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How can I be happy when it's cold and wet outside?
How can I be happy when it's cold and wet outside?
by Dr. Que Areste - SGN Contributing Writer

Yes, while the rest of the country is going through a heat wave and drought, up here in the Northwest it's going to be a cold, wet, snowy winter. I'm glad the trees are so bright this fall; the skies surely aren't. How can we stay cheerful and upbeat without spending the winter in Mazatlan? How can we keep away from all that fattening holiday food without becoming a hermit? It is possible, but you need to be proactive.

Those pesky neurotransmitters like serotonin are the key. If your serotonin levels are great, you will enjoy the winter and sail through the holiday season. When your serotonin levels go down, you will feel like leftover lunch. The good news is most of us don't need medication to keep our serotonin levels up.

There are several ways to keep your mood high and weight low through the winter. Moderate exercise raises serotonin levels naturally. When we exercise, our muscles break down and are rebuilt. Amino acids are used in this rebuilding process to make protein for bigger muscles. The amino acid that is not used for this is tryptophan. Serotonin and melatonin are made from tryptophan. While competing amino acids are used to rebuild muscle, tryptophan is used to make serotonin. If you feel more energetic and maybe a little happier when you have exercised moderately, that's because your serotonin levels are higher. All you need is 20-30 minutes of exercise a day, 3-4 times a week. On a rainy day, a great place to exercise is the here at the Meredith Matthews YMCA.

Why do many of us feel great in the spring and summer, but would just as soon skip winter, thank you very much? It seems so simple, really. The days are much longer in summer up here in the northern latitudes and even daylight is not usually very bright because of our normal cloud cover. Even on sunny days there are not enough UV rays to make vitamin D in our skin because of the angle of the sun this time of year. We tend to stay indoors on cloudy or rainy days. Some of us rarely even see the sun in the winter, leaving for work before the sun is up and coming home after dark, working all day in buildings with not enough to stimulate serotonin release.

How can we bring sunlight to the dark of winter? There are several ways to do this. The simplest is to sit near a very bright light. In the middle of a sunny day in summer we can get up to 100,000 lux of light from the sun (lux is a measure of light intensity). Even on an average winter sunny day we will get about 32000 lux. In an office building there may be a little as 100 -400 lux. The light in your living room is about 50 lux.

A very bright light, at least 2500-10,000 lux in intensity can be very helpful. You need to sit close to it with your eyes open, although you should not look directly at it, for at least 20-30 minutes a day. Some people need to sit near a light box for 15 minutes twice a day. You should use your light before 3 p.m. or you may have trouble sleeping. Using the light before 3 p.m. will actually help you sleep because light early in the day will decrease the sleep neurotransmitter melatonin in the daytime but increase it at night. You should notice a difference in a few days to two weeks. If you just don't have time to sit that long in one place, you can get a lighted visor. Some do better with that option. Others do better with a dawn simulator. They can be set for various lengths of time. The light will gradually increase from a level usually associated with a summer dawn to full morning light, by the time you would normally be getting up.

If you don't mind being out in the weather, going outside in the middle of the day, even on cloudy days, for at least ½ an hour can help with drowsiness and grouchiness. Even though the light seems pretty dim, it's still brighter than the light indoors. Spending as much time as possible near a large window helps, too.

Why does light help improve our moods? For the last couple of hundred years, and for much of human history, most of us spent lots of time outdoors. Bundled up for winter, our eyes were still exposed to outdoor light. We are programmed to use light to stimulate production of some neurotransmitters like serotonin and then melatonin. Serotonin is the good mood neurotransmitter. It also helps with digestion.

Sunlight also helps us make vitamin D in our skin. It is the UV rays that we have been so afraid of that are so useful in making vitamin D. For many years it was thought that we only needed 400 IUs (International Units, a common measurement of fat-soluble vitamins) of vitamin D. It was recently discovered that 400 IUs of vitamin D was the amount found in 1 tablespoon of cod liver oil, and not the amount people really need. The more we learn about vitamin D, the more useful it seems to be. The older you are or the darker your skin tone, the harder it is for you to make vitamin D. Unless you have a condition like Sarcoidosis which includes vitamin D hypersensitivity, you can usually safely supplement with 1-5,000 IUs of vitamin D, five days a week. More than that can become toxic over time. Vitamin D helps with mood, is an immune modulator, regulates calcium levels in the body and has been found to decrease cancer risk. Do not just take more cod liver oil to get adequate amounts of vitamin D, however as there are also high levels of vitamin A in cod liver oil and that can be toxic at high doses. A single tablespoon is enough. You may want to consult a doctor who is knowledgeable about nutrition or a nutritionist about how much vitamin D you need.

People crave carbohydrates when they need serotonin because when we eat carbohydrates, we secrete insulin and that triggers serotonin release. It's a quick fix, but we need good quality protein with the amino acid tryptophan to make a continuous supply of serotonin. Eating too many carbohydrates will deplete our serotonin and we will feel worse. We need to eat 20 to 30 grams of protein at each meal. This includes 2-3 eggs or a portion of meat the size of your palm. If you are vegetarian, miso or tempe are good sources of protein. There is some tryptophan in nutritional yeast, milk products, nuts and seeds, bananas and pumpkins but aside from dairy products, the amount of tryptophan in these foods is relatively low.

Do not skip meals in the winter. When you skip a meal, you don't have the material to make the substances that help you cope with gray skies and rainy days. Avoid artificial sweeteners like aspartame. It is made from the amino acid phenylalanine, which converts to the stimulants dopamine and adrenaline. It also contains aspartic acid, a very excitatory nutrient. In the small amounts found in regular food these are things we need. In the amounts found in aspartame, however, they are much too high. They successfully compete with tryptophan and serotonin so we feel jittery and anxious instead of calm, happy and functional.

It is important to eat plenty of vegetables and seasonal fruit in the winter as well. The aminos don't just turn into neurotransmitters by themselves. We need vitamins and minerals to turn the key and start the transformation. Vitamin B6, magnesium and zinc are especially important. When its cold outside, there's nothing that hits the spot like a bowl of hot soup. It's a great way to get lots of veggies and feels so good after a brisk walk on a windy, rainy day. Beans or meat in the soup will make it a meal.

For more severe problems with lack of light you may need to supplement with tryptophan for three months or more. We make serotonin from tryptophan, first making a substance called 5-hydroxytryptophan or 5 HTP, then serotonin, then melatonin. There is a competition between the amino acids to cross the blood-brain barrier, and tryptophan is one of the last aminos to cross it. If you decide to supplement with tryptophan or 5 HTP, you need to take them away from food so they have a better chance of quickly crossing into your brain. It is best to take the first dose when you have that midafternoon slump. Start with 50 mg of 5 HTP or 500 mg of tryptophan. If you don't feel better in an hour, take another 50 mg of 5 HTP or 500 mg of tryptophan. You should take the same dose a half hour to an hour before bedtime. If you feel jittery or uncomfortable, stop and don't take anymore.

You may want to consult with a nutritionally oriented physician for more severe issues related to lack of light in the fall and winter.

Dr. Que Areste is a practicing naturopath in Seattle. She can be reached at (206) 328-2926 or at www.healthprofs.com/pt/500966.html

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