Category Archives: Bad mood

Might Physical Activity Be as Effective as Antidepressants?

The well-known recommendation to exercise in order to relieve and/or improve a wide variety of health problems may sometimes seem exaggerated. One might ask whether going to the gym or chopping wood will truly improve sleep, cognition, fragile bones, cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, and obesity, as well as decrease vulnerability to diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. That is an awful lot to ask of a daily bout of physical activity.

However, many studies over the past several decades have confirmed the positive relationship between exercise and an array of health effects. Exercise is not going to prevent anyone from eventually exiting this world, but engaging in physical activity may make us more healthy while we are still in it.

Studies over the past decade on exercise and mental disorders have added another benefit to consistent physical activity: Depressed patients may benefit as much from routine exercise as they do by taking antidepressants. Craft and Perna published an extensive review of studies on whether or not exercise might have a therapeutic role in clinical depression. The ability of depressed patients to carry out physical work has been shown to be significantly impaired, and they are less fit than the general population, according to some studies cited in the article. It is not hard to find reasons for the diminished physical well-being. Depression is often accompanied by fatigue, social withdrawal, sleep disturbances, and the side effects of antidepressants include dizziness, nausea, and even weight gain. These factors may make engaging in routine physical activity difficult, unless there is outside support to do so.

In a typical study to see whether exercise might be beneficial not just in improving physical status but also in relieving the symptom of depression, the patients are enrolled in an exercise program, walking three or four times a week, for example, or doing resistance training. The severity of their depression is compared with a control group of patients who do not exercise but engage in some other type of intervention so they receive the same amount of care and attention from the research staff. The results have been consistent study after study: Exercise has a positive effect on depression.

In one particularly compelling study, the effect of exercise over 16 weeks was compared with the effect of an antidepressant (sertraline) alone and with sertraline and exercise. About two-thirds of the patients in each group went into remission after the four-month testing period. The results indicate that exercise alone was as effective as the medication alone or medication plus exercise in relieving the depression.

If exercise is treated like any other therapeutic intervention, it is important to determine the most effective dose, timing, and type, as one would with medication. Walking slowly on a treadmill versus jogging or resistance training once a week, or four times a week, are some of the variables that have to be examined. Should the exercise be mild or intense? Is it better to exercise outside in the fresh air and sunlight, or does this make any difference? Might yoga or other group exercise be more beneficial than solitary workouts, or a walk, because they diminish social isolation? Is there some way of identifying patients at the onset of their depression who might benefit from exercise rather than antidepressant therapy? How long should it take for an exercise program to produce a lessening of depressive symptoms? Many antidepressants take several weeks before they seem to have an effect; should the patient wait the same amount of time to see whether exercise relieves symptoms?

These questions can be answered fairly easily with additional studies. What is more difficult is how to translate these findings to the real world. To begin with, who is going to treat the patients? Therapists are rarely, if ever, also trained as exercise physiologists. And exercise physiologists may not have any training or experience working with depressed clients. Do these professionals even communicate with each other? A therapist may be able to refer a patient to a physical therapist for an initial consultation as to what kind of exercise the patient can do without injury or pain, but how should the patient follow up? Where will she exercise? Does he have to join a gym or a local Y to exercise? Who will determine the type of exercise program? What oversight is available to make sure the exercise program is carried out effectively and without injury or pain from overused muscles? Who will help/motivate the depressed patient to participate over several weeks rather than dropping out? And finally, even if exercise can be as effective as medication for depression, who will pay for it? Visits to a psychotherapist and medication may be paid for now in their entirety, or at least in part, by health insurance. Therapeutic visits with an exercise physiologist rather than a prescription for an antidepressant is probably not covered under billing codes for mental illness, and thus may be an out-of-pocket expense.

And yet, exercise should not be overlooked or discarded as an effective way of managing depression. Its value in increasing general health, sleep efficacy, and increased physical fitness, in addition to relieving the symptoms of depression without the side effects of drugs, cannot be overestimated. Now is the time to figure out how to apply this knowledge.

References

“The Benefits of Exercise for the Clinically Depressed,” Craft L and Perna F, Prim Care Companion J Clin Psychiatry. 2004; 6(3): 104–111.

“Effects of exercise training on older patients with major depression,” Blumenthal JA, Babyak MA, and Moore KA. et al. Arch Intern Med. 1999 159:2349–2356

The Social Isolation of a Painful Disease

We visited B for the first time in three years because of our infrequent trips to the country in which she lives, thousands of miles and several time zones away from us. Emails and phone calls had informed us of her worsening fibromyalgia, but we were not prepared for the almost total isolation imposed by her chronic pain. She has trouble walking because of pain in her legs, and simple movements, such as getting up from a chair or climbing a flight of stairs, are difficult or on some days impossible. Plans to socialize with friends or attend a lecture at the university where she used to be a professor are often canceled, she told us, due to overwhelming fatigue.

Fibromyalgia is a disease that seemed to defy diagnosis or categorization for decades, because no objective measurements, such as blood tests or scans, revealed the source of the symptoms. An advertisement for a drug to relieve the pain of fibromyalgia demonstrates the hidden nature of the disease: A woman tells us that we might assume she is perfectly healthy, because there are no outward signs of her symptoms, yet she is in constant pain.

Fortunately, the medical community has now accepted fibromyalgia as a real disease with multiple symptoms. The most common is pain that seems to migrate almost randomly around the body, affecting soft tissue, tendons, ligaments, and muscle. However, patients may experience severe migraines, sleep disturbances, mood and cognitive disorders, gastrointestinal disturbances, and fatigue.

It is not clear what causes the disease or why pain is felt when there is no visible injury, inflammation, infection, or sign of any other cause, such as cancer. Now researchers are investigating whether the pain is not due to some injury or other disorder within the body, but rather to inappropriate messages from centers in the brain that signal the presence of pain.

