As the seasons change, people living in more northern cities are subject to a decrease in sunlight and colder temperatures. Northerners are required to buy produce flown in from warmer climates, therefore lacking the richness in nutrients that we get through the summer months with our own produce. Work days feel longer as we experience higher levels of lethargy with fewer hours of sunlight. Many of the changes associated with the change of seasons, specifically that which occurs between October and December, are now the leading causes of a recurring depressive disorder called S.A.D. - or seasonal affect disorder. The symptoms include lethargy, lack of interest in social situations, weight gain, decreased motivation and difficulty concentrating (Melrose, S. 2015). But do not let this scare you. The powers of information and self-awareness are incredibly valuable at this time of year when it comes to staying on track and keeping up with your training and fitness goals. I will attempt to break down what S.A.D. is physiologically, and hopefully provide you with some tools and tricks to bio-hack this time of year thus helping you stay accountable to your fitness goals.
So what is SAD? As I mentioned in my opening paragraph, this is a recurring depressive disorder that affects 6% of Canadians (Melrose, S. 2015). The less severe and more common type, S-SAD, or the "winter blues", has been reported to affect 15% of all Canadians (Melrose, S. 2015). These disorders are simply a product of where we live in the world. As winter approaches, the hours and the quality of sunlight we get decrease every day leading up to the winter solstice. Therefore the farther you are from the equator, the earlier the onset of the symptoms (Iliads, C. M.D., 2013). The decrease in sunlight, decreases our levels of serotonin, (a neurotransmitter linked to our mood), and increases our melatonin levels (a hormone that regulates sleep cycles) (Melrose, S. 2015). In fact, as we experience fewer hours of sunlight, (or more hours of darkness), the release time of melatonin increases, so our bodies are flooded with melatonin, compared to the summer months (Roecklein, K. A., & Rohan, K. J., 2005). To add to that, because we are spending less time in the sunshine, our bodies are producing much less vitamin D, which aids in the production of serotonin (Melrose, S. 2015). Put all of these things together and you get a society that experiences more episodes of sadness, has decreased energy levels, has a hard time concentrating, struggles with lethargy, experiences withdrawal from social situations, and is consuming carbs and refined sugars to satisfy our comfort-food-cravings, leading to weight gain (Melrose, S. 2015).
So what can we do to combat this and ensure we do not fall off the fitness wagon? Right now the leading treatments are anti-depressants, light therapy, exercise, and counselling. I want to focus on light therapy, exercise, and nutrition. Nutrition is often forgotten in many treatment plans because medicine has usually focused on medicating issues, instead of making lifestyle changes first. I digress.
Light therapy is the use of a fluorescent, cold blue/ light blue light behind a UV shield for at 20-30 minutes every day. By exposing yourself to this kind of light promotes something called a phase shift (Iliads, C. M.D., 2013). This will switch off the production of melatonin, and encourage serotonin production thereby shifting us into a physiological state that is better equipped to take on the day - even if the actual Sun has not risen yet. There are “happy lights” available for purchase on amazon.ca and amazon.com. You want a 10,000 lux one if you can to maximize the effects of this treatment. The least expensive one I have found is around $75 CAD, but they can cost upwards of $200CAD.
The second treatment is exercise! Yes, moving our bodies more and promoting the natural production of serotonin is an excellent way to combat the winter blues. Not only does it produce serotonin while you are exercising, it can also keep serotonin levels high for several hours afterward (Grohol, J., 2016). Combining both aerobic and strength training can maximize these benefits and keep your mood up all day. So when you wake up and it is cold and dark and your mind is saying “stay, sleep in”, push through that, expose yourself to some quality light, and get yourself moving. You will feel better for it, and the rest of your day will be much easier to take on. Studies show that 30 minutes of exercise every day is enough to fend off the symptoms associated with SAD.
Last, but certainly not least: nutrition. The way you eat can have a huge impact on your mood and therefore you day-to-day motivation. In the winter months you crave comfort foods. These foods include rich, starchy carbs like breads and potatoes. Ancestrally, as the our bodies experienced fewer hours of sunlight, we would stock up on carbs and high-sugar foods to create large fat stores that we could survive off of through the winter months. Now that we are fortunate enough to not have to deal with the winter hardships that our ancestors did, we don’t need to bulk up the same way anymore. So with that said, it is important to maintain a healthy balanced diet that includes, fruits, vegetables, and quality protein sources that will provide us with all of the nutrients we need to stay happy and healthy (Iliads, C. M.D., 2013). To help with this it is recommended that we take a good quality vitamin D3 supplement every day to ensure we have enough stored in our bodies to support serotonin production, restful sleep, and general good health (5).
