Holiday Blues, Naturally
Hyla Cass, MD
Interviewed By Celeste A. Adams
Although the holidays are meant to be a time of celebration, for many people it is a time of disappointment and despair. By changing certain habits and adapting new behaviors, we can avoid holiday blues and embrace the season with good cheer. Dr. Hyla Cass’ latest book “Natural Highs: Supplements, Nutrition, and Mind/Body Techniques to Help You Feel Good All the Time” offers a thorough approach to fine-tuning the body and mind for optimal mental and physical health.
Why are so many people affected by holiday blues?
Many people are prone to the “holiday blues,” a feeling of depression and anxiety that occurs around the holidays. There are a variety of causes, with these being the most common: If you are a holiday blues sufferer, it may be because you believe everyone else is having a better time, celebrating with family members who care about each other and love to be together, while you are either alone, or dreading another Christmas with your family (or your in-laws!).
Add to this the tumult and stress of Christmas shopping, holiday traffic, various parties to attend (yes, even they can be a cause of stress!), and maybe planning a holiday trip — lots to do in too little time. Many people with holiday blues actually have seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, the result of fewer hours of daylight hours.
What is the best way to cope with this?
Start by recognizing that you are not alone in these feelings. Moreover, instead of just reacting automatically and emotionally, you can actually choose how you respond. You can shift your expectations about the holidays, and find better ways to enjoy the family you do have, creating your unique holiday experience.
You hate cooking for a large family Christmas dinner? Have a potluck, with everyone making a special dish, or have Christmas dinner at a restaurant. Gifts too much of a burden? Agree to draw names: you will each have only one person to buy gifts for. Feeling alone and lonely? Volunteer at a service organization that either distributes food to the less fortunate, or volunteer to serve up Christmas dinner at a homeless shelter. Your heart will feel full of gratitude for what you do have, and you will feel true joy at serving others.
An overall principle is to eat and drink in a healthy way, exercise daily, and get as much exposure to sunlight as you can. To combat the depression, fatigue, and craving for carbs, accompanying SAD, scientific research recommends increased light exposure, and treatment with St John’s wort, 300 mg 3 times daily.
How does drinking affect a person’s mood?
The high sugar and alcohol intake of the holidays wreak havoc on your equanimity — just when you need it the most. Notice the popular holiday drinks - wine, liquor, and eggnog, which is full of brandy or rum, sugar, and lots of cream. All these take a toll on your brain, mood, and energy, and in addition, can boost your stress level. The sugar and/or alcohol “high” or rush will be quickly followed by a rebound low. You soon become irritable, depressed, and tired, and all you want is —more of the same.
Better to have some juice, wine spritzer (less alcohol), or water. In fact, hydration is a key to good mood and energy. Even before looking at choices of drinks, you can definitely improve your mood by keeping your body and brain well-nourished. Drinking alcohol with food will also do some damage control.
Are their other kinds of healthy mood-enhancing drinks that could be served instead?
For a relaxing time, have a kava cocktail. Made into a smoothie, this South Pacific herb has it all over any alcohol drink. It calms you, puts a smile on your face, and lubricates social connections, with no hangover, tolerance, or addiction. Ever see an unhappy South Sea islander?
The recent bad press about kava has to do with a few rare cases of liver damage — far fewer than occur daily from the use of commonly prescribed drugs, and some over-the-counter ones such as Tylenol. The FDA warns not to take kava if you have existing liver problems — hepatitis or cirrhosis and I agree. I cover this quite thoroughly in “Natural Highs.” Otherwise, kava is still is my favorite chill-out herb.
Try a Kava Colada to take your mind off your worries. 1 tray pineapple juice, ice cubes, 1 6-oz can coconut milk, 1 fl oz kava extract, 1 tsp. honey, 1 tsp. vanilla Yield: 6 servings
The menus of most traditional holiday dinners are centered on a meat dish such as turkey with stuffing and gravy, creamy potatoes, buttered rolls and sugary desserts. How does indulging in this kind of food affect our mood?
Now we come to our food choices, and the need to adapt the traditional holiday dinners so that you stay alert, energetic, and happy, rather than overly full, sluggish and depressed. This menu can be easily modified to keep you happy and healthy. It will also reduce your cravings for sugar, alcohol, and fat, and stabilize your mood, as well as your weight (a nice “side benefit”).
The protein main dish will supply some feel-good neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers, such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. The latter is found in turkey, which can also make you sleepy since it contains tryptophan, an amino acid that is converted in the body into serotonin, a calming and mood-elevating neurotransmitter.
While the high content of refined carbs will likely give you an energy and mood boost soon followed by a slump, low glycemic index carbs (whole grains, veggies, legumes) give us a consistent supply of brain fuel. Go easy on the bread, and with other refined carbs (sugar, white flour), and for dessert, try fruit instead of pastry.
While meat is a good source of protein, the high fat content can be modified by choosing a leaner cut, and with minimal gravy to lower fat intake further. Also, too much of the ‘bad’ fats (ice cream, potato chips, hydrogenated oils) will take the place of ‘good fats’ in your brain cells, and compromise your mood and memory. Substitute flax oil (on your salad), or fish oil, usually taken in capsules, to feed your brain well. Research shows that essential fatty acids in the form of fish oil can combat depression just as well as the antidepressants do, and without the side effects.
What are some natural energizers people can take during this busy holiday season?
Holiday time can be exhausting but rather than a cup of java or a cigarette try a natural energizer, such as the amino acid tyrosine, 500 mg 1-2 times daily. Or try 100 mg of the adaptogen herbs, ginseng or rhodiola. These help your body cope with stress by supporting your poor overworked adrenal glands, while giving you an energy boost.
Exercise is also one of the best antidepressants that we have. Aerobics done for 30 minutes several times a week will banish most mild depression, by raising levels of ‘happy chemicals’ in the brain such as the endorphins. Take a brisk walk after a meal, and you burn some calories as well.
Dr. Hyla Cass is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, UCLA School of Medicine, author of “Natural Highs: Supplements, Nutrition, and Mind/Body Techniques to Help You Feel Good All the Time,” among others, a popular speaker and media commentator. She also serves as President of Vitamin Relief USA supplying free multivitamins daily to over 10,000 at-risk children nation-wide. For more information, see www.cassmd.com
Celeste A. Adams is a staff writer for several magazines and also writes metaphysical screen-plays and visionary fiction. www.creatrixstudio.com
Return to the November/December Index page