One therapeutic approach has been the use of drugs which activate neurotransmitters such as serotonin and norepinephrine to see if they can counteract the pain signals from the brain. But the drugs are not always effective and have their own side effects. Presently, a multifaceted therapeutic approach is advised, incorporating psychological counseling, cognitive-behavioral therapy, meditation, exercise, and reducing sleep disturbances.

However, these interventions are not always successful. Our friend swam and did exercises in the water for two years with no improvement. Now an exercise physiologist trained to work with fibromyalgia patients is available to help her exercise twice a week, but the sessions are often canceled because the intensity of her pain makes any type of exercise too difficult.

Physicians and other health professionals have not been able to find any effective intervention to allow this once-vibrant woman to return to her former active life. She taught university-level courses, turned her research into highly regarded books, and was active in an organization that worked with disadvantaged children. Now, most of her days are spent alone in her apartment with a part-time caretaker. Her friends have dropped away, not because they don’t want to be with her, but because her pain makes it difficult for her to be social. Her hands hurt too much to text or email or engage in social media, and she finds it hard to carry on phone conversations. We don’t know how much our visit cost her in pain. Because we had traveled so far to see her, she never revealed to us, honestly, how she was feeling.

And yet it was apparent that having visitors who made a point of not focusing the entire conversation on her disease had a positive effect. We amused her with some interesting gossip, engaged her in a political discussion that we knew would animate her, shared memories of a time when we lived in the same city, and talked about her research.

Did her pain recede as a result? We never asked, but the energy she summoned several minutes into our visit seemed to indicate that perhaps her pain was not taking over her life at that time.

Sadly, we had to leave her and return home, promising not to wait so long before we made the trip again. But our visit pointed out how a chronically painful disease reduces the quality of life and in particular the loss of human contact. And it is not obvious what can be done. It is hard to spend time with someone who is in constant pain; we don’t know what to say, how to help, or how to understand what they are feeling unless we have had similar experiences. We fear that we may be causing the patient more stress by forcing her to put on a cheerful face and chitchat with us as if nothing is wrong when we all know that she is deeply distressed. Sometimes it’s easier to stay away.

But we shouldn’t stay away. We should not allow the pain and other symptoms, such as sleep disturbances, limit our visits with the patient. If we allow this to happen, then we are allowing the disease to replace our relationships.

When we saw our friend, it was apparent that once we stopped talking about her disease and switched to topics that have consumed our mutual interests for decades, she seemed to focus less on her pain and more on engaging with us in discussing the interests we had shared for many years. Indeed, at some point, we all forgot about the fibromyalgia and simply remembered how good it was to be with each other.

Perhaps social contact should be added to the top of the long list of interventions for this disease. Pain may be present, whether the patient is alone or with others. But when others are around, good conversations, laughter, stories, arguments, etc., may prove an invaluable distraction from the pain. It may not always work; pain may cause social interactions to be delayed or canceled. But it is important to try, because the rewards of seeing a friend or family member relieved of chronic pain, even temporarily, are immense.

References

Goldenberg DL. Fibromyalgia syndrome. An emerging but controversial condition. JAMA 1987; 257:2782.

Björkegren K, Wallander MA, Johansson S, Svärdsudd K. General symptom reporting in female fibromyalgia patients and referents: a population-based case-referent study. BMC Public Health 2009; 9:402.

Clauw DJ. Fibromyalgia: A clinical review. JAMA 2014; 311:1547.

Does Your Mood Fall Before the Leaves Do?

When fall officially arrives on September 22, the number of hours of daylight and darkness are equal. As we proceed further into fall and early winter, hours of darkness overtake those of light, and a well-rehearsed (because we sing this every year) chorus of “It is so dark in the afternoon!” will be heard.  By the end of November, the refrain of, “It’s so depressing!” is added to our song of complaint.

And every year, even before the leaves change color, we noticed changes in energy, appetite, sleep and mood. At first, these changes are hardly noticeable: sleeping a little longer, disinterest in new activities or commitments, feeling tired, craving for starchy comfort foods rather than large salad, and a bit of irritability, annoyance, impatience, and gloominess. That’s seasonal affective disorder, SAD or the winter blues,  arriving.

This seasonal disorder with its symptoms of overeating, fatigue, sleepiness, and grumpy mood is provoked by a decline in hours of daylight. Inhabitants of our northern states are more vulnerable than those in the south because the southern states have more daylight in the late fall and winter. For example, on  December 21, the first day of winter, Chicago has a little over 9 hours of daylight; Key West, Florida, 10 and a half hours.  The symptoms of SAD are not weather related (although there is a variant called summer SAD that seems to be linked to heat and humidity). Indeed, the early symptoms may begin during the early days of fall with its sunny crisp days, and naturally cool nights.

SAD was first described in the mid-l980s, but not much more is known today about how an environmental input like sunlight is able to bring about so many changes in our well-being.  The hormone that puts us to sleep, melatonin, has been implicated because daylight naturally reduces its levels in the blood. It was thought that the late sunrises of the fall and winter seasons delays melatonin destruction and leaves us sleepy, but how this would affect the other symptoms such as mood and overeating was (and is) not understood.

One of the first therapies offered to patients was exposure to artificial light that mimics the spectrum of sunlight. Sitting in front of a lightbox or “sunbox” for thirty minutes or so in the early morning upon awakening was shown to relieve the symptoms of SAD. Lightboxes are still used, and some who work in windowless offices often keep them on throughout the morning to brighten their mood. Treatment with antidepressants that increase serotonin activity is now an alternative treatment based on studies showing that serotonin activity seems to be reduced in patients with seasonal affective disorder.

However, many people fortunately never experience the clinical depression of SAD; rather they have milder symptoms which now have taken on the name “winter blues”. Although their weight, sleep, work productivity, and mood are all changed (not for the better), their symptoms may be relieved in part simply by using light therapy.

One of the problems with winter depression is that it creeps up silently, triggering an almost imperceptible change in behaviors that seem to have their own justification, rather than associated with diminishing daylight. Fresh fruit desserts are less appealing than the fruit baked in a cake or pie; fall activities make a good excuse for skipping the gym; new projects or commitments are better off delayed until spring because the holidays will be coming; the irritability, depressed mood, anger symptoms are justified because of work/kids back to school/ family or financial stress; and sleeping longer is necessary because of a persistent tiredness.

