Singing the Holiday Blues

By Bonnie Jenkins, Advanced Natural Wellness

A few years ago, my father-in-law finally lost his battle with emphysema. He had been the love of my mother-in-laws life and, while losing someone you love is never easy, it was especially painful because his death happened during the holidays. Although my mother-in-law has moved on with her life, the time between Christmas and New Years always finds her a bit sad and nostalgic. Even if we don’t equate the holidays with loss, many of us find ourselves suffering from sadness and depression during this particular season.

Of course, many factors can cause the holiday blues and if you already battle depression, the season can easily trigger an emotional funk. Those of us who are normally upbeat aren’t immune either. Fatigue, unrealistic expectations, over-commercialization, financial constraints or the inability to be with family and friends can leave you feeling down in the dumps.

Fortunately, although they may be intense and unsettling, holiday blues are usually short-lived, lasting for a few days to a few weeks prior to or just after the holidays. But even though the holiday blues are temporary, they can zap your energy and isolate you from family and friends. Luckily, there are several simple things you can do to help you banish the blues.

A Whiff of Happiness

While eating a healthy diet and exercise can help keep mild depression at bay, if your mood seems as grey as the winter sky, try some aromatherapy. A few drops of lavender, jasmine or ylang ylang essential oil in your bath or sprinkled on your pillow can brighten a dark winter mood. If the holidays find you on the go, you can also put some essential oil on a handkerchief or tissue tucked into your pocket for instant relief.

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Clinical trials show that aromatherapy reduces anxiety and depression, improves sleep and enhances a sense of well-being. In one study by the University of Miami, researchers reviewed the electroencephalograms (EEG, a test that measures brain waves) of 39 adults and 27 newborns exposed to aromatherapeutic essential oils and found that certain scents – like the ones listed above – actually “turn-on” the areas of the brain that affect mood.

Attitude Adjustment

Along with our own personal expectations for the season, society puts a lot of pressure on us to put on a happy face during the holidays. But if you’ve recently experienced a significant loss, are physically ill or are under considerable financial stress, don’t expect the holidays be the same as in years gone by. Plan for simple tasks of the holidays to be special, despite adversity. For instance, each day write a note to someone who has been a joy during the past year. Feelings often follow actions; when you express gratitude, you’ll feel grateful.

When I’m feeling down, it’s difficult to get motivated. But I find that forcing myself to participate in life can brighten an otherwise blue mood. The most important thing to remember is that the holidays don’t have to be a vision of Currier & Ives to be enjoyable. Try something different, establish some new traditions. If you are in a new community, let others know what you need. Or, invite someone to ring in the New Year with you. Find out what the community offers and participate in it. Go to the concerts and parades. Get involved. Volunteer some of your time to others and bring them joy.

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Supplements can also help to alleviate mild to moderate depression. The first supplement most of us think of when it comes to banishing the blues is St. John’s wort. St. John’s worttargets depression by inhibiting the breakdown of several neurotransmitters, including serotonin. New research from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston tested 135 patients taking either St. John’s wort, Prozac or a placebo and found that the herb outperformed both the Prozac and the placebo. Yet the side effects for those taking the herb were considerably lower than the adverse affects from the Prozac. The side effects of St. John’s wort are also much milder than pharmaceutical antidepressants and can  include dry mouth, dizziness, stomach upset and photosensitivity. High doses may also speed up the rate liver enzymes process some medication, including oral contraceptives, certain anti-retrovirals, anti-epileptics and calcium channel blockers, so check with your doctor before taking St. John’s wort if you are taking any of these drugs.

Another supplement to lift you from the holiday blues is S-adenosylmethionine, better known as SAMe. Necessary for the manufacture of brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine, SAMe increases the binding of neurotransmitters to receptors and improves the fluidity of brain cell membranes. An open, multicenter study of 195 patients at found that depressive symptoms improved within two weeks when 400 mg. of SAMe were taken, leading researchers to conclude that SAMe is a relatively safe and fast-acting antidepressant.