A few other suggestions I came across were to drink adequate amounts of water throughout the day. The winter months can be incredibly drying to our skin, and dehydration can be confused as hunger as well. Get your friends involved so that you are able to maintain a good social network throughout the dark months. Support from your peers can also help you hold yourself accountable to your fitness goals. Lastly, get outside when the sun in shining. Despite the fact that we receive less intense sunlight in the winter months, exposing yourself to 20 minutes of sunshine can be the boost your body needs to feel energized for the rest of the day!
In last week's blog I gave you a quick look into my life on PMS. The madness, loss of control, and extreme fatigue all played their part in feeding into my feeding frenzy. This got me thinking of all of those times when I was just a wee lass playing soccer. We used to have regular running practices because apparently training endurance once a week was beneficial to our soccer skill. Yes, I am still holding onto some distain for those 15-30 minute runs once a week that totally cut into my MSN time.
Anywho, when one of these practices lined up with my period, I thought I had been given the crimson ticket out of that session. Jokes on me though because Mom knew otherwise. She preached to me that going for a run would actually relieve some of my PMS symptoms and that I would feel better afterwards. This could have been true but I think my stubborn-ness never let me fully accept it back then. To this day I am testing this theory that exercise is a natural remedy for cramps, or primary dysmenorrhoea, back aches, head aches, fatigue and many of the other symptoms associated with PMS.
Being the curious little lady that I am, I decided to do some research and discover the truth about exercise and PMS. Can we give all the credit to exercise? Does it all come down to the "runner's high" masking the symptoms? Does it simply distract us from the symptoms long enough to send a signal to the brain that those pain receptors really don't need to be our main concern? I will attempt to answer all of these questions by diving deep into the research, and using my own experiences to finally give us women the truth we need!
The Research - A side note
So I have to mention that when I first started my research, the very first article I read was incredibly negative. As a fitness professional I do not think that exercise is the end-all-be-all cure for everything, but this article would state the results of a study and then discredit them by criticizing the sample size or how old the study was. You can follow the link in the sentence above to see what I mean.
That being said, I did my best to not allow my own bias towards exercise cloud my judgement of the following articles that I used for this research. Shall I remind you of my stubborn-ness and how I would rather not have another "told you so" moment from my mother dearest (they really do seem to know best most of the time though).
Okay now I'll explain the research :)
I'll be honest, it was not easy to find well written, truly conclusive studies on this issue. I was able to find a study on runner's high that we may be able to draw our own conclusions from in term of how it relates to PMS. In this study, our furry, genetically similar, tiny friends (mice - duh) were split into two groups. Half of the mice ran on their little wheels for 5 hours. Yes - 5 HOURS. After the run, the small mice displayed far less anxious behaviour, and were much more resilient to pain than their non-exercising friends in the other half of the study.
So when we look at the common symptoms associated with PMS - anxiety, back pain, cramps, and lack of interest - we could be led to believe that the runner's high associated with aerobic exercise could simply be masking our symptoms.
So now that we know that running really can, temporarily, alleviate some of the PMS symptoms (yes mom - you told me so), let's see if strength training, as a form of distraction, can also help with these unruly tokens of fertility and female sexual health.
Pain, in the body, is the result of a pain receptor sending a signal up the spinal cord, into the brain, where it interprets the pain, and then sends a signal back to the origin that creates a sensation/reaction to protect us from experiencing any further pain or discomfort. I like to think that we experience cramps and back pain every month to prepare us for the potential pain and discomfort that we will have to endure when we get pregnant. It fits in nicely with all of the other crazy things we have to deal with as women who, biologically, are always on high alert for the coming of a child. You know, the way our hips are set wider to keep a baby comfortable, but also make squatting more biomechanically challenging. Oh! And what about all that hard-to-lose weight around our middles that is always there just in case a little mini-me decides to plant itself in my uterus and need the extra insulation.
So - back to pain and exercise. In a study researchers applied heat to the participant's arms while they completed memory and brain-distracting tasks. After the test the participants reported perceiving less pain while working on their puzzles, than before. Okay. So this means, that while the brain is distracted, it has no time to deal with your menial pain signals (put very simply).
