This Is How The Keto Diet Can Help Combat You Seasonal Affective Disorder

Doctor of Chiropractics By Nicole Rivera, D.C.
Doctor of Chiropractics
Dr. Nicole Rivera helped found Integrative Wellness Group in New Jersey. She holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology, and received her Doctorate from Life Chiropractic College West.

Image by Nadine Greeff / Stocksy

As the holidays come to a close, our excitement about a joyous winter wonderland fades and we become more aware of the cold, gray winter weather. We find ourselves dealing with a case of the "winter blues" as we wait patiently for the summer months ahead. The winter blues are also known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.

SAD affects 5 to 10 percent of the population; it's more common in women than men, but when men do have it, they tend to be more symptomatic.

Many of us feel more motivated, inspired, and energetic in the summer months. We assume that we feel better due to the sun, the warmth, the plethora of outdoor activities. Our assumption is correct, but what is the sun changing in our bodies that makes us feel better?

Why do we get SAD?

Sunlight affects the body in various ways that directly affect the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin. A more well-known effect of sunlight is the regulatory effect it has on vitamin D. Every tissue in the body has vitamin D receptors, including the brain, heart, muscles, and immune system. Vitamin D is believed to play a role in serotonin activity, which is why vitamin D insufficiency has been clinically significant in depression symptoms. A lesser known effect of sunlight, however, is its serotonergic impact on the skin. In addition to other body sites (like the gut and brain), serotonin is present in human skin tissue. In other words, it is proven that the skin is involved in the production and bio-regulation of serotonin. These researchers even suggest that the cutaneous serotonergic system may be the evolutionary remnant of regulating sleep before clocks. Serotonin creates melatonin, and in darkness, you produce more melatonin to allow for proper sleep cycles.   

When we feel low or depressed, it is often assumed that it is a serotonin deficiency, Consequently, this is why we are often prescribed SSRIs (serotonin reuptake inhibitors) to maintain more serotonin in the brain. In doing this, we have to hope that the neurons use the serotonin and boost our mood. However, just because there is an abundance of the hormone does not mean that the brain will use it. In addition, there are other neurotransmitter imbalances (such as stress hormones) that can affect how well our brain is using serotonin, which can also contribute to seasonal affective disorder.   

If you truly have a serotonin deficiency you may relate to the following symptoms:

  • Feeling loss of pleasure in hobbies and interests
  • Feeling inner anger or rage
  • Difficulty finding joy from life pleasures
  • Loss of enthusiasm
  • Not enjoying favorite foods
  • Not enjoying socializing
  • Unable to fall into a deep sleep

When experiencing a few or many of these symptoms on a daily basis, we can often feel lost and hopeless. The most important take-away is that there is a physiological reason for your "winter blues," and there are ways of feeling better without the use of prescription drugs. In choosing an alternative route, you can avoid nasty side effects and most importantly fix the root cause of your seasonal affective disorder or winter slump.

There are a few other considerations when understanding how the brain and body produce serotonin. Having a healthy gut is essential to proper serotonin production. Having sufficient amounts of iron, B12, and estrogen are also important factors. Most importantly, getting adequate amounts of amino acids in the diet is an essential part of producing serotonin and other "feel-good" neurotransmitters. In addition, healthy blood sugar handling is necessary for the brain to use serotonin properly. 

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How diet & SAD are related.

Many Americans struggle with poor serotonin activity because of abnormal blood sugar regulation from poor diet. There is significant hidden sugar in the standard American diet, from pastries to candy to breads, pasta, and even coffee drinks. These types of processed foods completely overload our system with sugar while challenging our body's ability to handle it. Over time, this will continually stress the pancreas and start to compromise our insulin response, making it more difficult for our blood sugar to remain stable. This is when we see the development of conditions like hypoglycemia and diabetes.

Since serotonin production is so closely linked to blood sugar stability, this allows us to vastly improve our serotonin production and utilization through dietary changes. So you may be wondering, "What is the best diet to balance your blood sugar and to improve serotonin production?" Well, my friends, the ketogenic diet has been proved most effective for improving blood sugar handling and providing the body with the precursors for serotonin production. 

