The early months of the year can pose challenges to many. With the end of last year's festivities behind us, it can feel a long time until the warmer months, even more so if we are facing uncertainties in our lives or find that our health is detrimentally affected by the winter weather. We can often lack energy and motivation, put on weight and have trouble sleeping or staying focused. This isn't unusual: many species that do not hibernate over winter experience changes to their physiology during this time. Indeed, some authors suggest that Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which is thought to affect around 2 million people in the UK and Ireland, is a remnant from our remote ancestors who may have hibernated to survive the harsh weather and scarce food of winter.
In contrast to much of human history when we slowed down our activities during the cold months, we now expect ourselves to simply keep going, no matter what is happening outside. Two centuries ago, three quarters of the population worked outdoors, even through the winter. Now the proportion of people working in natural day light is less than one in ten, with a lack of such light being implicated in the daytime increase of melatonin, the hormone that makes us feel sleepy.
High daytime levels of melatonin are associated with low levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter or chemical messenger, which plays a vital role in the regulation of mood. When such substances are out of kilter in the body, we can suffer from disrupted sleep patterns, lethargy, cravings and negative emotional states such as irritability, anxiety, sadness for no apparent reason, loss of interest and even thoughts of self harm.
It's unsurprising then, that a major non drug treatment for SAD and general 'winter blues' is light therapy. Sunlight itself is said to be the most effective, so take advantage of any bright crisp mornings to take a walk even if it's just to the local shop or the bus stop on your way to work. A more regularly reliable form of light comes via a light box, many of which now use LED technology, making them smaller and more efficient and portable than they used to be. Always buy from a reputable supplier and follow the instructions, which typically tell you to position yourself in such a way that the light strikes the retinas without the requirement to look directly into the light. (
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder can mimic those of other conditions, so always see your Medical Herbalist or GP if you suspect you have the condition, or are suffering from constant worry and\or low mood. These organizations provide more information on sources of support.
Nothing soothes and comforts like a warm, scented bath. No less than Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, advised a daily aromatic bath and massage for the maintenance of health. Rather than a functional ritual, turn bath time into a daily treat. Make the room pleasant and warm; have a big fresh towel waiting for you and become unavailable to others for half an hour or so. Try a few drops of essential oil in your bath:
are relaxing, while citrus oils such as
are cheerful and energizing. You can use a bath milk to mix the oil and water. Bring a (paper!) book, put some relaxing music on, or simply enjoy the quiet. Before or after your bath, take some time for self massage to soothe tense or heavy muscles.
There are many herbs useful in balancing mood and associated problems. A qualified
will be able to tailor a blend specific to your symptoms, lifestyle and situation, and will perhaps prescribe different mixes or single herbs to be taken at different times of the day.
Several trials have indicated the efficacy of
St John's Wort
) in helping to alleviate depression, anxiety and disrupted sleep, with recent research focusing on the herb's ability to increase the levels of serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters intimately related to mood. In Germany, it's the leading treatment for mild to moderate depression. St John's Wort should be taken with caution, however, as it increases liver function, and should only be taken in addition to other medicines on the advice of your health practitioner.
German Chamomile (
) is a nerve relaxant and carminative and can help reduce tension and a nervous stomach, while Passion Flower (
) has been used by many to combat anxiety and insomnia without a risk of long term dependency.
Another very popular herb, especially for difficulty sleeping is
). Traditionally used as a sedative, antispasmodic and pain reliever, Valerian is said to have been prescribed for insomnia in the 2nd century AD by philosopher-physician Galen and is often used with other relaxing herbs such as Hops (
) and Oats (
) to promote restful sleep.
Diet and Lifestyle
When it's cold and wet and you're feeling sluggish, the temptation is to reach for stimulants such as caffeine, sugar and nicotine and 'comfort' foods high in carbohydrates. There are, however, less damaging ways to get back your get-up-and-go, such as eating foods which are high in the B-vitamins (wholegrains, seeds, beans), high in minerals (Nettle (
) and leafy green vegetables) or nutritious soups (chicken, root vegetable, broth).
is an amino acid found in green tea, and is thought to counteract the caffeine in the drink, explaining why people often report feeling both relaxed and invigorated after drinking a brew. One study into theanine suggested that the substance helps produce alpha waves, electromagnetic brain oscillations common in states of deep relaxation, including meditation.
Be mindful of what pressures and influences you subject yourself to, especially in the hours before bed. During winter, it's normal for your body to need more time to do its vital restorative work, so substitute coffee and stressful news reports with warm milk or herbal tea and peaceful music. If you find that racing thoughts often keep you awake, reflect on the day by writing in a journal or diary, and make a to-do list for the next day that you can forget about until morning.
The harsh weather may make you feel like curling into a ball and hibernating until April, but try to keep moving, even if it's simply walking to the shops or taking the stairs instead of the lift. If your mood is low, put a favourite upbeat track on the stereo and have a dance; it's a great way to get warm and raise a smile, though you might want to draw the curtains first!