So, in our amateur conclusion-drawing club, we are now tasked with tying this study to the fitness community's claims that exercise can help with PMS. Here is where I think it is conditional. If you are going to exercise while fighting to remove your insides from your insides, then it better be stimulating. Push yourself through a really tough workout where you try new exercises, or push through new weights. If you're going to out-smart your pain signals, you have to do it right!
Alright, now for my favourite, and often neglected aspect of PMS. Nutrition. I recognize that this is about how exercise can help with PMS and not nutrition, but I am going to mention this because I believe that when you decide to use exercise as a way of improving your life - in any way - you should always look at your eating habits as well.
In my own experience, the way I eat has always affected the intensity of my PMS symptoms. If I am getting all of my vitamins and minerals, drinking a lot of water, and keeping my alcohol and caffeine consumption to a minimum, then I hardly even get a headache. I may get a signalling cramp to let me know that I have gotten my period, but that is it. In contrast to that, when I am over indulging in bread-y foods, junk food, and drinking, then I experience all of the symptoms to the point where I feel completely helpless. The soreness, lack of energy, lack of interest, and feelings of anxiety are debilitating and I have to remind myself, in the moment, not to make any big decisions in this time.
So is there any scientific backing to my little theory?
YES! (sort of). Again, with PMS it is hard for science to put their finger on any one cause of the symptoms, and therefore it is difficult to say if there is any one cure for the symptoms. It is suggested that proper calcium and vitamin D intake can prevent PMS symptoms due to the hormonal changes that occur in the luteal phase of a women's cycle. These hormonal changes - ie. the increase of estrogen - draw calcium from the blood and bones. Therefore having adequate calcium in our system to replenish those stores could help relieve some of the symptoms associated with PMS. Vitamin D is important because that helps our bodies absorb calcium into our bones.
The next nutrient we need to watch out for is the B vitamins (thiamine, folate riboflavin, niacin, B6 and B12). These vitamins are integral parts of food metabolism, as well as neurotransmitter production and function. Scientists looked at how all of these vitamins could influence and potentially reduce the incidence of PMS symptoms and found that increasing thiamine and riboflavin at levels slightly above their RDA - 1.9mg/day and 1.4mg/day respectively - can help reduce symptoms by at least 30%. B6 was also shown to reduce women's PMS symptoms when consumed in doses of 80mg/day. This is likely due to it's role in neurotransmitter production, as I mentioned before.
Finally, in a study published by the Journal of Women's Health, 200mg of magnesium supplementation was shown to decrease breast tenderness, moody-ness, weight gain, and bloating in women.
So there you have it!
The research is done, and some conclusions have already been drawn, and now it is time to give my final thoughts on an issue that I am so happy to have explored further.
Based on everything I have read on the issue it sounds like PMS is no excuse to not go to the gym! Whether you are going in for a cardio session or going in for a big weight lifting session, getting in your workout will give you some time to work on yourself and forget about the cramping, and back pain. You may even get a break from the anxiety and moody-ness due to the "runner's high"! What I have learned from this, and what I think every one should get on board with in all aspects of their life, is that nutrition really is the most important part. What you put into your body will dictate the severity of your symptoms. Make sure you are getting enough iron from your dark leafy greens, and red meat; stock up on your B vitamins, calcium and vitamin D by keeping your vegetables and fruits colourful and fresh; and work a little more magnesium into your diet through supplements or broccoli. Well balanced nutrition really is everything.
I hope this has been as informative and helpful to you as it has been for me!
Thanks for reading, and I'll see you next time!
What started off as a harmless day of indulging my PMS cravings, quickly turned into almost a week's worth of impulsive snacking, and unbalanced eating. We women have all been there before. Once a month we find ourselves craving inordinate amounts of chocolate, and fully surrendering the sweet sounds of John Mayer - ugly, PMS tears and all. This week seemed particularly bad though.
For starters, my PMS cravings kicked in on Halloween. So when I got home after a long day at work, helping my college roommate move into her new place, and enduring another day of public transit and I saw the leftover halloween candy... well I might as well have been a attempting a Guinness World Record for how many chocolates you can unwrap and eat while maintaining pleasant conversation about my job as a personal trainer and fitness coach. To add to this violent feeding frenzy, my sister made a delicious batch of lemon squares. It would be rude not to sample her latest baking venture, #amirite?
