Smorgasbord Health Column – UnSeasonal Affective Disorder – Keeping your focus – Tryptophan by Sally Cronin


Normally I would refer to Seasonal Affective Disorder in February as the winter months take their toll on our physical, mental and emotional health. However, reading the various reports in the media on Vitamin D Deficiency being one of the causes for susceptibility to Covid-19 and raised concerns on the levels of mental health issues including depression, the comments from readers who are experiencing lack of energy and focus, I began to see some parallels to SAD, but six months ahead of schedule. You can find more about the Vitamin D connection to SAD and the foods to include on a daily basis to help reduce the likelihood of deficiency in Part Two

In the last two posts I explored the reasons why hundreds of thousands around the world may be experiencing an Unseasonal Affective Disorder in response to reduced sunlight during lockdown and travel restrictions resulting in reduced levels of Vitamin D. A risk factor that has been recognised by scientists in relations to Covid-19 and the immune system. I also shared my thoughts on our evolutionary process which has not moved as quickly as modern technology or lifestyle.

There is another chemical element to our well-being during the winter months and addresses the way we feel mentally. It is reported that depression is understandably already taking hold in the community, especially those who are isolated away from families and friends. The small gestures we take from granted are being denied and we feel the loss of their therapeutic benefits. Such as hugging and kissing a cheek; even talking face to face.

An essential winter additive.

In this post I want to cover other critical factors about our chemical makeup that requires re-tuning for the cold weather. It is similar to what we will do to our car to ensure it starts and keeps running at lower temperatures.

Only the fuel additive we need is L-tryptophan one of the 10 essential amino acids extracted from the food we eat, and used by the body to synthesize the proteins we need.  Its crucial role for those suffering from depression, anxiety, insomnia and other symptoms, particularly when the days become shorter, is in the production of two key brain hormones and Niacin or vitamin B3.

Only a small amount of the tryptophan that we eat is converted to B3 by the liver.  However, B3 has a vital role in the metabolism of carbohydrates, fats and proteins to obtain the fuel we need (ATP) as well as helping regulate cholesterol.  It is necessary for the formation of red blood cells and hormones and when it is formed, it continues to work with the tryptophan and also B6 to stimulate the production of serotonin and melatonin transmitters within the brain.

If you do not have sufficient B vitamins in your diet there is a risk of deficiency disease most commonly skin infections, diarrhea and if prolonged can lead to dementia).

Serotonin and Melatonin are key neurotransmitters are absolutely essential if your body and brain are going to function efficiently throughout the winter months.  Melatonin is a sleep related hormone secreted by the pineal gland and regulates our sleep patterns.  It would normally increase its activity in the dark months when the sunlight is not there to regulate when we sleep and wake, however in people who suffer from SAD it appears that levels rise much later in the night compared to those who do not suffer from it, causing insomnia.

The other neurotransmitter which for me is more key in the management of this winter cycle is Serotonin.  It regulates appetite, sleep patterns and our mood. Low levels are associated with depression, anxiety, inability to concentrate, carbohydrate cravings, overeating and insomnia.  There is some very interesting research into Serotonin and SAD but there is a clear indication that depleted levels of L-tryptophan in the diet, resulting in even lower natural serotonin levels in the winter months, will cause these very common symptoms.

Foods providing Tryptophan

vegetablesSo – back to my basic diet with lots of vegetables, lean proteins, oily fish, olive oil, dairy, nuts, seeds, wholegrains, eggs and natural sugars like honey.  Here are some key foods to include on a daily basis to ensure that you are getting sufficient tryphophan to produce a balanced level of B3, Melatonin and Serotonin.

The highest concentration is found in

  • poultry – chicken and turkey
  • soybeans for vegetarians. 

Great amounts in

  • red meat,
  • tuna,
  • lamb,
  • salmon,
  • sardines,
  • halibut (good for Vitamin D too),
  • cod,
  • shellfish,
  • dairy products such as grass fed milk and butter
  • nuts,
  • seeds,
  • legumes
  • green leafy vegetables such as spinach,
  • asparagus,
  • Brussel sprouts 

There is smaller amounts in the carbohydrates

  • potatoes,
  • brown rice
  • wholegrain pasta
  • wholegrain bread
  • Oats

Although important for carbohydrates to be included as part of a balanced diet, if you are planning on eating a low fat, high carbohydrate based diet through the winter you are far more likely to suffer from SAD.

fruit-and-veg-bannerAnother key point about our diet during the winter months is that today we have access to so much more variety of fruit and vegetables year round.  Although I prefer seasonal vegetables and fruit as I think my body expects them at specific times and processes them more efficiently, I still love the fact that this whole range of nutrients is available whenever I choose.  The added benefit is additional Vitamin C which is so important during the cold and flu season.  More about those in later blogs……..

Next time – Despite restrictions on our movement and less incentive to get out in the winter weather we still need activity and stimulation for body and mind to overcome the blues……

©Sally Cronin – Just Food for Health – 1998 – 2020

I am a qualified nutritional therapist with twenty-two years experience working with clients in Ireland and the UK as well as being a health consultant on radio in Spain. Although I write a lot of fiction, I actually wrote my first two books on health, the first one, Size Matters, a weight loss programme 20 years ago, based on my own weight loss of 154lbs. My first clinic was in Ireland, the Cronin Diet Advisory Centre and my second book, Just Food for Health was written as my client’s workbook. Since then I have written a men’s health manual, and anti-aging programme, articles for magazines and posts here on Smorgasbord.