The foundational principles of the ketogenic diet rely on the elimination of blood-sugar-spiking simple sugars and carbohydrates and the consumption of protein, such as eggs, cheese, and animal protein, which makes amino acids readily available for our brains. Let's explore the benefits of the ketogenic diet on the brain and SAD.

Image by Nadine Greeff / Stocksy

How going keto could help with SAD.

Serotonin synthesis starts with protein consumption. Proteins are broken down into various amino acids including tryptophan, which is a precursor to serotonin. Some of you may have heard of tryptophan as the compound in turkey that makes you sleepy on Thanksgiving. This is partly true and partly a myth. Many factors outside of tryptophan contribute to fatigue after a large meal. A common cause of fatigue is the massive blood sugar spike and crash from the carbs and sugars in the meal. This will especially affect people who suffer from blood sugar issues like hypoglycemia, diabetes, and insulin resistance. The only role of excess tryptophan in causing drowsiness is tryptophan's conversion into serotonin, which then converts into melatonin, but this takes hours to occur. All of this is to say, your immediate fatigue after Thanksgiving is actually due to rapid blood sugar spike and crash. 

Tryptophan can be found in turkey, salmon, cheese, and eggs. Some foods contain serotonin itself, but just sourcing it through diet doesn't actually work because serotonin in foods can't cross the blood-brain barrier, a boundary that protects the brain from toxins and foreign invaders. Tryptophan, on the other hand, can easily pass through the blood-brain barrier. For tryptophan to be made into serotonin, it must cross the blood-brain barrier. There are other amino acids called branch-chain amino acids, or BCAAs, that also play an important part in this transport. The BCAAs are leucine, isoleucine, and valine. 

These amino acids not only play a role in the transport of tryptophan into the brain, but they are also involved in signaling an insulin release, which is necessary for the transport of tryptophan. If there is a proper insulin response, not too much or not too little, the insulin will send branch-chain amino acids into the body tissue so that more tryptophan can get into the brain to be made into serotonin. Fortunately, the ketogenic diet has been proved to improve insulin production and insulin use in the body. 

Whether you are hypoglycemic or insulin resistant you must make changes to your diet to improve your brain health. To balance blood sugar, we need to remove all simple sugars and carbs, which is the foundation of the ketogenic diet. As a hypoglycemic individual, we need to take extra care with the frequency of our meals. With hypoglycemia, it is essential to eat frequently and avoid missing meals. In addition, all meals must follow the ketogenic principles of consuming quality protein and fat to keep blood sugar stable.

The ketogenic diet has the ability to create blood sugar balance, which will then positively affect the brain. For those of you new to the ketogenic diet, to get started on improving your blood sugar and serotonin to eliminate seasonal affective disorder you must be conscious of eating breakfast and of your breakfast choice itself. 

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A final key tip for eliminating SAD.

The way that you start your day is extremely important for how your blood sugar will react for the rest of the day. Eating within 30 minutes of waking up is essential for your blood sugar stability. In addition, you should never have caffeine before you eat or while you eat. Caffeinated beverages should be taken at least 30 minutes after consuming your first meal of the day. It is very important to limit carbohydrates with breakfast and to make sure it is abundant in protein and fat. A few things to always leave out of the meal are fruit juices, toast, scones, and other refined carbohydrates. The only carbohydrates should be from low glycemic veggies, which exclude root vegetables like potatoes.

Some of my personal favorite ketogenic breakfast options include:

  • A frittata with sauteed spinach, roasted tomato, and sheep feta
  • Cauliflower rice sauteed with onion, fennel, and turmeric topped with scrambled eggs and avocado
  • Ground turkey with taco seasoning mixed into a frittata topped with goat cheddar, hot sauce, and avocado

In conclusion, seasonal affective disorder is linked to a serotonin deficiency. The serotonin deficiency can stem from improper blood sugar handling and a deficiency in amino acids such as tryptophan. Blood sugar and tryptophan can be improved with a ketogenic diet. The ketogenic diet has shown improvements in serotonin production, reduction in brain inflammation, and positive effects on memory. The keto diet is an ideal approach to improving brain function and reducing the effects of seasonal affective disorder. 

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