So that was Tuesday.
The following 4 days were a blur of lemon squares as my "preworkout" (and post workout, and pre-work meal, and pre-bedtime snack), chips for dinner, another trip to Sugar Mountain, and a blatant disregard for all of the knowledge I have of the effects of consuming sugar and processed foods. Sure, I would mix in a protein shake, and one day I even made myself eggs for breakfast... to which I immediately followed up with 2... or 3 lemon squares.
Which leads me to tonight. I am literally laughing at myself for succumbing to the North American food industry's tricks that get us to consume and consume and consume all the shit that they know our brains are addicted to. We all know how addictive alcohol can be. But do you know that the metabolic process for breaking down alcohol is only one step different than that which is required to breakdown sugar? To add to that, my northern ancestry gave me a genetic predisposition to consume as much sugar as I can get my hands on because I could be stuck eating caribou and moose meat for the harsh northern European winters.
Bamboozled again, my friends, and I am sure this won't be the last time either. But fear not! I have a plan. Thanks to my understanding of the sugar withdrawal process, and my current knowledge of intermittent fasting, ketogenic diets, and just general nutrition, I have devised a plan. And not a psycho, crash diet plan. That will only make my feelings of psychosis amplified in the height of my sugar withdrawals. You see, this is the key to bouncing back from a crazy week of eating. You need to know your enemy better than it knows itself, and you need to implement your own resources wisely because you are fighting your own brain here. Your Brain. That thing that has fascinated humans for years. That jiggly, mass of nervous tissue locked in our (sometimes) thick skulls. It isn't easy, but it is doable if you are smart about it.
So what is my genius plan, you might ask? Well it comes down to 3 things.
Often times when we experience signs of hunger, it is actually the bodies reaction to dehydration. While dehydrated the body is interpreting all kinds of hormonal signals due to water's vital role in many of the body's processes. Sometimes when we feel hunger, which is the release of ghrelin, what we actually need is water. So over the next few days (4 days is the standard for me to get over cravings), I will be making sure I am consuming at least 2 of my 1500ml water bottles every day. This should stave off some of those unnecessary feelings of "hunger".
2. Fat & Protein for Breakfast
In our bodies we have a hormone called insulin. It regulates our blood sugar levels by allowing sugar to flow from the blood into our cells. Kind like that one friend who can always get you past the line and the bouncer at a very exclusive club. When we consume high amounts of sugar, we produce an "insulin spike". In the morning when we haven't eaten all night, any amount of sugar will produce one of these insulin spikes because in the morning our insulin levels are at their lowest. Once the sugar has been shuttled into the cells, the insulin levels drop. But now you have put all of your body's hormones and metabolic processes on the homeostasis rollercoaster - and trust me, you would not want to be riding this thing. This is why consuming a healthy fat and source of protein for breakfast is key. If you listen to this podcast by Guru Performance, they go into more detail as to why protein and fat are the ideal combination for maintaining a favourable body composition. Consuming this power duo in the morning also creates a very small insulin response and you therefore avoid the rollercoaster ride of insulin spikes and drops throughout the day.
3. Intermittent Fasting
This is something that I try to practice every day as best I can. I started intermittent fasting in my final semester of college after hearing a presentation from a classmate of mine, Matt McMurray. I was feeling like I had no control over my psychology around eating and needed a way to bring myself back to normal. In his presentation he mentioned a 16:8 fasting to feasting window. Knowing myself, I made mine 10-6. I would go to the gym really early, come home, prep breakfast, pack it up and head to class. When 10am rolled around, I reached into my backpack and had a well thought out, nutritious breakfast waiting for me.
Intermittent fasting has changed the way I see food. I live in North America, come from a good home, have enough money and therefore will never go starving. Intermittent fasting allowed me to hack my physiology's instinct that I will die if I don't eat right away, and turned it upside down. This is why it is my 3rd key to success as I go through withdrawals. Re-training myself to understand that I won't die if I don't eat right away. That I can get through a heavy workout without eating because my body will benefit from the adaptations that follow fasted workouts. Giving myself a window to eat also means that I won't snack late into the night and risk messing with my bodies process of preparing me for sleep.
The last thing I will mention is actually today's instagram post. I hope this has been helpful to you and you learned something new.
Riri's Discoveries blog documents Riri's discoveries as she develops her skills as a marketer, and finds new and sustainable ways to stay healthy.