Why Does Christmas Bring the Blues?
My daughter and her partner drove down to Portland to go to the David Sedaris Christmas play "Santaland" with me this Sunday. We all loved it, and we had a wonderful visit. Now I'm sitting here at my computer, with my calico cat curled up in her basket beside my desk. The tree is lit, the candles are sending their beautiful spicy scent through the apartment, and the packages are all piled up under the tree. This time of year is so festive, so colorful - so why do so many of us sing the Christmas blues?
The possible causes seem to be endless. Maybe it's the huge number of things on our to-do list, and the small amount of time that we have to get all that stuff done. Maybe it's the expectations of happiness and delight that never seem to be completely fulfilled. Maybe it's the little irritating mannerisms of our uncle Harry who always has to get in the last word, even during Christmas dinner - and the aggravation of not being able to leave him off the guest list. Maybe it's the mounting bills...
OK, maybe it's some of those things. Maybe it's a combination of all of them. But then again - maybe it has nothing to do with Christmas at all.
Two things happen around this time of year which are known depressants:
First, Christmas comes 4 days after the shortest day of the year, and the low light levels are known to cause Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. That's the kind of depression that can be helped with those bright lights.
And second - we all tend to eat more sugar.
Before doing the research for this article, I assumed these two things - SAD and sugar consumption - simply happened at the same time, but were unrelated. It turns out that they are very much related, and help to fuel each other - making it all that more difficult to stop the spiral of winter depression once it takes hold. And to keep from gaining weight.
Here are some of the facts I found:
Eating sugar may cause depression. The medical journal Depression and Anxiety looked at the figures for both occurrences of both depression and national sugar consumption in six different countries, and found that "there are some mechanistic reasons to consider that sugar consumption may directly impact the prevalence of major depression."
Curtis James, MSc, writing in the August 2002 issue of Alive magazine, believes that sugar and other simple starches bring on depression by lowering the levels of serotonin in the brain.
Depression may cause cravings for sugar. A study cited in the journal Psychopharmacology used both rats and human volunteers, and found a connection between depression and cravings for sugar.
SAD dulls the taste buds so we eat more sugar (and fat). An article in the Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter in December 1997 found that, compared to people who were not affected by the lower level of winter light, "the SAD group needed a greater amount of sugar in a sweet solution placed on their tongues in order to be able to tell that it was different from plain water."
An interesting finding in the Tufts University study is that successfully treating SAD patients with SAD lights does not help them regain their normal taste - which affects not only sweet but bitter and sour tastes as well. Head researcher Paul Arbisi, PhD believes this may explain why people with SAD tend to gain weight during the winter. "To compensate for the blunting of flavor perception, those with SAD might choose foods that are most intense in taste, especially combinations of fats and simple sugars," he stated.
Wow. Sugar can cause or increase depression. Depression can cause cravings for sugar. SAD can make us eat more sugar and fat by messing with our ability to taste food.
And here we are, a few days before Winter Solstice, attending all these parties with all those pretty Christmas cookies, cakes and snacks.
What can we do to put the odds more in our favor, so we can feel more joyful during the holidays, and not gain weight? We can put a SAD light on our Christmas list, for one thing. And we can make a special point of staying away from the sugary goodies - now you have even more reason for eating healthy during the holiday season. You'll keep from putting on pounds, and might stay out of the winter doldrums.
And if less sugar and a SAD light doesn't help, see your doctor. Depression medication can not only give you the opportunity to feel more interest in living - and perhaps even share in the holiday joy - but can also help you lose weight.
Do you struggle with your weight, trying every diet plan that comes out - but still can't lose the weight? You may be addicted to sugar. To find out, take this quiz.
©2003 by Jonni Good, author of Weight Loss: How to Keep Your Commitment
From the desk of Jonni Good
Author of Weight Loss: How to Keep Your Commitment
4820 SW Greensboro Way,
Beaverton, OR 97007