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The Holiday Spirit

By Greg Samples


Originally published in Everything Knoxville in December, 2014

One of the popular songs of the holiday season says: "it’s the most wonderful time of the year... Be of good cheer.. it’s the hap-happiest season of all." While many of us still look to the Christmas season with the anticipated excitement of a child, there is also a phenomenon with the season that portrays just the opposite. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is thought to be experienced by as much as nine percent of the population in the U.S. Symptoms include depression, anxiety, social withdrawal, and loss of interest in normal activities. Physical changes can include weight gain, loss of energy, oversleeping, and lack of focus.

Chemical imbalances in the brain are at the heart of SAD. One factor is aging. People over the age of 35 have a higher likelihood of experiencing SAD. Another factor is the lack of sunlight due to fewer daylight hours, especially in northern latitudes. Northern Finland and other arctic regions have the highest rates, but more temperate regions are not immune. You can counter this by striving to get at least 15 minutes of full face sunlight during winter, even on cloudy days. This will also assist your body in producing vitamin D.

Fall and winter seasons themselves lend to this condition. Just as energy in plants and animals rises in the spring, it is part of the natural cycle that human energy falls and contracts when the weather gets colder. Depression is not a normal manifestation of this cycle, but it tends to be more likely during this time if other factors are present.

There is, however, another factor that may be more important than all of the above. Fortunately, it is controllable. Even if you are not able turn back the clock, or spend your winters in the tropics, you can greatly reduce the potential effects of SAD by managing your intake of simple sugar. This can be challenging because carbohydrate cravings may be extraordinary when experiencing SAD. Simple sugars present in sources such as table sugar, fruit juices, high fructose corn syrup, or alcohol can present us with a roller coaster of high and low energy levels as the body attempts to regulate the amount of glucose in the bloodstream. Moreover, B vitamins such as thiamine are essential for metabolizing sugar efficiently, but most foods high in simple sugars do not supply abundant amounts of B vitamins along with the sugar. Many of the symptoms of SAD are also known consequences of longterm thiamine (B1) deficiency. In its absence, the functionality of the central nervous system declines, and longterm, it can lead to a multitude of health problems far in excess of SAD.

Nonetheless, there is also an abundance of ways that we can circumvent these issues during the holiday season and still participate in all of the exciting events and festivities. The use of whole grain flours in breads, pastries, and pastas will contain the B vitamins that are normally stripped out during the processing of conventional white flours. Whole grain flours contain the added benefit of complex carbohydrates that provide steadier energy levels and less mood swings. The same holds true for sweeteners. Pumpkins contain complex carbohydrates and B vitamins so they are an excellent tradition for the season, but try using brown rice syrup, barley malt, or molasses as the sweetener in pies and pastries instead of sugar.

Whole grain flours and sweeteners can keep your energy and moods from crashing during the holidays. By making them your regular choice over simple sugars you just might find your spirit soaring with the season.

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