Combat Wintertime Blues



Boost the brain chemical serotonin to switch off your appetite and turn on a good mood. Serotonin is sunshine for your brain.

By: Judith J. Wurtman, PhD and Nina T. Frusztajer, MD

The long days of winter can cause depression, fatigue, increased appetite, decreased interest in work and social activities, and a significant need for more sleep. This cluster of symptoms is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

Whether you experience all these symptoms of SAD or just a general feeling of the winter blahs, don’t blame it on the holidays, after-holiday bills, cabin fever or endless ice storms. There is a physiological reason behind these seasonal changes: The activity of a brain chemical called serotonin seems to be altered during the seasons of the year when there are fewer hours of sunlight. And this decrease in serotonin activity seems to be behind the urge to crawl into bed at 4pm with a bag of cookies and the remote.

Antidepressants that activate serotonin have also been prescribed for SAD. They may relieve the mood symptoms but might leave behind an unwanted side effect: weight gain, which is one of the symptoms of SAD (making swimsuit season a dreadful time of year despite the return of long days of sunshine).

The better way to cope with SAD is to boost the brain chemical serotonin.

Nature’s Own Appetite-Suppressant

We all have serotonin in our brains, although women have less than men. When serotonin is functioning normally, it keeps us emotionally stable and also turns off our appetite so we eat less. The natural way of increasing serotonin activity is to get the brain to make more.

Boosting serotonin activity naturally may be the most practical and slimming option. There is a single way to make more serotonin: Eat sweet or starchy non-fruit carbohydrates at the right times during the day.

When carbohydrates that contain very little protein or fat (such as a potato without the sour cream or butter) are eaten, serotonin is made in the brain.

Insulin is involved in this process. As soon as the carbohydrate is eaten, changes occur in the blood driven by insulin secretion. The result is that an amino acid, tryptophan, enters the brain very quickly and, just as quickly, is converted to serotonin. One potato can lead to a better mood, more energy, less sleepiness and a controlled appetite.

Winter is long but the effects of eating a potato are short. There is one problem with this eating solution to the winter blues: The boost in serotonin probably doesn’t last more than 2-3 hours. Once the effect wears off, the blues may return. The answer is eating by the “sun clock.”

  • Eat foods that will maintain your mental alertness such as protein, fruits, vegetables, and dairy products during the light hours (i.e. breakfast and lunch), and
  • Switch to serotonin-producing carbohydrates when it becomes dark.

You will not overeat because the serotonin that is produced will switch off your appetite.

Chasing away the winter blues is not only easy — it’s delicious. Here’s what a typical day of eating looks like:

Sunshine Meals

Scrambled egg beaters
Whole wheat English muffin with jam
An apple

Grilled chicken with a mixed green salad and balsamic vinaigrette

Sunset Snacks and Dinners

4pm snack:
Low-fat granola bar

Pasta with roasted vegetables and a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese
A cup of minestrone soup

After-dinner snack:
Skinny Cow fudge bar

All You Need to Know

When you need to boost your brain serotonin levels, eat a low-fat, low-protein carbohydrate snack such as half a bagel, a cup of oatmeal with brown sugar, or 3 cups of low-fat popcorn. Finding serotonin-friendly snacks is easy. Just check the labels to make sure that a serving contains between 100 to 120 calories, 20 to 25 grams of carbohydrates, no more than 1 to 2 grams of fat, and no more than 3 grams of protein. If your favorite snacks don’t come in single-serving sizes, pre-package your own and toss them in a briefcase, handbag, glove compartment or desk drawer. Options include:

  • Breakfast cereal
  • Low-fat biscotti
  • Fat-free Fig Newtons
  • Fat-free mini-meringues
  • Low-fat popcorn
  • Pretzels
  • Baked potato chips
  • Baked tortilla chips
  • Rice cakes, rice crackers, and baked rice snacks
  • Fat-free hot chocolate
  • Granola bars
  • Pita Bread
  • Eat one snack 3 to 4 hours before dinner. If you feel the need for an evening snack, enjoy one 2 to 3 hours after dinner.
  • On any day the sun is out, try to get outside around noon for at least 10 minutes. A sunbox is another option, as long as you sit in front of it in the morning for at least 10-20 minutes (it mimics early morning light).
  • Drink plenty of non-caloric beverages and avoid alcohol.
  • Exercise — even if you don’t feel like doing so. Physical activity will give you more energy. Get out and walk. If the weather is too cold or inclement, take a brisk stroll around the mall. Check out the exercise DVD’s at the library and follow the prompts at home. If you belong to a gym and you don’t have the energy to get there after work, go over the weekend.
  • Make sure you get the sleep your body craves. A 20-minute afternoon nap can be very refreshing (make sure it’s over by 4pm so that it won’t interfere with nighttime sleeping). Also, you may want to aim for an earlier bedtime in the winter months.

Boost Serotonin to switch off your appetite and turn on a good mood.

©2009 Judith J. Wurtman, PhD and Nina T. Frusztajer, MD, authors of The Serotonin Power Diet: Eat Carbs — Nature’s Own Appetite Suppressant — to Stop Emotional Overeating and Halt Antidepressant-Associated Weight Gain

About the Authors:
Judith J. Wurtman, PhD, co-author of The Serotonin Power Diet: Eat Carbs — Nature’s Own Appetite Suppressant — to Stop Emotional Overeating and Halt Antidepressant-Associated Weight Gain, has discovered the connection between carbohydrate craving, serotonin, and emotional well-being in her MIT clinical studies. She received her PhD from George Washington University, is the founder of a Harvard University hospital weight-loss facility and counsels private weight management clients. She has written five books, including The Serotonin Solution, and more than 40 peer-reviewed articles for professional publications. She lives in Miami Beach, Florida.

Nina T. Frusztajer, MD, co-author of The Serotonin Power Diet: Eat Carbs — Nature’s Own Appetite Suppressant — to Stop Emotional Overeating and Halt Antidepressant-Associated Weight Gain, counsels private weight management clients and is a practicing physician and certified professional life coach. She received her master’s degree in Nutrition from Columbia University and her medical degree from George Washington University. She lives in Boston, MA.

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Photo:  danydrs72