Recognizing the early symptoms of winter blues, such as cravings for sweet carbohydrates or increased fatigue, allows strategies to be put in place (like rakes before the leaves drop) to decrease their impact on quality of life.  For example, weight is often gained due to the dual effects of craving high-fat sugary foods (like chocolate and cookies) and drastically decreasing exercise because of fatigue. Recognizing this should lead to removing highly caloric carbohydrate snacks like chocolate and ice cream from the kitchen. Once the full blown carb cravings of winter blues hit, it will be difficult to resist eating cookies or ice cream or chocolate, especially when the sun sets by late afternoon.  Replacing these highly caloric foods with very low fat breakfast cereal—such as oat or wheat squares or cornflakes—will increase serotonin, turn off carbohydrate cravings, and increase satiety without doing damage to your weight.

Fatigue and disinterest in taking on new activities may shut down any commitment to frequent (if any) exercise. Plenty of excuses will be available as weather, early afternoon darkness, work, holiday, and family commitments erode time for a workout at home, at the gym, or outdoors. It is all too easy to stop going to a yoga or Pilates class or cancel a walk with a friend. One solution is to use an APP, or wearable exercise tracking device that will nag you into taking 10,000 steps a day, or indicate how many calories you are eating and how many you are using for energy. The APP doesn’t care what your excuses are for not moving, but if programmed correctly, will ping and alarm and buzz until you do move.

Better yet, be competitive with someone at work or in the family so that you have to display daily (or at least weekly) whether you met your exercise goals. If you start doing this before the fatigue of the winter blues sets in, it is possible that you will continue with the exercise even if one part of you is begging to lie down on the couch and watch Netflix. There is no cure for SAD or the winter blues other than moving to states where the days are longer. Fortunately, the days start to get longer on the second day of winter, and the symptoms will go into remission by mid-spring.

We can’t keep the leaves from falling, or snow, for that matter. But it should be possible with the right interventions to keep weight from rising, mood from falling, and energy levels intact until that happens.

References

Seasonal affective disorder: a description of the syndrome and preliminary findings with light therapy Rosenthal N, Sack D, Lewy A et al Archives of General Psychiatry  1984 ;41: 72-80

(β-CIT SPECT imaging shows reduced brain serotonin transporter availability in drug-free depressed patients with seasonal affective disorder  Willeit M, Praschak N, Rieder A et al Biological Psychiatry  2000 ; 47: 482-489

Can You Laugh Off a Few Pounds?

Most of us have a friend who, if invited to dinner, will make us laugh so much with an unending stream of funny stories that the food will get cold and neglected. The jokes may start soon after hunger has been dulled sufficiently to slow down eating and, if the jokes are well presented, laughter will prevent many from continuing to eat.  And indeed, what one remembers after this type of dining experience is not the food (regardless of how good it is) but the shared experiences of laughter.

Many people have tried to define the effects of laughing on the brain, attempted to analyze how structure of jokes activates laughter (there is a linguistic basis for this) and even have measured physiological responses to laughter. But it is not necessary to know what neurotransmitters in the brain are involved in the laughing response to know that it makes you feel better. The feeling may not last any longer than it takes to forget the punch line, but there is a sense of contentment after a good laugh, a feeling of relief because even if it is only for a few minutes, any negative emotions we are harboring seem silenced by the sounds of laughter we are making.

The idea that laughing releases tension is well understood by therapists who study the effect of laughter on behavior and mood. Moreover, even though we can laugh privately at something funny in a book or in a New Yorker cartoon, laughing is acknowledged as a way we communicate with others in the few minutes we all perceive the world of the funny story the same way. Indeed, if someone in a group mutters, “Why is that funny?” others view him or her temporarily as an outsider to a shared understanding of the story.

Laugh therapy has been used to reduce anxiety and depression among patients confronting illnesses like cancer and chronic diseases that have no apparent cure. Laughter is used as a tool to help people with social anxiety, according to Aaron O’Banion and Justin Bashore, who write about this on their website, Social Anxiety Institute.

Doctors rarely, if ever, prescribe laughter as a remedy for disease but one man, Norman Cousins, proved that it could be a powerful tool. Cousins, the editor-in-chief of the Saturday Review, developed a painful connective tissue disease with a very small chance of recovery.  His own treatment plan included watching reruns of humorous television programs and movies. His book, The Anatomy of an Illness, published in l979 after he recovered from his disease, described how, “…ten minutes of belly laughter allowed him two hours of pain-free sleep.” Of course, as some critics pointed out, he may have been misdiagnosed and whatever he had could have gotten better without the laughter, but the effect of laughing was immediate and the results, no pain, easily noticed.

Inducing laughter for therapeutic reasons, such as decreasing anxiety, is not left to the telling of jokes or watching a stand-up comedian. There are therapeutic laughter meet-up groups, laughter yoga (known as Hasya yoga) and laughter clubs. The objective is put an individual through a series of breathing and moving exercises that mimic, to some extent, the body movements when one is laughing. And sometimes laughing is induced just by having two people sit, stare at one another, and then force a laugh. It works as anyone who has giggled in response to someone else giggling knows.

It seems obvious that laughing should somehow find its way into a weight-loss program, especially for those whose excessive food intake is the primary, indeed only, pleasure they have. Eating is commonly done to reduce tension and anxiety, as a pleasurable way of reducing boredom, loneliness, the tedium of work or household tasks, and as a source of comfort that never fails. If laughter can decrease the negative moods often associated with overeating, the effect may be a painless, and indeed enjoyable, way of losing weight.

