It’s a New Year and the beginning of a fresh new cycle of expectations, opportunities, hopes and dreams filled with promise and purpose. So, why is it we so often feel depressed and sad this time of year? What’s up with the lethargy, laziness and lack of enthusiasm that often accompany January and the cold winter months? Is it all in our heads? What’s going on?
Well, the short answer is “no.” It’s not all in our heads. And, the reason we feel this way this time of year is two-fold.
First, while January signals the start of a new year, for many of us it’s also the end of another holiday season.
The Christmas tree and poinsettias are now sitting in the gutter by the street, the lights are packed away, the gifts have all been opened, the great holiday treats have been consumed and the parties are over. The months of preparation, anticipation, excitement and fun have come to an end.
You see, when we’re in the midst of holiday planning we’re excited! Our adrenalin and other super-charged chemicals are pumping with expectation and all the mental and physical activity of the annual holiday build-up. And, when the holiday is over these chemicals dissipate leaving our bodies with the normal, not so fun, much less exciting chemicals of ordinary, everyday life, which can be rather bland by comparison.
Indeed, this biological component of the post-holiday letdown is similar to a mild bipolar cycle called cyclothymic or a “cycle of feeling.” It’s discussed in a manual published by the American Psychiatric Association known as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition – or DSM-IV for short — which defines the holiday or winter blues as “the mental distress occurring after the winter holidays and festival season.”
Second, add to this the fact that the winter months can be cold, dreary and dark, which makes us susceptible to another phenomenon of nature known as Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. So appropriately abbreviated, this condition clinically is recognized as a recurrent depression usually triggered by winter days and the lack of natural or artificial light. And, while both conditions are completely normal and quite common, who needs them?
The good news is that we can defeat this depressing double-whammy. And, we can do it by eating!
When it comes to healthy eating, citrus fruit is at the top of the list. Citrus is loaded with antioxidant flavonoids that help lower our risk of many health-related issues, including cardiovascular disease and cancer. Moreover, flavonoids have been found to inhibit the symptoms of mild depression. Adding an orange or grapefruit to your daily diet can make a huge difference in your mental outlook and emotional health.
Certain varieties of fish are loaded with essential oils called omega-3 fatty acids. Research shows that omega-3 can alleviate several mental disorders, including schizophrenia. It can significantly improve our mood, lessen irritability and decrease depression. And, some of the best sources of omega-3 can be found in anchovies, sardines, mackerel and wild salmon.
NUTS & SEEDS
In case you don’t like fish, try a handful of walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts or flaxseed instead. All contain the same omega-3 fatty acids that support mental health and help balance our emotions. In addition, cashews, almonds, sunflower seeds and sesame seeds are packed with B vitamins known to promote a positive mood and decrease our chances of falling into a depression.
We’re all familiar with the soothing qualities of a hot cup of tea on a hectic day. Tea also contains friendly flavonoids, which stimulate the parts of our brain that produce feelings of relaxation. Green tea brewed the old-fashioned way and herbal teas such as chamomile are best for increasing our feelings of mental and physical wellbeing and decreasing stress and anxiety.
With good reason, olive oil is considered one of the new super foods. It too contains an abundance of mood-enhancing omega-3 fatty acids. A big dose of olive oil every day with your salads or vegetables will decrease irritability and stabilize emotional balance.
Now, here’s the one you’ve been waiting for. We all know eating chocolate makes us feel good. This is because chocolate contains compounds that signal the brain to release our feel-good chemicals serotonin and dopamine. It’s also rich in methylxanthine, which inhibits the body’s tendency to become lethargic and increases energy and mental clarity. One or two bites of dark chocolate a day will do the trick.
Yes, the winter months can be dreary and depressing. Yet, just a few dietary tweaks can help keep our outlook bright and our spirits high!