February is a month when warm blankets, roaring fires and hot soup are particularly appealing – I don’t know about you but I wouldn’t mind being able to hibernate! But why is it that long nights and cold weather make us feel so lacking in motivation and energy? When we wake up in daylight we produce serotonin, and this helps us to feel awake and focused. In dark winter months, especially if we don’t get outside much, we produce higher levels of melatonin and lower levels of serotonin and this causes us to feel sleepy, down – or even depressed!
There is also an intimate connection between the brain, the gut and a tendency to inflammation. Depression is often experienced by people who suffer from inflammation of the gut as well as from autoimmune diseases, cardiovascular problems, neurodegenerative diseases, type 2-diabetes and cancer, all of which have a link to inflammation. The primary cause of inflammation may be a problem in the “gut-brain axis.”
The gut is often known as our second brain (interestingly it comes from the same embryonic tissue during development in the womb). While it was previously believed that neurotransmitters, including serotonin, were produced in the brain we now know that actually the gut is responsible for producing as much as 95%. The beneficial bacteria in the gut, known as the microbiota, are closely associated with serotonin production and in this way they are able to influence our behaviour, thoughts and mood.
Our gut microbiota may be under attack from many factors; our lifestyles, stress levels, antibiotic and other drug use and infection. They are significantly affected by our diet, especially the amount of processed foods and sugar we consume as these feed the bad or unfriendly bacteria and yeasts.
Disturbance of the gut flora, or dysbiosis, and the resulting ‘leaky gut syndrome’ can significantly affect serotonin production. Serotonin is produced from the amino acid tryptophan which we get from proteins in our diet. When our guts are out of balance the unfriendly gut microorganisms such as bacteria and yeasts use the tryptophan themselves before we have time to. Without sufficient tryptophan, people may become deficient in serotonin and this can lead to various forms of depression, including SAD.
So what can we do? Eat well and exercise! Regular exercise encourages our body’s production of endorphins, chemicals which are known to increase feelings of well-being. Take a brisk walk daily, go for a run, do some yoga, take up swimming or join a dance class.
Generally a healthy diet, with plenty of fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds, whole grains and foods rich in essential fatty acids, should provide most of the necessary nutrients to support the nervous system. Make sure you have plenty of protein-rich foods such as chicken, turkey, milk, eggs, seeds and nuts as they contain tryptophan, the amino acid that is needed for the production of mood elevating serotonin. Ask yourself at each meal whether vegetables make up 70% of your plate as it is the fibre from the vegetables that provides nutrition for the beneficial microbiota and supports their production of anti-inflammatory short chain fatty acids. Certain other nutrients are vital to the production of neurotransmitters and normal function of the nervous system. These include essential fatty acids, vitamins C, B, and E, calcium, magnesium and zinc. Unless they are in plentiful supply during times of stress, a deficiency may arise, and we may find stress harder to deal with and are more likely to become anxious or low in spirits. If this sounds like you, it might be worth taking some supplements.
There are many greatly beneficial herbs that have a direct effect on the nervous system and, combined with good digestion and healthy eating, they have the ability to radically transform our mental and emotional state. Herbs that can lift the spirits, calm anxiety, relax muscles, increase memory and concentration and aid sleep include California poppy, gotu kola, rose, wild oats, vervain, lavender, skullcap, chamomile, lemon balm, basil and wood betony and these can be taken as teas or tinctures three times a day.
There are some amazing herbs known as adaptogens that have a great ability to improve our energy and vitality and enhance resilience to stress. These include rosemary, ashwagandha, gotu kola, Siberian ginseng, licorice and wild oats. They are excellent for debility and depression following illness or long term stress. St John’s wort is particularly useful for SAD but before taking this (or any other herb for that matter) you need to ensure that it is not contraindicated with any other medication you may be taking. If you are unsure, check with your local herbalist.
A Lovely Recipe
A lavender flower infusion, taken three times a day, can help stave off the blues especially with taken with lemon balm, rosemary or skullcap. Place the herb (either as a single herb or in a mixture) in a teapot and cover with boiling water. Use one teaspoon of herb per cupful of water. Leave to infuse for 10-15 minutes and then drink a cupful three times daily and up to six cups a daily if you are feeling particularly low.
Until next month!