If you would like to browse my health books and fiction you can find them here: My books and reviews 2020

Your feedback is always welcome and if you do find that following any of the programmes that I have shared are beneficial then it would be great to hear about it.. you can email me on sally.cronin@moyhill.com.

Smorgasbord Health – Vitamin of the Week – B12 (Cyanocolbalamin) – Cell health, DNA and Sleep


smorgasbord health

We are now coming to the end of the B vitamins and I hope that you will have found them an interesting group of nutrients that are so essential to our health both physically and mentally. B12 is no exception and certainly for those of us in our 60s it is one of the vitamins we need to make sure we are taking in sufficient amounts in our food. Since B12 is primarily in eggs, dairy products and offal it is restrictive, especially as so many ‘experts’ tell you to stop eating them because of the impact on your cholesterol levels and waistline. I disabused that myth in the series on cholesterol which is a naturally occurring substance in our bodies and necessary for some pretty major operations such as brain function.

This week I am going to be posting the series on stress as I have had a number of questions on the B vitamins role in this response to our lives. That starts tomorrow and through the rest of the week.

 Vitamin B12 (Cyanocolbalamin) is an essential water-soluble vitamin but unlike other water soluble vitamins that are normally excreted in urine very quickly, B12 accumulates and gets stored in the liver (around 80%), kidney and body tissues. B12 is vital for the efficient working of every cell in the body especially those with a rapid turnover as it prevents cell degeneration. It functions as a methyl donor and works with folic acid in the manufacture of DNA and red blood cells and also is necessary to maintain the health of the insulating sheath (myelin sheath) that surrounds all nerve cells. It is involved in the production of melatonin, the hormone responsible for resetting our biological clock’s rhythm when we change to new time zones, and also helps us sleep.

The most common disease associated with B12 deficiency is pernicious anaemia, which is characterised by large, immature red blood cells. But other diseases and medical conditions associated with a lack of this vitamin are allergies, Alzheimer’s disease, asthma, cancer depression, AIDS, low blood pressure, multiple sclerosis, tinnitus and low sperm counts.

HOW DO WE BECOME DEFICIENT IN B12?

We actually do not need a huge amount of the vitamin per day, around 2 micrograms or 2millionth of a gram. The problem is that it is not particularly well absorbed by the body so larger amounts are needed in the diet to supply the amount we need. Absorption of B12 requires the secretion from the cells lining the stomach of a glycoprotein, known as the intrinsic factor. The B12-intrinsic factor is then absorbed into the ileum (part of the small intestine) with calcium.

One of the issues regarding deficiencies is that many people have turned away from the richest sources of B12 because they believe either that they are harmful, fattening or will raise levels of cholesterol. Liver, kidneys and eggs have not enjoyed wonderful press over the last few years and many people have also reduced the amount of cheese they eat believing that it is fattening.

Plant sources of B12 are virtually non-existent and many long term and dedicated vegetarians have been found to be deficient. Over use of antacids, inflammation of the stomach lining (Helicobacter pylori infection) and pancreatic problems can also lead to deficiency as the secretion of the intrinsic factor is compromised. There is some evidence that women with breast cancer have lower levels of B12 and there are indications that women after menopause with very low levels were more likely to develop the disease. It is not clear if the deficiency is caused by the cancer in the body or the other way around.

Some drugs have inhibited the uptake of B12 such as those prescribed for diabetes and ulcers and there is a great deal of research into these interactions.

As we age our ability to process our foods becomes less effective with enzyme production reduced such as the secretion of the intrinsic factor necessary for B12 absorption. Added to the fact that many elderly people suffer from a lack of appetite and you have a higher risk of malnutrition.

An interesting piece of research proposes that it is possible that Vitamin E may protect the process of absorption of B12 by preventing oxidative damage to cell membranes. If so a deficiency in this vitamin may well affect our B12 levels.

WHAT FOOD SOURCES ARE THERE FOR B12?

 B12 is present in meats apart from offal, eggs and dairy products. It is better to drink a cold glass of milk than to eat yoghurt as the fermentation process destroys most of the B12 as does boiling milk.   There are very few sources, if any of B12 in plants, although some people do believe that eating fermented Soya products, sea weeds and algae will provide the vitamin. However analysis of these products shows that whilst some of them do contain B12 it is in the form of B12 analogues which are unable to be absorbed by the human body.

Eating foods containing Vitamin E may help the absorption process and the best sources for this are in nuts such as the walnuts, sunflower seeds, whole grains, eggs, spinach, apples, bananas, broccoli, brown rice, carrots, onions and oily fish.

Most cereals and breads today are fortified with B12 as are yeast extracts (marmite) and vegetarian products.

©sallycronin Just Food For Health 2007

Coming up tomorrow the start of the Stress Series…thanks for dropping by and please feel free to share. Also if you have any questions please do not hesitate to ask.

Thanks Sally