Laugh It Off! Weight Loss for the Fun of It by Katie Namrevo was published 14 years ago and describes the effect of laughing on the weight loss of the author. Unfortunately, her book has not spawned the equivalent of national weight-loss laughing groups that, unlike Weight Watchers, would allow clients to tell jokes rather than sad stories about how they overate the previous week. Moreover, might laughter therapy be used to relieve the intense loneliness of a morbidly obese shut-in individual who finds pleasure only when eating? If Norman Cousins could experience a few hours of reduced physical pain, might laughing also bring about a few hours of relief from emotional pain? Consider what might happen if someone attempting to lose weight was told that a meal could be consumed only after the individual watched 10 or 15 minutes of a funny movie or video or listened to a recording of a very funny writer like David Sedaris. What if an exercise-averse individual were told that a yoga group was focusing on movements related to laughter? A weight-loss group might be more fun if the attendees laughed together instead of describing events in which they overate, or the reasons they were provoked into doing so.

All of us, regardless of our weight, probably don’t spend enough time laughing. And yet, all of us have had the experience of repeating to ourselves a joke or funny observation we may have heard recently, just because it brings a smile to our face. Doing so makes us feel good. And feeling good is an effective way to support weight loss.

References

“Effects of laughter therapy on anxiety, stress, depression and quality of life in cancer patients,” Demir, M. J., Cancer Sci Ther 2015 7: 272-273.

An Afternoon Starbucks’ Drink May Be Great for Your Mood, but a Disaster for Your Weight

A full-page advertisement for an Ultra Caramel Frappuccino stopped me from turning the page in a magazine I was reading. The picture of this drink caused my mouth to water, and was one of several Starbucks drinks they are featuring to entice morning customers back into their stores for afternoon refreshment.  Hidden in small letters at the bottom of the page is the phrase “Find Your Happy.” Perhaps it refers to happy taste buds after drinking one of the Frappuccinos.  And for many, this may be the result. Moreover, I suspect that the marketing people at Starbucks who came up with the campaign did not know that an afternoon drink combining caffeine and carbohydrate are satisfying a need rooted in our brains, not our taste buds.

Collette Reitz describes how many of us feel around 3 or 4 pm when she writes on Elite Daily’s May 2018 web site”…you can’t decide what to order at Starbucks because you are craving both a giant piece of cake and a caffeine boost.“ What Ms. Reitz is describing is the phenomenon of a, “…universal afternoon carbohydrate craving and afternoon lack of caffeine fatigue.”

The flagging energy and blah feelings experienced around 3 or 4 pm is largely due in part to caffeine levels that have been declining since morning, when many of us drink our coffee or other caffeinated drinks. They can be quite low by mid-afternoon unless a caffeinated beverage was consumed with lunch.  But most of the mood changes in the afternoon seem to be associated with decreasing brain levels of serotonin. We don’t know why there should be a change in the level of this neurotransmitter, but its effects can be seen in the craving for carbohydrates along with the distractibility, grumpiness, irritability and restlessness many experience between 3 and 5 pm.

We discovered this in studies carried out at MIT almost thirty years ago with people who self-identified as carbohydrate cravers. At first we believed people were eating carbohydrates in the afternoon because they wanted something pleasurable to munch on when they took a break from work. But it turned that eating the carbohydrates was a kind of self-medication. Our subjects told us how they couldn’t concentrate or became irritable with their kids, or felt depressed or angry late in the afternoon. They said they needed to eat carbs at that time. They weren’t hungry, but they found it impossible not to eat a sweet or starchy snack and when they did so they felt better.

We tested their claim that eating a carbohydrate in the afternoon positively affected their moods by giving them a drinks containing carbohydrate or protein, and measuring their moods before and after the drinks. They didn’t know what was in the drinks. It turned out that the carbohydrate drink reversed their bad moods but the protein drink had no effect.   (“Changes in Mood after Carbohydrate Consumption may influence Snack Choices of Obese Individuals,” Leiberman, H.J., Wurtman, J., and Chew, B., Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 45:772-778, 1986)

Further tests in which they received either a drug that increased serotonin activity, or a placebo showed that when serotonin was more active, their carbohydrate craving disappeared.( D-fenfluramine selectively suppresses carbohydrate snacking by obese subjects.Wurtman, J.J., Wurtman, R.J., Mark, S., Tsay, R., Gilbert, W., Growdon, J. Int. J. Eating Disorders, 4(1):89-99, 1985.)

So it appeared that somehow serotonin was signaling them to eat carbohydrates. Why? The reason was actually discovered years earlier, also at MIT. Serotonin is made after insulin is released and changes the pattern of amino acids in the blood. When insulin does this, a particular amino acid, tryptophan, gets into the brain and instantly is converted to serotonin. Insulin is secreted only after sweet or starchy carbohydrates (with the exception of fructose) are eaten.  (“Brain serotonin content: physiological dependence on plasma tryptophan levels,” Fernstrom, J., and Wurtman, R., Science, 173:149-152, 1971) Perhaps the lack of serotonin sent a signal in the form of carbohydrate craving just as thirst is a signal that the body needs water.

Starbucks’ “afternoon made” drinks may be the solution to this serotonin-generated afternoon mood and energy slump. But it is also a problem. The heavily advertised Frappuccino contains so many calories that the elevation in energy and mood may be costly in added pounds.  A grande size of the Ultra Caramel Frappuccino contains 420 calories, 19 grams of fat, 59 grams of carbs and 5 grams of protein. The grande size Triple Mocha Frappuccino has 400 calories, 18 grams of fat, 55 grams of carbs and 5 grams of protein. One does not need to consume 55 grams of carbohydrate and 400 calories to increase serotonin levels. Twenty-five to thirty grams is sufficient and if the snack is very low in fat or fat-free like some breakfast cereals the calories rarely exceed 130. Moreover, the fat content of the drinks may actually have a negative impact on mood. Feeling logy or foggy or just tired after eating a load of fat is not uncommon. Drinking 18 or 19 grams of fat puts a “ball of fat” in your stomach, and when digested rarely leads to increased mental or physical energy. I would not want to have a surgical procedure if my doctor just finished drinking a Frappuccino. To add fat to the fire, as it were, the fat drastically slows down digestion so the beneficial effects of caffeine and carbohydrate on energy and mood take longer to be experienced.