Top tips to make winter happy
everyday. Walk to work, the shops or simply for pleasure. Get out of your workplace at lunchtime. If you're at home, sit near the window in your lightest room.
2. You might want to sit by a good quality
every day to replace the light you're missing.
3. Get some
every day .
4. Stick to a
of going to bed and getting up at the same time everyday.
even if you don't feel like it at first. A recent study by Nottingham University found that the more friends a person has, the happier they are. You don't have to be witty or clever to make friends, just be interested in people.
6. Take time for proper
every day and consider techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation and meditation.
. Proper relaxation isn't being slumped in front of 10 Years Younger or stressful current affairs programmes. Instead, why not take up a new hobby, cosy up with a book or visit a friend?
8. Look at your
and up your intake of wholefoods and fresh fruit and vegetables for increased energy and adrenal support.
a plant. Even if you don't have green fingers, have no access to a garden, you can still enjoy the simple pleasure of watching something thrive and grow. To do this, it requires regular maintenance, just like your own health! 10.
Remember you are not alone.
Whatever emotional state you're in, others are going through the same. Ask your doctor or friend with similar experience to recommend a good self-help book to you, such as Richard Carlson's Stop Thinking And Start Living. Even just seeing your problems described in black and white can be very reassuring.
Cautions and Contraindications.
If a low mood is persistent or increases in severity please seek advice. For young children and infants, the elderly or if you are on other medication, pregnant or breastfeeding please consult your doctor, herbalist or other medical professional before treating yourself with herbs and supplements.
is a fat soluble vitamin typically found in butter, cheese, eggs and oily fish. It's unusual among essential nutrients by being a vitamin that converts into a hormone responsible for the regulation of many bodily functions such as calcium absorption and bone health, immunity and thyroid health. A recent study of more than 2000 Icelanders found that the prevalence of SAD was much lower than expected when compared with incidences in countries on a similar latitude. The research pointed to the high level of vitamin D-rich fish in the Icelandic diet, with fish intake at four and a half times that of the average American or Canadian.
Aside from diet, the most potent source of the vitamin is sunlight on the skin. Dark winters, indoor work and concerns around sun exposure mean deficiency is increasing, particularly among women with dark skin and/or who cover up for cultural and religious reasons. Some writers have linked Vitamin D deficient to a number of health conditions, such as MS, Type 1 diabetes and rickets, the latter of which Scotland has seen a rise in recent years. Last year the Scottish Government sent information to all GPs highlighting groups at particular risk of deficiency, such as the housebound, the under 5s and over 65s and women who are considering pregnancy or are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Though the EU's RDA (the amount below which deficiency is likely) is 5 micrograms (200 iu or international units) per day, the Scottish Government (link:
) is following the advice of the Scientific Advisory Committee On Nutrition which recommended 10 micrograms (400iu) per day for pregnant and breastfeeding women, people over 65 and those housebound. If you don't want to take tablets
Biocare's Vitamin D drops
are a simple and cost effective way to take Vitamin D (2 drops a day is 2000IU and a bottle lasts 300 days).
If you have a chronic health condition or are on medication, only supplement with Vitamin D on the advice of your GP or Medical Herbalist.
Herb of the Month - Rhodiola
Largely a Soviet secret until the early 1990s, Rhodiola (
) is an adaptogen, a herb which increases our ability to resist stress, whether that stress is physical, emotional mental or environmental. Herbs which act as adaptogens can help many conditions. During excessive and sustained exposure to stress, the stress hormones are implicated in a host of problems, from debilitating mental and physical fatigue, blood sugar and mood imbalances, to sexual and immune dysfunction. Rhodiola is thought to work by regulating the function of the hypothalamus, the part of the brain responsible for certain metabolic processes and the work of the autonomic nervous system. A study by Armenian State Medical University on stress-induced fatigue during night duty among a group of 56 young, healthy physicians found those taking Rhodiola demonstrated less fatigue with no reported side-effects.
Rhodiola may also improve the body's ability to produce serotonin, by making serotonin's precursors, tryptophan and 5-HTP, more available to the brain. As well as the potential to aid sleep, concentration and memory, to help lift depression and soothe anxiety, Rhodiola has applications in physical training, with some studies suggesting it increases the concentration of muscle protein and speeds recovery from exertion. Available in tincture,
and capsule form.
Cautions and Contraindications.
For some Rhodiola can interfere with sleep patterns, or make them feel jittery, so it's recommended you ask your herbalist for advice on the best dose for you. If taking antidepressants or anti-convulsants, always check with your doctor or herbalist before treating yourself with Rhodiola.
Lack of Seasonal Mood Change in the Icelandic Population: Results of a Cross-Sectional Study
Phytomedicine. 2000 Oct;7(5):365-71.
Rhodiola rosea in stress induced fatigue--a double blind cross-over study of a standardized extract SHR-5 with a repeated low-dose regimen on the mental performance of healthy physicians during night duty.Darbinyan V, Kteyan A, Panossian A, Gabrielian E, Wikman G, Wagner H.
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