Now that the festivities have finished for another year, hopefully the sight of a mince pie will make you wince in disgust! As all those new years resolutions are being considered with ‘good’ intentions, I thought this would be a prime opportunity to fuel your motivation for taking control of your nutrition once again. You should have a little more space in the cupboards, so here are some solid reasons for motivated endurance athletes (yes, everyone is an athlete at all levels of sport) to scribble some of the following on your shopping list in the new year and take full advantage of these often under-appreciated foods.
At this time of year there are challenges to overcome when developing fitness, and motivation is the principal force at work. We know that prevention is better than cure, although practically, most of us have a few holes to patch or have let our maintenance training slip a little over the last few weeks. So we need to shock ourselves into full-time training once again, however the motivation behind that may be lacking….if so, this post may help you address some of those reasons. Links to fuller articles will put in perspective how these may benefit our performance psychology, mental health, and to keep you moving in the depths of winter.
One of the ‘greyest’ part on the subject of mood alleviation in winter is how the weather may impact our desire to exercise. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) can cause a winter depression at the extreme end of the clinical scale with debilitating symptoms, and even a lack of desire to get out of bed or generally lethargy at the other end. A combination of cold weather, low light levels and carbohydrate cravings may make us feel like hibernating, and while we can’t all be lucky enough to live in perma-sunny climates, we can attempt to boost the feel –good factor that a longer duration of solar rays can provide.
SAD is commonly believed to be brought upon by low light levels which can impact on our motivation to jump out of bed to work and into the gym or on the saddle. We know that the fewer sessions we miss in our training plan the more likely we are to achieve performance or event objectives in the coming season. So how do we keep our incentive when it’s gloomy and cold? There are few ways to prevent a SAD-like syndrome getting in the way of your endurance training. In this post I aim to highlight the potential mechanisms of SAD before elaborating on simple nutritional options which have evidence of effectiveness and hopefully improve your motivation to get back to full-time training.
There are both serotonin and melatonin theories of SAD, both natural molecules used for communication between different brain cells. Low serotonin levels are observed and associated depressive symptoms which SSRI’s like Prozac (fluoxetine) are known to have an anti-depressant effect in clinical cases. The endogenous circadian clock is regulated by melatonin, produced by photosynthetic cells in the retina and pineal gland. Melatonin is also formed from L-Tryptophan. The pathophysiology indicates that an individual with SAD requires 25 times as much natural light entering the retina as a normal individual, to inhibit melatonin and boost serotonin neurotransmission.
Lack of Vitamin D is also thought to be a cause when there is not enough UV-B on the skin, although there are poor correlations in some patient sub-groups. Exercise is well known to alleviate depressive symptoms when combined with other methods of management, however diet may also play a role in helping maintain a virtuous circle of higher mood, agreeableness and incentive to exercise.
There isn’t all bad news from numerous calories in this festive combination, as you might be pleased to know that you may have already been at work on boosting your serotonin levels in your brain. Hopefully you loaded up on some turkey (high in niacin, vitamin B3) and potatoes over the holidays, and now possibly still into the new year…..it’s possible. Tryptophan (5-HTP) is found in many meats including turkey and is the precursor to Serotonin, the notorious mood alleviating neurotransmitter, as well as melatonin, our sleep-cycle regulator hormone. Potatoes are a good source of starch and moderate release carbohydrate which triggers insulin (also important for muscle hypertrophy and anabolic protein sythesis) and in turn facilitates the transport of the amino acid Tryptophan into the brain where it can be converted to Serotonin…voila, food for positive thoughts! More in depth discussion here.
The following short article explains why the go to natural ride snack for most cyclists are bananas (not crazy cyclists), which also contain an effective combination of tryptophan and carbohydrate and may help control insomnia at night.
Boosting the D!
There is somewhat less evidence that vitamin D, which regulates calcium and bone health, is associated with SAD symptoms. During the low light months, vitamin D is depleted more easily in darker skinned individuals with less ability to manufacture vitamin D in the skin. More details on the applied physiology of vit D and required summer and winter light levels globally can be found here.
Scientific research is devoid of studies looking at vitamin D in athletic performance but there is some evidence that well-regulated blood levels have positive effects on muscle strength, maximal oxygen uptake, power and mass in non-athletic populations. Vitamin D2 and D3 can be found in various food products such as fortified cereals and milk, natural foods like salmon and oily fish, eggs and Shitake mushrooms. Read more here….
Ultimately the take home message is that we can never ingest enough vitamin D to achieve what is believed to be a fully functional level, so make sure to sprinkle plenty of sunshine on your diet when available, it’s free!
Recently there has been much discussed about the role of chronic inflammation within the body that could be the cause of numerous debilitating ailments including depressive syndromes. Pro-inflammatory responses, even from excessive high intensity exercise can reduce mood through over-training or poor recovery, already mentioned in a previous post of mine. However the origin of inflammation can be complex. So I thought I’d give the anti-inflammatory ‘mufa’s and pufa’s’ another mention for helping with mood alleviation, and I don’t mean California dreamin! These come in many forms, advocados (also high in Vit B3), nuts, oily fish and should be the staple addition to any endurance athletes weekly shop. This great article on Omega-3 will give you some more ideas.
Finally, there are some key foods that not all of us would consider, besides normal leafy green vegetables spinach and even artichokes containing healthy amounts of vitamin B3, Niacin and Nicotinamide, which are precursors to the cofactor NADH, a molecule directly involved in glucose metabolism. Although rare, vitamin B3 deficiency can occur in developed nations as poor nutrition and alcoholism may predispose the condition. Pyridoxine, (vitamin B6) helps the body make several neurotransmitters, chemicals that carry signals from one nerve cell to another. It is needed for normal brain development and function, and helps the body make the hormones serotonin and norepinephrine, which influence mood, and melatonin, which helps to regulate the night/day body clock. Some pyridoxine containing foods can be found here.
Changing our diet to incorporate many of these mood-busting metabolically healthy foods will help keep us motivated and training more frequently for longer, and the results in performance will incentivise us further….
Wishing you healthy shopping and miles of smiles in 2017!
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