exercise. Eating suffers as well from unpleasant weather. Snacks and hastily thrown together meals substitute for well-planned menus when it is too hot to stay in the kitchen. Conversely, hearty (a.k.a. high fat) foods are more appealing than salads and broiled fish when the snow is blowing and icy drafts sneak under windowpanes.
But these weather-related obstacles to losing weight can be dealt with: using home exercise equipment, joining a health club or walking around a mall can minimize the impact of weather on the ability to exercise. In the warm months a good fan, air conditioner or outside grill can make cooking less of a problem, as does preparing meals early in the day while it is still cool. When the weather turns cold, thick soups and slow-cooked stews can be prepared with little or no fat and still be warm and satisfying.
But there is one weather-related threat to weight loss that cannot be dealt with quite so easily. This is the absence of sunshine. There are many people whose moods become markedly depressed during the late fall and winter, those months when the hours of sunshine are limited and the hours of darkness seem endless. Along with a downward plunge in their moods, such people feel extremely tired, would sleep much longer if jobs and families allowed them to do so, and eat much more than usual. This cluster of mood, energy, and appetite changes is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder or the winter blues. In its more serious form, SAD, as it is known, may leave some people 40 pounds heavier at the end of the winter. The combination of eating more and exercising less or not at all because of extreme tiredness is a prescription for quick weight gain.
The impact of SAD on weight gain is very noticeable especially among people living in the more northern latitudes like Canada or Sweden (or in the more southern latitudes like Patagonia or South Africa in the southern hemisphere). Even if the temperature is relatively moderate, the shorter hours of winter daylight has a significant impact on mood and appetite.
The opposite effect kicks in upon the return of longer hours of sunshine in the spring. Even a blue sky can make a difference. Suddenly appetite seems more under control, mood becomes brighter and taking a long walk or working vigorously in the garden is a pleasure, not an obligation or a chore.
Of course it is neither possible to control the weather nor modify your life in order to stay in a sunshine zone until you lose weight. But there are things you can do. Therapies for people suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder include:
However, it is not necessary to hibernate like a bear to prevent yourself from gaining weight over the late fall and winter. In fact, it is even possible to lose significant amounts of weight during this time.
Recognizing that there is a problem is the first part of the solution. At our ADARA weight loss clinics we always ask our clients if they tend to gain weight during the late fall and winter when the sun sets so much earlier than in the spring and summer. If the answer is yes we set up a program of defensive eating and exercise .This program is activated by the end of October and it protects our clients against falling victim to increased appetite and lack of energy. The key to this program is the brain chemical serotonin.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, a chemical that regulates mood, energy, appetite and several other functions in the body. Somehow serotonin activity is altered when there are fewer hours of sun. We found that the solution to keeping our clients on their diets and exercise regime was to make sure that their serotonin levels did not go down just because the sun was setting early.
The way we did this was as natural as changes in the weather. We made sure that our clients were eating a prescribed amount of carbohydrates as snacks in the late afternoon and eating dinners of complex carbohydrates and vegetables. Our recommendations were based on MIT research that showed many years ago that serotonin in the brain is made after carbohydrates are eaten but, as this is important, not after protein is eaten. Since more serotonin leads to a better mood, a quiet, controlled appetite and increased energy, we knew that just by increasing this essential brain chemical, our clients would continue to lose weight.
And our clients loved our program. They ate the protein that their bodies required for breakfast and lunch along with vitamin containing fruits and vegetables. But just around the time the sun was going down, they could eat the carbohydrates they craved and which made them feel so much better. A typical day’s meal might include fat free cottage cheese, fruit and a bran muffin for breakfast, grilled chicken and steamed vegetables for lunch, an afternoon snack of fat free hot chocolate and low fat vanilla wafers, and pasta with mushroom-tomato sauce and garlic bread for dinner. All the foods are low in fat and of course portion controlled. But most important, the afternoon snack and dinner boost serotonin, thereby boosting mood and energy.
As one of our clients told us “I used to dread the winter and get into bed as soon as I came home from teaching because I felt so tired. Of course I crawled into bed with a bag of cookies and a large bottle of soda. But now I have my afternoon snack and feel energetic enough to do 30′ on my treadmill. I know after my exercise is over, I will have my favorite comfort food dinner of a large baked potato and salad and feel great. And the best thing is that I am losing weight.”