Starbucks offers other options that refresh and rejuvenate with many fewer calories. Mango Dragon Fruit Lemonade has 110 calories and 26 grams of carbohydrate. Strawberry acai lemonade has a similar nutrient profile. Other low-calorie drinks such as lemonade do not have quite enough carbohydrate to activate serotonin synthesis in the tall size, but would if ordered in the next larger size.

Will you find your “happy” in these afternoon drinks? Yes—but only if your mood goes up without your weight doing the same.

Too Little of a Good Thing: Carbohydrates

I was in charge of refreshments at a reception held for a guest lecturer and, aware of some of the attendees’ dietary limitations, selected gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free, and vegan cookies, as well as a large bowl of seasonal fruits.

“I am on the keto diet,” several of the guests told me as they avoided the cookies and fruit.

Where had I been?

I did not realize that the ketogenic diet had reappeared with such popularity, although I knew it never had really gone away since the days of Dr. Atkins. A few minutes on the internet made apparent the ubiquity of a diet that forces the body to switch from using glucose to fatty acids for energy. The diet seems to appeal to those who believe that total abstinence from sweet and starchy foods is the only way to control calorie intake. It also appeals to those who feel that carbohydrates are the source of physical and cognitive distress.

That adherence to such a diet has side effects ranging from unpleasant to worrisome is a small price to pay for those who follow a carbohydrate-free eating plan. Who cares about bad breath, constipation, “keto brain” (inability to concentrate and remember), difficulty sustaining strenuous exercise, and dangerously low electrolyte levels? As long as the weight comes off, it is worth it. Or so the thinking goes.

What happens after the diet ends can be dealt with after the diet ends, and if it seems impossible to maintain weight loss, well, why not go right back on the carbohydrate-free diet? Long-term effects? No one knows, so it could be good (or bad).

When someone is in ketosis, the body uses fat as a back-up energy system. Normally and naturally the body depends on glucose for all its energy needs. The glucose comes into the body as the end product of digestion of all carbohydrates, whether sucrose or brown rice, and is converted through a series of biochemical reactions into energy. In ketosis, the body uses fatty acids as its energy source. Once the body adapts to this alternate source of energy, it seems to run more or less the same (except for muscles which work longer and harder when using glucoose, the natural source of energy.) Exercise physiologists tell us that there is so little stored glucose in muscle on a carbohydrate-free diet, that muscles may fail to sustain strenuous movement after a few minutes of intense exercise. This means muscles used to sprint after a dog darting into the street, or a toddler about to climb up the rungs of a bookcase, will run out of energy reserves very quickly.

However, the body has a way of getting around the lack of carbohydrates for its glucose source by making its own. Certain amino acids in the protein we eat are converted to glucose in a process call gluconeogenesis. This occurs in the liver and kidneys and, according to advice given to wannabe ketotics, must be prevented. According to one Internet site, “Perfect Keto,” one should eat a specific ratio of fat to protein, because if too much protein and too little fat are consumed, the body will use the amino acids in protein as a source of self-made glucose. To prevent this, one should eat a very high fat diet, and only moderate amounts of protein, namely 75% fat, 20% protein, and a tiny amount of carbohydrate, 5%.

You will know whether or not you have achieved your goal of ketosis by testing levels of ketone bodies in your urine, blood or breath. Ketone bodies are three substances (acetoacetate, beta-hydroxybutyrate, and acetone) that the liver produces from fatty acids during periods of fasting, starvation, and very low or zero carbohydrate diets.

Although we tend to associate a carbohydrate-free or extremely low carbohydrate diet with dieting, it has long been seen as an effective treatment for controlling intractable pediatric epilepsy. Indeed, it is so important that the epileptic child not deviate from this diet that nutritional products have been developed containing flavored protein/fat liquid supplements that function as meal substitutes.

Moreover, avoiding carbohydrates used to be, prior to the availability of insulin, the only way someone with diabetes could handle this disease. And minimizing carbohydrate intake not only from sugary foods, but vegetables such as winter squash, corn on the cob, and carrots may help maintain a normal fasting blood sugar level.

Is it worth putting the body through a major physiological readjustment in order to lose weight?  What about the effect of carbohydrate deprivation on mood? Will there be any rebound eating of carbohydrates once the diet is switched back to including some carbohydrates? A definitive study comparing weight loss among 609 participants who were on a low carbohydrate or low-fat diet over a 12 month period was published this past winter in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study did not support claims that avoiding carbohydrate produces a better weight-loss outcome. The difference in weight loss between the two groups was about l ½ pounds.

But perhaps the low carbohydrate diet is better for mood. Certainly anecdotal reports of the benefits of eliminating or drastically reducing carbohydrate intake would have you believe that clearer, sharper, focused, energetic minds result.  Here, also, the claim was not borne out by results of another twelve month study comparing  a low-fat and low-carbohydrate diet.

That moods improve among those in the study not denied carbohydrate is not surprising, assuming that some of the mood effects such as energy, focus, calmness and a sense of well-being are associated with normal serotonin activity. The absence of carbohydrate over prolonged periods of time prevents the amino acid tryptophan from entering the brain where it is converted to serotonin. The result: a decrease in serotonin levels and the risk of mood changes associated with too little of this neurotransmitter.

What happens if and when carbohydrates are added back into the diet? Diminished serotonin levels may make the dieter vulnerable to overeating this food group.

Next time I am asked to bring refreshments, I will be sure to include some pork rinds.

References

“Effect of Low-Fat vs Low-Carbohydrate Diet on 12-Month Weight Loss in Overweight Adults and the Association With Genotype Pattern or Insulin Secretion,”  The DIETFITS Randomized Clinical Trial,  Gardner, C., Trepanowski, J., DelGobbo, L., et al,  JAMA 2018; 319:667-679

Long-term effects of a Very Low-Carbohydrate Diet and a Low-Fat Diet on Mood and Cognitive  Function .Brinkeworth, G, Buckley J, Noakes, M,  Arch Intern Med 2009 :169; 1880-1873

“Influence of tryptophan and serotonin on mood and cognition with a possible role of the gut-brain axis,” Jenkins. T., Nguyen, J., Polglaze, K.,, et al, Nutrients 2016 8(1): 56.

