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Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and Halloween Candy

The counter at my local hardware store was crammed so full of Halloween candy that there was hardly any space for my two lightbulbs. Candy sales start at the end of August and continue as the days grow shorter. No doubt much of it is consumed before Trick or Treaters ring the doorbells.  

Might there be a connection between the later sunrises and earlier sunsets at the beginning of fall and the shelves full of Halloween candy in the supermarkets, convenience stores, drug stores, and yes, even hardware stores?

Seasonal Affective Disorder

As we go through this season of diminishing daylight hours, some of us may experience subtle yet real changes in our mood, energy levels, appetite, social engagement, motivation, and concentration. It becomes harder to exercise with the same intensity or duration as early in the summer or to exercise at all. Salads and fruits are still desirable items at a meal, but eating a large salad with some protein (salmon, chicken) as the main course somehow does not seem as appealing as a bowl of pasta.

And we begin to feel somewhat less tolerant and more impatient when confronted by frustrating situations, things people do, and unwelcome news. Being on hold on the phone can make us agitated. We’re less understanding if a clerk in a store takes extra time checking someone out. Whatever placid, patient approach we had when we were frustrated early in the summer seems to have vanished.

Notice if you Have Early Signs of SAD

To be sure, one can experience unpleasant emotions and frustration any time of the year. But our tolerance seems to erode with the erosion of daylight and might be an early sign of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).  SAD is associated with the need to sleep excessively, unexplained fatigue, and difficulty remaining focused and interested in work, home, and social activities. Irritability, anger, depression, as well as a persistent craving for sweets are also common. By late fall and early winter, these symptoms can have a significant – and negative – impact on work performance, interpersonal interactions, willingness to exercise, mood, and weight. It is not unusual for someone who is affected by winter darkness to gain 10-40 pounds.

The Downside of Halloween Candy

Sugary, high-fat Halloween candy is prominently displayed in the stores as SAD-associated sweet cravings begin in early fall. My supermarket confronts me with an entire wall worth of packaged candy as soon as I walk in. For anyone who is experiencing the smallest of sweet cravings, it is almost impossible to walk past the bags of candy without buying some.

Maybe we tell ourselves we will give away on Halloween, but we somehow sense it’s SAD urging us to buy the sweets for ourselves. The cravings that were controllable all spring and summer when it was lighter outdoors have now returned.

Don’t get down on yourself. It’s not your fault. Your carbohydrate cravings are entirely understandable! 

SAD Causes Changes in Your Brain

The need to eat more carbohydrates in association with the increasing duration of darkness may be related to alterations in brain serotonin activity caused by lack of light. The cravings for carbohydrates seem to arise when serotonin levels and/or activity decreases. The association is often overlooked, but it has a neurochemical basis.

Serotonin in the brain is made from tryptophan, an amino acid that enters the brain only after a carbohydrate is eaten. Thus when the craving for carbohydrates like Halloween candy is satisfied by consuming something sweet or starchy, more serotonin will be made. The only time this will not happen is if a protein is eaten along with the carbohydrate (e.g., a turkey sandwich). And when serotonin levels and activity increase, a better mood returns, and the carbohydrate cravings disappear.

Eating Carbohydrates Wisely

Thus, if eating carbohydrates will take the edge off some of the symptoms of SAD, why not eat a handful of Halloween size candy bars? Eating them takes less time than microwaving a potato or even a bowl of instant oatmeal. And candy is cheap and abundant with many options to choose from.  

Unfortunately, there is a high cost to eating Halloween candies to satisfy SAD carbohydrate cravings namely in potential weight gain and less effective satisfaction of the cravings. It is necessary to eat about 25-30 grams of carbohydrate to set in motion the process that delivers tryptophan into the brain. To do this, one would have to eat seven mini-Snicker bars, 300 calories, or four mini Twix bars, 200 calories, or seven Hershey kisses, 200 calories. And who has the self-discipline to count out the Hershey Kisses or mini chocolate bars when the urge to eat carbohydrates is felt? It’s easy to overconsume. We get it!  Plus the high fat levels in some of the candy makes the mood soothing and appetite reducing effects of the carbohydrates less effective so you remain tempted to eat more. 

With healthier, low fat carbohydrate options like sweet potatoes and whole grain crackers, you’ll eat less, have the benefit of nutritious foods, your cravings will be satisfied sooner, and you’ll be more likely to avoid unwanted weight gain.  

Managing SAD – Without the Weight Gain

The symptoms of SAD may last for months, gradually disappearing as the days grow longer in the early spring. Exposure to special lights (sunboxes) and antidepressants have been found effective in reducing the severity of the symptoms, but the carbohydrate cravings may persist. Fortunately, eating small amounts of starchy carbohydrates will produce the same increase in serotonin as eating Halloween candy and provide nutrients, not just calories.

The most convenient snacks are on the cereal aisle; slightly more than a half-cup of Oatmeal squares, for example, provides about 25 grams of carbohydrate and has only 110 calories. Cheerios, which this month also come pumpkin-flavored, are similarly low in calories. And following a plant-based diet that includes sweet and white potatoes, squashes, rice, quinoa, lentils, and polenta will also satisfy the SAD-linked urge for carbohydrates.

And in the meantime, you might decide the best time to buy Halloween candy is the day of Halloween or a few days before when the candy goes on sale!


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