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Beating the Winter Blahs

Ugh, February. This is when I really start feeling the winter blahs. The lack of fresh air, sunshine, and vitamin D in addition to being a stay-at-home mom cooped up all day – a recipe for depression. Apparently, I am not alone. Here are some surprising statistics from the World Health Organization:

  •  Depression is the most common disease among women.
  •  It affects 26% of women and 12% of men in the US.
  •  50% of depression cases go untreated.

Common symptoms of depression are feelings of guilt, irritability, a negative outlook on life, hopelessness, lack of humor, low self-worth, indifference, apathy, lethargy, insomnia, loss of appetite or overeating, weight loss or gain, being self-absorbed, and having suicidal thoughts.

This disease goes untreated for a variety of reasons. Many people self-medicate with food, alcohol, drugs, shopping, gambling, sex and anything else that has the potential to make to make them feel better. Another reason is that people think that they can tackle it on their own. Men tend to feel too embarrassed or weak to admit that their mental health isn’t a-ok while many women push their emotional needs aside in order to care for others.

Depression is linked to reduced levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, appetite, sleep, muscle contractions, memory and learning. It is possible to increase serotonin production and raise levels with a few lifestyle choices.

1. Eat foods with Tryptophen

Tryptophen is necessary for the production of serotonin. It is an amino acid that can be found in many foods including dark chocolate (yes!), oats, chickpeas, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, spirulina, and peanuts. Ideally, you should be looking for foods with a good ratio of tryptophen to the amino acids phenylalanine and leucine. Foods that contain this ratio are dates, bananas and papayas.

2. Eat low-glycemic carbohydrates

Starchy carbohydrates raise insulin levels which in turn delivers tryptophen to the brain. This explains why people are often drawn to chips and candy rather than lettuce when looking for comforting food. It really does make you feel good. The point is to have healthy insulin levels so you don’t crash later so choose carbohydrates wisely by sticking to low-glycemic foods such as oats, barley, potatoes and yams. You don’t need very much to do the trick either – only 1/4 cooked oats.

3. Meditate or Pray

It has been proven that meditation increases serotonin production. If you don’t already have a meditation practice, take at least 5 minutes each day to sit quietly in a comfortable position and chill out. You can also do something relaxing and repetitive such as knitting or sanding wood. This will elevate your mood and improve your focus.

4. Exercise

Anyone that has exercised knows how great you feel afterwards. Aerobic exercise increases both serotonin production and levels of tryptophen in the brain. Ever had a runner’s high? It’s awesome and may explain why I see people out jogging in 40 below weather. You don’t have to be this ambitious – try walking, swimming or cycling.

5. Sleep at least 7 hours at night

When we are in REM sleep, our body stops producing serotonin and starts producing melatonin (I’m thinking this explains the 3 o’clock insomnia that involves me worrying about everything under the sun – no serotonin, man). These day shift/night shift workers work together so if melatonin production is interrupted or slowed down, serotonin will take over and deplete amounts needed for the day.

6. Get sunshine

This is probably no surprise to you but sunshine increases serotonin levels. Get outside for a bit everyday. I know this is easier said than done in dark, northern climates but it is necessary. Bundle up and schedule in a 15 minute walk every day (maybe instead of a having a coffee break and complaining about how crap you feel).

If you’re feeling down these days, it’s okay. There is no law that says that you have to be happy. Just be easy on yourself and allow emotions to exist rather than suppressing them. Sometimes they have a much shorter life span than you would have thought.