Night Eating Syndrome: Is It Just Sleep That Is Disturbed?

Waking up in the middle of the night is an annoying event that most of us experience. Usually we are able to fall asleep again quickly, perhaps after drinking some water and/or making a trip to the bathroom. But for some, waking up is a signal to go into the kitchen and eat: a bowl of cereal, a peanut butter sandwich, or a dish of ice cream. And unhappily, going back to bed after the night time snack does not ensure that the remainder of the night will be restful. Waking may occur once again, or even several times during the rest of the night, and is always accompanied by eating. The next morning, the night time eater has no appetite for breakfast and may not eat for hours.

When the pattern of awakening and eating occurs regularly, it is defined as a type of eating disorder called Night Eating Syndrome (“NES”) described first by Albert Stunkard in l955. Dr. Stunkard was a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania when he first put forth the criteria for diagnosing this poorly understood behavior. Simply eating leftover pie or pizza at midnight is not sufficient to meet the diagnosis, because people with NES consume about 25% of their total daily calories after the evening meal. The food can be consumed in the evening before sleep and/or during nocturnal awakenings. Those with NES suffer from insomnia at least four or five times a week and believe that they will not be able to go back to sleep unless they eat. Finally, if they have mood disturbances like depression and anxiety, their moods will worsen as the evening progresses.

Interestingly, as Stunkard points out in a paper he wrote on the subject almost fifty years later, people who engage in frequent night time eating are not necessarily obese, although it is a risk factor for obesity. Because they are unlikely to eat during the early part of the day, (skipping breakfast and delaying lunch) their total daily intake may be appropriate. On the other hand, many who are seeking help for their obesity often fail to report nighttime eating episodes. Plus, they are rarely asked about it, so it is not known to what extent this type of eating contributes to weight gain.

The inability to sleep through the night, or to do so with only infrequent awakenings of short duration, is certainly associated with NES, but is it the cause? Many people have insomnia, but they do not eat their way through every period of nighttime wakefulness. If the food eaten helps put the eater back to sleep, this would explain their seeking food once they wake up. But it is hard to find studies that test whether the foods chosen in order to put the insomniac to sleep actually work. Moreover, in a study that examined sleep cycles of NES subjects and controls, no difference was found in the duration of sleep, although the former did awaken earlier in the night and more often.

Perhaps the syndrome is not caused by disordered sleep, but by something else. Current research suggests someone with NES is not eating to go back to sleep, but rather waking up because of hunger. The “hunger” hormone ghrelin, which normally is secreted during the day when we normally feel hungry, seems to peak late in the evening and into the night in NES sufferers. Thus they may be awakening because of ghrelin-potentiated hunger.

A solution has been to reset the pattern of ghrelin secretion back to normal by exposing the patient to light very early in the morning. Anyone who has traveled east across enough time zones to feel out of sync and out of sorts during the first couple of days, knows the feeling of being forced to sleep and eat on another time zone’s timetable. It is hard to be hungry for breakfast when it is only 3 am back home, and it is hard to find food when you wake up hungry at 2 am because it is now 7 pm back home. If you stay in the new time zone long enough, your eating and sleeping hormones adjust. This is what researchers hope to accomplish for the night eaters using bright lights to make ghrelin levels high during daylight rather than at night.

Melatonin is also being tried because some studies have found that this sleep hormone is not as high as it should be in the late evening, and perhaps this is why it is so easy for the night eaters to wake up. There is a time-released melatonin preparation containing the low recommended dose of melatonin (0.3 mg); whether it might prevent frequent awakenings has not yet been tested. Anxiety and depression are also linked with NES, but it is unclear if they are the cause or consequence of disrupted sleep.

It is not unusual to wake up at 3 am and be assaulted with the worries that were successfully repressed 12 hours earlier. If one were prone to depression and anxiety, would these mood disorders cause sleep disturbances leading to frequent awakenings or, if awake, prevent the individual from falling back asleep unless something is eaten? Stunkard recommended antidepressants that increase serotonin activity to decrease anxiety and depression and calm the individual back into sleep. But a remedy that would help the sleep, as well as hunger and mood disturbances, is more simple and natural: a cup of low-fat, mildly sweet breakfast cereal eaten upon nighttime awakening. The carbohydrate will increase serotonin thus inducing relaxation, satiety and a more tranquil mood.

If the cereal is in a cup by the bed, it can be eaten without leaving it (as long as there are no crumbs.)

References

“The night-eating syndrome; a pattern of food intake among certain obese patients,” Stunkard, A.J.; Grace, W.; Wolff, H.,The American Journal of Medicine. 1955: 19: 78–86

“Two forms of disordered eating in obesity: binge eating and night eating,” Stunkard, A. and Allison, K.. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord 2003, 27: 1-12

“Circadian eating and sleeping patterns in the night eating syndrome,” O”Reardon, J., Ringel, B., Dinges, D., et al, Obes Res. 2004; 12:1789-96

If Your Valentine Sweetheart is on a Diet, Should You Gift Chocolates?

Valentine ‘s Day is a sweet (pun intended) holiday. It comes in the middle of the winter doldrums; Christmas is long past and spring is nowhere to be seen. But the problem is that it also comes about six weeks into the weight-loss program many started after New Year’s Day.

“Give something to show your love,” we are told in a doughnut shop advertisement featuring heart- shaped pink doughnuts covered with white icing and pink sprinkles. Shelves in gourmet chocolate stores are filled with pinky-red, heart-shaped boxes decorated with tiny flowers; the boxes contain melt-in-your-mouth creamy chocolate that should be guaranteed to melt the heart of the recipient.  Russell Stover chocolates that are filed with hidden flavors revealed only when bitten into are waiting to be bought and sent to the relatives who remember the candy with fondness. M&M’s sport pink chocolate shells, while heart-shaped sugar candies waiting to cause instant tooth decay call to the drug store shopper who came in only looking for shampoo.