5-Hydroxytryptophan, or 5-HTP can also help ease the doldrums since it is the intermediate metabolite of L-tryptophan and a precursor to serotonin. Since we don’t get significant amounts of 5-HTP from our diets, no matter how much L-tryptophan-rich foods we eat, supplementing with 300 mg. per day can reduce anxiety and sleeplessness while boosting our sense of well-being. A recent review of 5-HTP by researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California found strong evidence that this serotonin precursor can help ease mild to moderate depression. But a word of caution: 5-HTP should not be taken with St. John’s wort or SAMe.

One Last Thing . . .

If you find that your depression lasts well beyond the holidays, you may be suffering from seasonal affective disorder – a form of depression that affects about 5 percent of the adult population in the United States, or nearly 10 million people. While scientists haven’t determined the precise causes of SAD, it appears to result from a glitch in the way the body responds to seasonal light changes. In victims of SAD, winter’s increased darkness seems to upset the delicate balance of biorhythms and brain chemicals that regulate everything from hunger and libido to body temperature and sleep.

SAD triggers a hibernation-like response, causing a strong desire for sleep. You may find yourself wanting to go to bed early in the evening and stay under the covers as late as possible in the morning. You may also tend to be depressed, exhausted and downright miserable.  SAD sufferers also tend to have difficulty concentrating at work and can find it hard to maintain their usual routines.

This feeling of exhaustion and need for sleep may be linked to an increase in the hormone melatonin. Because darkness stimulates melatonin production, it’s possible that people with SAD simply produce too much. But researchers have found that shining the light on SAD can banish these symptoms. For 20 minutes to a few hours each day, patients are exposed to a specially made light box that simulates sunlight. This broad-spectrum light causes a decrease in melatonin production and can re-establish the body’s natural circadian rhythms. Most people see benefits within a few days, but treatments need to remain consistent since the benefits are soon lost if the therapy is discontinued.

This Just In . . .

Once in a while, the Feds actually do something right. According to a new law that takes effect January 1, food labels will now have to disclose whether a product contains peanuts or other ingredients made from proteins derived from any of the eight major allergenic foods: milk, eggs, fish, crustaceans, wheat, tree nuts, soybeans and peanuts.

This new law, dubbed the 2004 Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act, arose out of a 1999 FDA study in Minnesota and Wisconsin which found that a quarter of the baked goods, ice cream and candy scientists sampled failed to list peanuts or eggs as ingredients – even though the products included them. The result of these undisclosed allergens has often meant a fast trip to the emergency room for the 2 percent of adults and 5 percent of children who suffer from food allergies. Of those, an estimated 150 die each year due to a food allergy.

And the news gets even better. In the past, food labels were hard to decipher for those trying to avoid certain ingredients. But now, food labels will be required to list the common name of the product as well as the name of the specific allergen it contains. So if a product contains casein – a protein derived from milk – it will have to list both “milk” and “casein” on its label.

This will make life considerably easier – not to mention safer – for people with food allergies. As for giving the FDA its due for this unusual bit of logic, all I can say is – it’s about time!


References:

Edge J. “A pilot study addressing the effect of aromatherapy massage on mood, anxiety and relaxation in adult mental health.” Complementary Therapies in Nursing and Midwifery. 2003;9:90-97.

Fava M, Alopert J, Nierenberg AA, et al. “A double-blind, randomized trial of St John’s wort, fluoxetine, and placebo in major depressive disorder.” Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology. 2005;25:441-447.

“Food labels to disclose allergenic ingredients.” MSNBC. 21 December 2005.

Pancheri P; Scapicchio P; Chiaie RD. “A double-blind, randomized parallel-group, efficacy and safety study of intramuscular S-adenosyl-L-methionine 1,4-butanedisulphonate (SAMe) versus imipramine in patients with major depressive disorder.” International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology. 2002;5:287-294.

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