Q.) This is a time of year I really struggle with my mental health. I would love to hear any natural non-drug suggestions you may have to help me get through the winter blues.
A.) It is not surprising that you may find this time of year difficult to manage your mental health. This is mainly due to the short daylight hours and the subsequent lack of sunshine we experience as well as the bills that we are expected to pay after our giving Christmas season. For others, the cold weather seems to accentuate the accumulated aches and pains the years have inflicted upon our bodies leaving many of us to struggle with the realization that we are no longer physically (and possibly mentally) capable of accomplishing all that we used to in a 24-hour day. That can be tough for some to cope with, especially if they have been physically active for most of their life. Another thing that can spur on depression is the loss of a spouse, family member or close friends which can be felt worse in the winter when it is more difficult to get out and escape from our loneliness by mingling with the rest of society. There are many prescription options that can be sought through a consult with your physician but there are also non-drug strategies that can be tried to either complement the prescription treatment or tried initially on their own.
First and foremost is exercise. You really need to get up and get active to boost the release of natural endorphins from our brains that seem to make us feel “better”, feel less pain and enjoy a better quality of sleep. This doesn’t have to mean that you need to go buy a gym membership or expensive exercise equipment. The key is movement, but not just a leisurely stroll around the block. Aerobic activities that get your heart rate up show more beneficial antidepressant effects than minimal exercise. It was shown in a study that around 45 minutes of aerobic exercise of moderate intensity at least three days a week for a minimum of 2 months had more antidepressant effect than people who did minimal exercise. The key here however is to do an activity that brings you joy as you will be more apt to continue an activity if you enjoy what you are doing. One strategy to enhance compliance is to link the exercise to a guilty pleasure such as only allowing yourself to watch that trashy reality t.v. show (or listen to an audio-book or whatever) when you’re on a treadmill.
Sleep is another very important component of our mental health. Many of us get caught in a viscous cycle of not sleeping which then negatively impacts our mental health which in turn impairs our next evening of sleep and so on. For those that have problems with sleep, there is a proper sleep hygiene protocol that can be followed, whether we have mental health problems or not.
- Limit caffeine intake (coffee, tea, colas, chocolate) in the evenings and later afternoon
- Wake up at the same time every day, whether you slept well or not
- Avoid napping, regardless of how poorly you slept the night before
- Avoid the use of technology 30 to 60 minutes before you plan to go to bed
- Plan calming activities such as reading (perhaps not a page turner murder mystery), listening to music and/or a warm bath before bed
- Go to bed only when you are sleepy tired, regardless of the time. Going to bed when you do not feel tired will most likely set you up for failure If you are not asleep within 20 minutes, get out of bed and continue to do a relaxing activity until you are once again sleepy tired
- Keep your bed for sleeping purposes only
Eating a well-balanced diet is also strongly encouraged to help our mental health. The role our diet plays is continually being studied but it is well known that refined sugars have a negative impact on our mental health. It is best to strictly reduce or avoid all refined sugar that we consume in the form of sweets, soft drinks and processed foods.
Our brains depend on a supply of glucose however an over abundance of sugar (such as is typical in our North American diets) can produce an emotional high and then an immediate emotional low. Interestingly, when we do feel down, we tend to gravitate towards high-sugar treats to help us feel good and not a kale or spinach salad. We may feel instant gratification with that sweet treat but beware of the quick crash that will follow. Instead of reaching for your typical “reward” food, opt instead for natural sugar through a piece of fruit or perhaps try a handful of nuts to fuel your brain. This may take some time and some determination but you can definitely end your sugar cycle which should in turn help your depression.
This next step may sound unusual but rest assured it has been shown to have a positive effect on depression. Look for things in your life that you are grateful for. It doesn’t have to be complex and can be as simple as someone holding a door open for you. Not only do you need to be grateful but writing down your gratitude can improve your emotional status.
Start journaling at least once a week about anything and everything that you have encountered that spoke to your gratefulness. It is recommended that you don’t just list a person or a thing you are grateful for but rather give as much detail as to why. It can really help to boost your mood when you do have a downward moment in your life and you go to reflect back on your journal.