Not to be left out, bakeries feature several-layered heart-shaped cakes to be consumed with a glass or two of champagne.

To be sure, commercial romance for Valentine’s Day is not limited to food. Flowers are a welcome brightness in the gloom of early February and jewelry, especially diamond engagement rings, do not contain calories. Gifts of self-indulgence that the recipient may not get for her or himself, such as a massage, spa treatments, pedicures, and/or manicures, are also calorie-free and thoughtful.

However, sweet foods, especially chocolate, seem to be the most persistent symbol of romantic thoughts or intentions. Perhaps because for centuries chocolate has been considered an aphrodisiac. There is no scientific evidence for this, and even if it were true, there would be no reason to assume that chocolate consumed on Valentine’s Day has a greater impact on sexual arousal than if it were consumed on any other day. Perhaps if chocolate is wrapped in a heart-shaped box, it has more of an impact; nonetheless, this certainly has not been tested.

Giving a gift of chocolate also has its perils. What if the message it conveys has less to do with romantic intentions and more to do with the body image of the recipient? Give a pound of chocolate to someone skinny and it may convey the thought, “You need to gain some weight.”  Present that heart-shaped box to a chubby recipient and it can unintentionally convey the thought that, “You are fat already, so what difference does another pound of chocolate make?” instead of, “I like you the way you are.” Can you give chocolate to someone in the older generation who may be overweight, developing diabetes, or dealing with orthopedic problems because of excess weight?

Then there is the dieter. The continuing popularity of low or zero carbohydrate diets puts chocolate on the forbidden food list. The butterfat would be fine, and the more expensive the chocolate, the more butterfat it contains. But the sugar content that makes chocolate edible (otherwise it would taste like bitter cooking chocolate) would ruin the diet of anyone who is following a ketogenic diet in which fat, not carbohydrate, is used by the brain and body for energy.

But for those who are counting calories or the equivalent in food exchanges, there is good news. Small amounts of chocolate have fewer calories than they seem to have, given their luxurious taste and mouthfeel. A quick scan of Godiva, a popular gourmet brand of chocolate, reveals a lower calorie count for their chocolate than one would assume. Admittedly the actual pieces of chocolate are not large, maybe one or two bites. Still, you can eat four dark chocolate truffles for about 180 calories, and three pieces of assorted Belgian chocolates for 190 calories. A Lindt chocolate ball has 75 calories. To put this in perspective, a glass of champagne has 95 calories, an eight-ounce serving of fat-free yogurt around 80-90 calories, and 10 almonds, 70 calories. So certainly presenting your Valentine gift of chocolate to a dieter should not be a problem; one or two pieces of chocolate will not retard weight loss or cause the diet to fail.

But of course that is the problem. You can’t buy prepackaged chocolates wrapped in the colors of Valentine’s Day in amounts smaller than twenty or so pieces. Thus the recipient has to confront the problem of how to manage the consumption of the rest of the chocolate after February 14.  A highly disciplined dieter will be able to restrict consumption of a luscious piece of chocolate to one or possibly two a day. But this kind of restriction is not easy to accomplish, especially in the middle of the diet. And the romantic associations with the chocolate will be quickly dissipated when the dieter finds a “gift” of pounds after devouring the rest of the package.

One solution is to buy only one or two pieces of gourmet chocolate from the store; the chocolate can be boxed in the same fancy wrapping as would be used for a larger amount. But in this time of online rather than in person shopping, locating such shops and having the time to go to one seems much too inconvenient. Moreover, the dieter may misinterpret intentions behind the gift thinking that the giver:

1) Is cheap;

2) Thinks I am fat;

3) Thinks I will gobble everything in a bigger box; and therefore

4) Wants me to stay fat.

Maybe people should stick to flowers or diamonds.

 

 

 

Is the US Becoming More Obese Because of Medication?

Despite a blizzard of weight-loss programs, touting novel fat-reducing foods, and innovative exercise devices, the country is getting fatter and fatter. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that nearly 4 in 10 U.S adults, according to their body mass index, can be classified as obese. Obesity is not evenly distributed among the states. The losers; i.e. the thinnest states, are Colorado, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and D.C. The gainer is West Virginia where almost 40% of adults are obese.

We have been becoming heavier for so many decades that we forget how thin we were as a country 80 or more years ago. It is only when viewing newsreels of the first half of the 20th century in which most adults look extremely thin that you realize what we now consider thin was considered normal weight back then.

The same old reasons are brought out yearly to explain why we, and indeed the rest of the world, is getting fatter: junk food, sugary drinks, dependence on motorized transport rather than our two feet, humongous restaurant portions, intestinal flora that make our bodies store fat, too much time on electronic devices, and too little time in the gym.

Might our growing obesity be related to the weight gain after smoking withdrawal? Weight gain is common among ex-smokers, and studies as reported by the National Bureau of Economic Research (Sharon Begley, “Gut Check”) suggest that it may be 11-12 pounds on average. But a close examination of who gains the most weight indicates that smokers with the lowest BMI are most likely to gain the most, and 11 or 12 pounds is not enough weight gain to make them obese.

Could medications used to treat mental disorders be another, mostly overlooked cause of national weight gain? That psychotropic drugs—the medications used to treat depression, anxiety, bipolar disorderschizophrenia and other mental diseases—cause weight gain is established. Sometimes the weight gain is only a few pounds, stops after a month or two, and is lost as soon as the treatment ends. But many drugs cause substantial weight gain because the patient experiences a relentless urge to eat. Moreover, to the chagrin, indeed horror of some patients, stopping the medications does not always cause weight loss even with dieting and exercise.

