It’s February…it’s cold, grey and damp and our mood and energy can be at its lowest ebb of the year. Not surprisingly, more people die in February than any other month…what a depressing thought! Don’t despair, with a little bit of thought about your diet and lifestyle and enjoying a few herbal teas, you can make sure you stave off the blues!
In the dark months, in fact once the days shorten and daylight diminishes after the clocks change in autumn, around 10% of us experience what is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also called the winter blues or seasonal depression. Even if we are not one of the 10%, most of us feel less bright and energetic at this time of year, less able to spring out of bed in the morning, and we can be prone to lethargy, poor concentration and low motivation, and likely to crave sweet and comforting foods to boot.
Low moods are more prevalent in cold, dark areas of the world, but they are also a symptom of modern life. Apparently 75% of the population used to work outside in natural light compared to 10% today. More city dwellers suffer from SAD due to long hours spent in the office and other more exciting places like cafes, restaurants and theatres. However, once the days lengthen in spring, the daffodils come out and the clocks change at the end of March, we should all start to feel a whole lot better.
How can we explain all this? Well, melatonin and serotonin are the two hormones (they are also neurotransmitters/chemical messengers) that affect our mood and energy levels. When we wake up in daylight we produce serotonin, and this helps us to feel awake and focused. In dark winter months, especially if we don’t get outside much, we produce higher levels of melatonin and lower levels of serotonin and this causes us to feel sleepy, down or even depressed. Using a light box to mimic sunlight for 20 minutes to 2 hours a day during the darker months can be very helpful. You don’t need to sit in front of it, just placing it near you is enough for it to work its magic.
There is also an intimate connection between the brain, the gut and a tendency to inflammation. Depression is often experienced by people who suffer from inflammation of the gut as well as from autoimmune diseases, cardiovascular problems, neurodegenerative diseases, type 2-diabetes and cancer, all of which have a link to inflammation. The primary cause of inflammation may be a problem in the “gut-brain axis.”
I HAVE A GUT FEELING
The gut is often known as our second brain. Interestingly it comes from the same embryonic tissue during development in the womb. While it was previously believed that neurotransmitters including serotonin were produced in the brain, actually the gut is responsible for producing around 95% of it. The beneficial bacteria in the gut, known as the microbiota, are closely associated with serotonin production and in this way they are able to influence our behaviour, thoughts and mood.
The gut microbiota is subject to influences from many factors including our lifestyles, stress levels, antibiotic and other drug use and infection. They are significantly affected by our diet, especially the amount of processed foods and sugar we consume, which feed the bad or unfriendly bacteria and yeasts.
Disturbance of the gut flora, which is known as dysbiosis, and the resulting “leaky gut syndrome” can significantly affect serotonin function. Serotonin is produced from the amino acid tryptophan which we get from proteins in our diet. Unfriendly gut microorganisms such as bacteria and yeasts can use the tryptophan themselves before we have time to absorb it. Without sufficient tryptophan, susceptible people can become deficient in serotonin, with the result that they can suffer from various forms of depression, including SAD.
EAT WELL AND EXERCISE
Regular exercise encourages our body’s production of chemicals known as endorphins which are known to increase feelings of well-being. Take a brisk walk daily, go for a run, take up swimming or join a dance class.
Generally a healthy diet, with plenty of organic fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds, whole grains and foods essential fatty acids, should provide most of the necessary nutrients to support the nervous system. Make sure you have plenty of protein-rich foods such as chicken, turkey, milk, eggs, seeds and nuts as they contain tryptophan, the amino acid that is needed for the production of mood elevating serotonin. Certain other nutrients are vital to the production of neurotransmitters and normal function of the nervous system. These include essential fatty acids, vitamins C, B, and E, calcium, magnesium and zinc. Unless they are in plentiful supply during times of stress, a deficiency may arise, and we may find stress harder to deal with and are more likely to become anxious or low in spirits. If this sounds like you, it might be worth taking some supplements.
An increasing amount of modern research has shown that treating inflammation of the gut with probiotics, vitamin B, vitamin D and omega 3 fatty acids can help lift our mood, alleviate depression and improve our quality of life.
HERBS TO LIFT THE SPIRITS
There are many greatly beneficial herbs that have a direct effect on the nervous system and combined with good digestion and healthy eating, they have the ability to radically transform our mental and emotional state. Herbs that can lift the spirits, calm anxiety, relax muscles, increase memory and concentration and aid sleep include rose, wild oats, vervain, lavender, skullcap, chamomile, lemon balm, borage, basil and wood betony and these can be taken as teas or tinctures three times a day. There are some amazing herbs known as adaptogens that have a great ability to improve our energy and vitality and enhance resilience to stress. These include rosemary, ashwagandha, gotu kola, Siberian ginseng, licorice and wild oats. They are excellent for debility and depression following illness or long term stress. St John’s wort is particularly useful for SAD but before taking this (or in fact any other herb for that matter) you need to ensure that it is not contraindicated with any other medication you may be taking. If you are unsure, check with your local herbalist. Adding essential oils of herbs that lift the spirits including lavender, rosemary, chamomile, bergamot and rose to baths and massage oils can also be wonderfully calming and uplifting.
A LOVELY RECIPE
A lavender flower infusion, taken three times a day, can help stave off the blues especially with taken with lemon balm, rosemary or skullcap. Place the herb, either as a single herb or in a mixture in a teapot and cover with boiling water. Use one teaspoon of herb per cupful of water. Leave to infuse for 10-15 minutes and then drink a cupful three times daily and up to six cups a daily if you are feeling particularly low.
Anne McIntyre is a Fellow of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (FNIMH), a Member of the Ayurvedic Practitioners’ Association (MAPA), and has been practicing herbal medicine for over 30 years. She gives consultations from her practice at Artemis House in Gloucestershire and a clinic in London after which she prescribes herbs in the form of tinctures, teas and powders from her dispensary. Learn More here.