January Blues

Poor old January often gets a bad rap, even playing host to ‘Blue Monday’, supposedly the most depressing day of the year. Whilst certainly the cold weather can pose a bit of a challenge, there’s also still plenty to be thankful for in January – the days are (slowly) getting longer, you finally have some free weekends, the snowdrops are out, and who doesn’t love cosying up in front of a fire? January also symbolises a new beginning, when we can set goals and take steps to change our mind-sets, improve our health and enjoy life more. So what can you do this month to fend off the gloom, make sure none of your Mondays are blue and set yourself up for a great year ahead?


Exercise

Whilst cold weather might not make you feel the most inspired to exercise, a sedentary lifestyle can in fact leave you feeling even lower in energy. Building regular exercise into your routine can pay dividends when it comes to mood. Studies have shown that aerobic exercise in particular, such as brisk walking, jogging, swimming or cycling can be particularly beneficial especially if done outdoors. SAD sufferers are best avoiding exercise late in the evenings, as this may delay on-set of melatonin production (our sleep-hormone), interfering with circadian rhythms further. Instead see if there is a lunchtime or pre/after work exercise class close-by, and why not invite a friend along to, to help with motivation.


Positive Mental Attitude (PMA)

Mindfully maintaining a general feeling of wellness and contentment, without indulging in negative thoughts at this time of year is sometimes easier said than done, but here are a few strategies to employ to help you maintain your PMA:

  • Start each morning and end each day by thinking of one thing you are grateful for and let all other thoughts just float on by.
  • Unfollow any social media which gives an unrealistically perfect portrayal of life or makes you feel inadequate.
  • Seek out positive people who make you feel good and make an extra effort to meet up.
  • Practice positive affirmations and repeat to yourself whenever you notice you’re in a negative thought loop.

Connect with Nature

Nature-based interventions for mental health are becoming more common, with evidence showing that those with good access to natural environments are more likely to have better mental well-being. GPs in parts of Scotland for example are now issuing ‘nature prescriptions’ for activities such as rambling, bird-watching and beach walks. Wrapping up warm and getting outside as much as possible (even just for a walk round the park) may therefore help improve mood. Whilst it might feel like much of nature is hibernating in January, the snowdrops will have started to raise their heads, symbolising the survival of life and beauty even through the darkest of winter days. Why not head to the woods or one of the National Trust’s snowdrop sites to see the best displays blanketing the floor.


Daylight

Reduced exposure to daylight over the winter months is thought to play a crucial role in the winter blues, as it disrupts our circadian rhythms and reduces serotonin (our happy hormone) production. If you particularly struggle with getting up in the dark mornings, using a daylight alarm-clock can make getting out of bed far less painful, and they can also be used as a daylight lamp at other times of the day. Making sure you get outdoors each day, even for 15 minutes on your lunch break, ensuring your work area is light and airy and sitting near windows may also help.


Vitamin D

Low mood has been linked to low vitamin D levels during the winter months and supplementation has been shown to improve mood. Fat soluble vitamin D is synthesised in the skin, from cholesterol, after exposure to UV rays. Between October and April in the UK we cannot synthesise adequate amounts of vitamin D from the sun and it is now well known that many of us in the UK are deficient, especially as adequate vitamin D is difficult to obtain from food alone. It’s therefore advisable to get your levels checked by your GP and to supplement during the winter months if found to be low.


Eat Well

Many people don’t realise that food is not just a source of energy for the body, the nutrients it contains also act as messengers, helping different organs of the body (including the brain) to communicate and function optimally. Omega 3 fatty acids found in oily fish are thought to be particularly beneficial for mood. In fact, a recent review of 26 studies found a 17% lower risk of depression with higher fish intake. Adding 2 spoons of milled flax, hemp and chia seed to your morning porridge or smoothie is also an easy way to increase levels if you are vegetarian. In addition, aim to increase your intake of colourful fruit and veg by setting yourself realistic targets eg. 2-3 different types of veg with each evening meal and a side salad with every lunch. And just to really give Blue Monday the heave-ho, how about inviting some fun friends or family round to share a nutritious dinner with you on the 20th January.


Tryptophan

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid and a pre-cursor to serotonin - our happy hormone. The body cannot create it and we must obtain it from the food we eat. However, only around 3% of dietary tryptophan is utilised for serotonin production (and this may be reduced even further in times of stress). Ensuring you have good sources of tryptophan in the diet, such as turkey, beef, bananas, beans, cottage cheese, nuts and seeds is therefore important. Interestingly, research also suggests that the composition of our gut bacteria can affect the metabolism of tryptophan, increasing the pool available for conversion to serotonin in the brain.


Listen to your Body

Sometimes it feels like there is a lot of pressure to push on with our hectic daily lives regardless of how we are feeling. Whilst getting out of the house, exercising and seeing friends can have great therapeutic benefits, it may not be what you need all the time. It’s important to listen to your body. Traditionally the winter months are a time when things slow down, when we naturally become more inward focused and reflective. If you feel slightly less energy and zest for life this could be viewed as a wonderful example of how you are still connected to nature and able to follow the natural patterns of the seasons. Take time to reflect on what has happened over the previous year and make plans for the next, without pushing yourself too hard. If you need to cancel that social engagement and get in bed at 7pm with a good book or film, have a long bath or sleep in at the weekend, allow yourself to do so without guilt.


Keep a Gratitude Journal

A growing body of research indicates that gratitude (broadly defined as “the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself”) is associated with an enhanced sense of personal well-being. This has led to the growing use of therapeutic exercises designed to increase feelings of gratitude. Keeping a ‘gratitude journal’ is one such technique. For example, in one study, participants were divided into three groups. One group was asked to journal about negative events or hassles, a second group about the things for which they were grateful, and a third group about neutral life events. The gratitude group consistently evidenced higher well-being in comparison with the other two study groups. So how about buying yourself a new note-pad and taking a few minutes each day to simply jot down one of two things you are thankful for. Come 20th January read back your entries and the world might not seem so bleak after all.


Love your Gut

The gut is increasingly being seen as the second brain, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that studies are showing promising results in mood and emotional well-being from interventions designed to improve gut microbial balance. The excesses of Christmas can unfortunately have a noticeable negative impact on the microbiome, so come January it's likely many people could do with giving their gut some extra support. One of the simplest ways to do this is to take a live bacteria supplement and regularly consume traditionally fermented foods such as kefir, sauerkraut, plain live yoghurt, kimchi and kombucha.


Combine these simple steps and you're on your way to a great year!