Data on the use of psychotropic drugs comes from a 2013 Medical Expenditure Panel Survey discussed in a Scientific American article by Sara Miller.  One in six Americans is taking a psychotropic drug, although not all are being prescribed for mental illness. There have also been many studies showing that depression itself is linked to future obesity. A common depression, Seasonal Affective Disorder, is diagnosed in part by the overeating and weight gain of patients during the increased darkness of winter. Often the depression of PMS and pre-menopause is accompanied by overeating and weight gain as well.

Yet in the list of causes for our increasing girth, reasons such as genes, inflammation, bad gut bacteria and bread are more likely to be found than the weight-gaining potential of depression and the drugs that treat it.

Where are the weight-loss programs specifically designed to help those whose overeating is caused by lack of sunlight, or hormones affecting appetite control centers in the brain, or drugs that hijack control over satiety? Where are the support services for those who are embarrassed to go to the gym because their medications have turned their formerly fit and slim body into a much heavier one?  Recently someone who has been struggling to lose the weight gained on her medication for obsessive-compulsive disorder told me that her dietician put her on a low- carbohydrate diet. “I was craving carbohydrates all the time,” she told me, “so the dietician figured the easiest way to take care of that problem was to remove them from my diet. She did not realize that my medication had caused the cravings even though I told her. And since I couldn’t stop my drugs, I just craved bread and pasta so much on her diet that I began to binge.”

 

This story is typical in that this patient was not seen as needing specialized weight-loss help because her weight gain was the result of a drug, and not related to emotional issuesor an inability to make healthy food choices. Moreover, the dietician’s advice to remove carbohydrates showed lack of knowledge on the effect of eating carbohydrates on serotonin synthesis. Serotonin levels drop when carbohydrates are not consumed and often lead to a worsening of the obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, or other mental disorders.

How long is it going to be before weight-loss professionals acknowledge that many of the obese in the United States are that way because of their medications? How long will it be before thought, labor, and money are put into programs to address their special needs?

Will 2018 bring about needed innovations in weight-loss therapy for these individuals, or will we just become fatter?

Does Running Holiday Errands Count as Exercise?

“I‘m exhausted!” a friend told me when I bumped into her at the supermarket. “I spent the entire weekend running around doing errands.”

“Sounds like a good way of getting exercise and errands done at the same time,” I replied, knowing what the response would be. “Well, obviously I am not running,” she retorted. “But fighting the traffic in the mall parking lot and standing in line every store is so tiring. I don’t have the energy even to get to the gym.”

Holiday preparations, with its multitude of obligations and looming deadline of December 25th, seem to cause a frenzy of multitasking and soak up scarce free time. Even before Thanksgiving leftovers are consumed, the holiday to-do list is made and the running begins.

There is a high mental and physical cost to transforming ordinary life into one characterized by holiday decorations, buying and wrapping presents, sending cards, cooking, entertaining, hosting company and/or traveling. Since these tasks are added to those normally carried out each day, such as going to work, caring for family and social activities, the result is that time normally spent preparing and eating meals and exercising is drastically decreased. Indeed, going to the gym, a yoga class, or for a run seems like an indulgence done at the cost of cramming even more holiday obligations into remaining hours of the day or week. And for some, like my friend, the fatigue that comes with probably too little sleep, too much stress, too much shopping in malls with recirculated air, and too much waiting in traffic…it all makes sitting on a couch rather than on an exercycle seem like the only option at the end of the day.

Weight gain during the holiday season is so common that right after New Year’s Day, dieting kicks in. Gaining five pounds or more from Thanksgiving to the next year is not unusual, and holiday food and drink are major contributors to increased calorie intake. But even without the eggnog, sugar cookies, mayonnaise, sour cream or melted cheese dips, and fruit cake, weight would probably be gained. Lack of time leads to food court dining, fast food drive-ins, pizza, or nibbling all day on nutritionally weak snacks. Steamed vegetables, grilled fish and large salads are for January, not for December with its endless errands.

Frequent exercise classes or solitary workout routines followed by a shower, hair drying, and make-up applying is not compatible with a mind-set of counting down to Christmas.  And for those who exercise at home rather than at a health club, the convenience of having a piece of exercise equipment nearby is often ignored, because household tasks call more loudly than 30 minutes on the treadmill.

The approach to getting through the next few weeks without compromising sleep, weight, emotional well-being and fitness?

Schedule time to keep the body and mood healthy. You are not running a toy workshop in the North Pole and setting up a sleigh (rather than Amazon) delivery system by Dec 24. Which is to say that if there is a choice between getting enough sleep, or eating a salad, lean protein and high fiber carbohydrate, or taking a brisk walk or an exercise class, or making another dash to the mall, or baking one more batch of cookies? Choose exercise you want to do. Study after study has shown the positive and immediately impact that exercise has on decreasing stress and improving mood and cognition. Over the long term? Exercise can improve general health, decrease risks from heart disease, and perhaps even neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s.  A fatigued, stiff, grumpy body dragged to the gym unwillingly will not be the same after exercising. Paradoxically, the fatigue seems to lift….probably because increased blood flow oxygenates the muscles and brain. Stiffness from sitting in a car or standing in line goes away as the heat from the exercise makes the muscles more limber. Grumpiness disappears as well. People do not scowl at themselves in a health club; they may grunt or groan from the difficulty of their particular exercise, but somehow nasty moods go away (except if there are no towels when you leave the shower).

But the best part of literally (not figuratively) running or doing any other form of physical activity is that you are doing something for yourself. You are the beneficiary. You are the one who feels better, more energetic, less irritable or worried. The time you spend in exercise belongs to you.

Giving yourself the pre-holiday gift of time to take care of yourself is not something that is done easily. Guilt and anxiety over what has to be done, and what might not get done, may interfere with your healthy intentions: “I will make that salad or take a walk after I do (fill in the blank),” you say to yourself.

Putting your need for healthy food, exercise and sleep at the top of the long to-do list is hard. And yet, what better gift can you give to your family and friends than a cheerful, not sleepy, energetic, and unstressed you?