It's the time of year for joy, cheer and good tidings—so why are there so many people who feel sad, stressed and grumpy when December rolls around? There are a number of reasons why the start of winter is such a challenging time.
- Limited Daylight: Less sunshine means less vitamin D. This can increase the risk of depression and compromise the body's immune response. In addition, lack of vitamin D can decrease thyroid function, which can lead to fatigue, sluggishness and weight gain.
- Less Time Outdoors: When the weather is cold, messy and dark, people tend to spend very little time outdoors. Because of this, they are less likely to get the exercise they need to maintain optimal wellness. And because exercise is a natural mood booster, they will be more prone to depression, stress and anxiety during the winter months unless they find ways to fit physical activity in.
- Increased Communicable Illnesses: The winter months are when viral illnesses really take off. And because people tend to be in close quarters with others—and also may have weakened immune systems from reduced vitamin D—they tend to pick up minor illnesses that further wear them down.
- Increased Social Obligations: There seems to be no time busier than December! The relentless pace of tracking down just the right gift for everyone, attending endless parties, dinners and get-togethers, ensuring the home's décor is holiday-perfect, or setting time aside for a full schedule of concerts and pageants can wear down even the fittest and most gregarious of personalities.
- Overindulging in Fatty and Sugary Foods: By their second or third holiday meal, many people have already eaten their weight in casseroles, deviled eggs and sugar cookies. In the short term, this kind of behavior can lead to weight gain, poor blood sugar management and reactivation of food sensitivities. All are things that can keep a person from feeling his/her best.
To devise a strategy for making it through the holidays with as little stress and sickness as possible, consider these suggestions:
1. Improve mood and mental resilience with supplementation.
Increasing the intake of vitamin D during the winter months helps reduce the risk of depression related to seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Senior adults and individuals who are vitamin D deficient based on a sub optimal 25 hydroxy Vitamin D level should consider taking vitamin D year-round. Optimum range is 65-85 ng/ml.
For individuals who experience SAD, consider taking amino acid 5-hydroxy tryptophan (5-HTP). This supplement is a great addition to depression treatment. And, despite warnings to the contrary, it can frequently be taken in conjunction with selective serotonin reuptake inhibiter (SSRI) antidepressants. The body converts 5-HTP to serotonin, the calming neurotransmitter responsible for improving mood. SSRIs only rearrange where the serotonin is—they do not stimulate its production, so a regimen of 200mg to 500mg of 5-HTP a day may be all that’s needed to for that extra mood boost. Serotonin helps one not be so hypercritical of themselves and others, less perfectionistic and not quite so OCD. It’s easier to laugh, love, feel secure, control carbohydrate cravings and be happy with sufficient serotonin.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Patients currently on SSRIs should talk to a medical professional, such as an integrative physician, before making changes to their treatment regimen. Abrupt discontinuation of an antidepressant (or sudden changes in dosage) can lead to unpleasant or dangerous withdrawal symptoms.
Supplements that are known to aid the conversion of 5-HTP to serotonin are magnesium, Vitamin C, zinc and B6. Some people have difficulty converting pyridoxine (plain B6) into activated vitamin B6 or pyridoxyl-5-phosphate (also known as P5P). If a B complex or 100 mg of B6 daily seems insufficient to lift mood, try 50 mg P5P once or twice a day. Taken at bedtime, it will also enhance dreaming.
Several other amino acids provide a calming effect. For individuals who are always fearful and wrapped a bit too tight, the amino acid glycine, which is often found in powder form, is great for anxiety and panic attacks. Think of this and gamma amino butyric acid (GABA) as the brain's natural Valium. Taking 1000mg to 3,000mg of glycine powder (it easily dissolves under the tongue) will result in a calmer and more focused countenance within 5-10 minutes. GABA 750 mg does the same thing. Evening Primrose Oil—around 3,000mg daily—can help GABA work even more effectively in people with a personal or family history of alcohol, Xanax or Valium dependence.
GABA and glycine reduce cravings for alcohol and sugar and fat.....chips and dip, brownies, cookies, cakes. It’s important to remember to take these supplements before the time that the goodies are available. Nothing works if a glass of wine or beer or a bowl of macaroni and cheese is already in hand!
There are other amino acids that can prove to be invaluable in the fight against holiday stress. L-Theanine 100mg 2-3 x/day, which is in green tea, increases the alpha-wave activity in the brain, shutting off the worry impulse and improving focus and concentration. L-Taurine 1000mg 2-3x/day can calm the brain in ways similar to GABA.
St. John's Wort is also effective in treating SAD. This herb works by raising a number of neurotransmitters in the brain—not just serotonin. It takes longer to work than the amino acids, so individuals who find that their mood is easy to track by season may want to consider starting St. John's Wort in early fall. This herb can also interact negatively with certain prescription drugs, so a physician should be consulted before taking it.
Herbs that can help combat stress include hops and passionflower, which act as mild sedatives, and lemon balm, which helps correct mental fatigue and low mood.
Don't forget fish oil ("DHA" in the brain). None of the previously mentioned supplements can properly do their jobs if cells are sick, starved and have unhealthy receptors. Low levels of DHA combined with high levels of saturated and trans fats make nerve cell membranes stiff, preventing serotonin or GABA from sending a strong signal. DHA also reduces inflammation in the brain. That's significant considering depression is sometimes due to inflammatory disease.
