Mid-autumn is a time when many people are especially vulnerable to carb cravings, low mood and tiredness. Find out why this is such a tricky triad and how you can beat it.
As autumn turns to winter, it can feel harder than at any other time of the year to lead a healthy, active life. It seems that our every instinct is telling us to hibernate. We're more tired than usual. Our mood may be lower. And those lovely, stodgy comfort foods are more tempting than ever. We have no energy or motivation to get up off the sofa, let alone make it to the gym. And the longer it continues, the worse it seems to get. What is this all about, and how can we snap out of it?
A chronic feeling of tiredness or even exhaustion seems to be an almost normal part of everyday modern life. There are many reasons. The prevalence of screens in our lives – whether telephone, computer or television – is one factor: the bright light from these risks disrupting the delicate hormonal balance that governs deep, restful sleep. Then there's the pace of life overall. All our modern technology seems to be conspiring to turn our days into 24-hour periods of activity, with no let-up to rest and re-charge. Finally, at this time of year we're really not helped by the ever-dwindling daylight. The long hours of darkness and the fact that many of us hardly see daylight at all during the working week disrupt our sleep rhythms and make us feel chronically sleep deprived.
There is increasing evidence that we do not really need carbohydrates in order to function. They're a sort of dietary luxury. Many nutritional experts are now telling us that starchy carbohydrates mess with our insulin regulation and are the major cause of the obesity epidemic in the Western world. But that's not the message that many of us seem to be getting from our bodies. Oh, we really need that biscuit (or three). That slice of cake. A plate piled high with mashed potato or pasta. But where does this intense feeling of need come from, if this stuff is really so bad for you?
There seem to be several reasons: firstly, we're still in the grips of evolution – we are programmed to seek out sweet substances in particular, as doing so ensured our survival for most of the tens of thousands of years that the human species has been around. Secondly, starchy carbohydrates, grains in particular (and more specifically wheat) cause biochemical reactions in the brain that are akin to taking mood-altering drugs. They can boost serotonin levels in the short term and bind with opiate receptors in the brain – that's a pretty powerful high for a few slices of white bread. The problem is that these highs are followed by severe lows as insulin floods our system to mop up all that blood sugar, and we respond to the lows by consuming even more of the stuff that caused the crash in the first place.
Whether it reaches clinical levels and gets a label of depression slapped on it or not, low mood is as endemic as it is difficult to live with. It's something of a paradox that we live lives of unprecedented ease and luxury but don't seem to be any the happier for it. All too many of us are familiar with low-level blues, a general lack of motivation and an uneasy sense of pointlessness. For some, it gets more serious, with people suffering from uncontrollable sadness, tearfulness and suicidal thoughts. There are many theories as to why so many of us are living with low mood these days, with factors being held responsible including the capitalist economic system, the breakdown of the extended family, early childhood experiences, diet and lack of exercise. And at this time of year, a lack of daylight can contribute to low mood for people who are prone to suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder.
A vicious cycle
As if carb cravings, low mood and tiredness weren't bad enough in themselves, what makes this a particularly tricky triad is that they are linked to each other in a vicious cycle. We reach for the comfort food because we're feeling low. It brings temporary relief, but the subsequent crash in blood sugar levels leaves us feeling exhausted and depressed – so we have another slice of cake. We're sleeping badly or not enough and that disrupts the neurochemical systems that govern mood regulation, leaving us feeling lethargic, unmotivated and generally down – and extremely susceptible to self-medicating in the form of stodge. And so it goes on.
This all sounds rather gloomy, and that's because it is. But the good news about a vicious cycle is that you can break out of it at any point. You don't have to try to tackle the tiredness, carb cravings and low mood all at once. Focus on one and the benefits will cascade to the other two. Decide which your priority is. Do you need to really focus on getting more sleep? Be stricter with yourself about your cake consumption? See your GP about your low mood? Once you've decided on your area of priority, really work on it, and the vicious cycle has the potential to turn into a virtuous cycle. You'll be less likely to reach for mid-afternoon biscuits if you've been getting enough rest. Cultivating a more positive mood can improve your sleeping patterns and leave you less vulnerable to the pull of cake when you're down. Tackling a possible sugar addiction will leave you less prone to the blood sugar crashes that lead to exhaustion and depression. And so on.
How do we overcome the tricky triad? One step at a time.