2. Maintain a healthful diet and don't overindulge in fatty, sugary foods.
Whether through weight gain, increased blood pressure, poor blood sugar control or acid reflux, poor eating can ruin the holidays. In addition, increased intake of carbohydrates and gluten prevent the adrenal glands from functioning properly. This can lead to fatigue, brain fog and irritability.
Of course, more healthful foods can also improve resiliency. For example, an increased intake of omega-3 fatty acids can reduce inflammation and protect the brain against depression and stress. Fatty fish (cold water, wild-caught), flaxseed, and walnuts are great choices. Selenium, which can be found in oysters, nuts and seeds, legumes and lean meats, can give the brain a boost. So instead of a fatty ham for that holiday meal, try lean pork or turkey. Speaking of turkey, the tryptophan it contains is converted by the brain into serotonin.
Also consider foods that can boost immune response during the holidays and throughout the winter months. Select foods high in vitamin C and zinc. Again, nuts and lean meats are good choices. Consider bell peppers, Brussels sprouts, citrus, broccoli, cauliflower and tomatoes as well. Research suggests that taking or consuming garlic can also help prevent viruses like the common cold.
Individuals already on a specific diet (such as a gluten-free diet) or those who have known food sensitivities (such as dairy sensitivity) should maintain their current regimens. Abandoning regular eating habits during the holiday season can cause fatigue and can increase vulnerability to stress, illness, headaches and upset stomach.
Those who enjoy cooking might consider using full-fat coconut milk for dairy in recipes. Avoid GMO-containing foods and use organic grains in cooking and baking instead of conventionally-raised grains, since the latter are sprayed with glyphosate (aka Roundup®) just before harvest. GMO foods and Roundup® are unwanted gifts that keep on giving—in negative ways.
Take probiotics, 25 billion CFU, to reduce the damaging effects of glyphosate on healthy gut bacteria. Take trace minerals or use Celtic sea salt to replace essential minerals which are bound up by glyphosate in the gut and elsewhere in the body.
It's probably not realistic to expect that, even with this information, people will always make completely healthy choices during the holiday season. After all, it's perfectly natural to want to eat, drink and be merry. The general advice is to just avoid going overboard. To prevent a reaction to certain foods or drinks, activated charcoal in capsule form may be taken before indulging. It will help to decrease adverse reactions to the toxic food. As the meal progresses, several more capsules may be taken. More details are available in the Holiday Feasting First Aid Guide.
After the holiday season, consider starting the New Year off with a full cleanse. An integrative or naturopathic physician can advise how to proceed safely and in a manner that optimizes the detoxification process.
3. Fit in some exercise.
Research has shown that exercise can reduce the severity of a number of mental health issues, including depression, anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder. Studies are also showing that it can improve one’s ability to cope with stress. Intuitively, many people have already made that connection, but more and more research is becoming available to support that observation. It's now believed that physical activity increases the concentrations of norepinephrine in the brain. Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter that is heavily connected to the brain's emotional and stress responses.
Exercise also improves the body's functioning, making everyday tasks easier. And it leads to better sleep, an important component to vitality, stress management and immune functioning.
Despite the evidence in favor of exercise, many are often stumped as to how they can fit it in during the winter months when outdoor time is limited. There are actually a number of ways to do so.
- Join the YMCA or invest in a gym or fitness club membership.
- Make use of exercise DVDs at home. These days, workout discs that suit any exercise preference—from yoga to kickboxing to belly dancing—are easily available and reasonably priced.
- Get the whole family involved and consider investing in a game console that allows everyone to participate in physically active games.
- Sneak exercise into daily routines by walking to speak to a colleague in another part of the office instead of phoning her, parking at the far end of the parking lot, taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Aim for 10,000 steps a day.
4. Take time to recharge.
One of the wonderful things about the holidays is that they give people a reminder to stop focusing inwardly and to devote time and love to others. In fact, altruism is associated with numerous health benefits, including reduced depression. But giving of oneself too much without taking time to recharge comes at a price.
To combat the physical and mental drain that comes around this time every year, participate in healthy activities that provide downtime. Get a good massage or try something different; a healing touch session. This type of energy therapy can reduce pent-up tension (particularly in the neck and shoulders where many tend to carry stress), increase circulation and provide quiet time to rest and enjoy the power of human touch. Other forms of energy therapy that can improve mood are acupuncture, Reiki and Emotional Freedom Technique.
Also, don't underestimate the power of alone time. Whether it's a long bath, a few moments journaling or meditating, or a half an hour of reading before bed, a little time alone to relax and focus can improve mental and emotional energy.
Try to reject the compulsion to have to “do it all” during the holiday season. Things often go much more smoothly when responsibilities are shared. Don't be afraid to delegate tasks to family members and friends, or hire a professional to perform services like decorating, catering and housecleaning.
Finally, get back to basics. The holidays are about the celebration of family and—for many—faith. Spend quality time where it matters, and take time away from the hustle and bustle of the season to engage in fun and meaningful family traditions.
For those who find themselves truly unable to cope with stress or depression, don’t hesitate to talk to a physician or qualified counselor.