In 2005, British psychologist Dr Cliff Arnall coined the term “Blue Monday” to describe the third Monday of January, which coincides with a peak in the general population feeling low. He did so in a bid to encourage people to take a positive outlook at this time of year as an opportunity for new beginnings and change.
The indulgent end of year festivities can leave many of us feeling drained, low in energy, and overwhelmed by general society messages of New Year’s resolutions and the idea that we in some way need to constantly better ourselves by making seemingly impossible changes to our daily life. Others may view this “pressure” as an opportunity to make a change, gathering the motivation and momentum required to maintain long term behavior change.
Aside from the reported factors involved, such as financial worry, low motivation and broken New Year’s resolutions, there could be a deeper level of physiological stress driving our emotions. What happens from a holistic perspective, and how can we turn this into achievable, simple solutions for our daily lives in order to feel fulfilled, happy and able to manage all the demands we are faced with in our day to day lives?
Christmas is generally a period of indulgence, often with an increase in sugary foods, alcohol, late nights and social occasions, which can take its toll. New Year is often the time we feel the repercussions of these choices. Often, whilst overindulging can provide us with a vital social boost in mood, it may have left us suffering the consequences of damage to the lining of the gut wall, lowered immunity, increased inflammation, higher levels of stress hormones and impaired production of brain chemicals called “neurotransmitters”, which are involved in mood regulation and sleep patterns. This can become a vicious cycle which we need to break, in order to make a positive change for coping with the demands of daily life.
Short dark days coupled with long working weeks can limit our daylight exposure, increasing our susceptibility to vitamin D deficiency. Those with low levels of vitamin D have a 60% greater risk of experiencing substantial cognitive decline.[i] Low levels of vitamin D have also been associated with depression, with the decrease in vitamin D production caused by reduced sunlight during the winter months being considered a major contributory factor in seasonal affective disorder (SAD).[ii]
Neuroscientist Professor Ed Bullmore states “We need to take a more personalised, stratified approach, respecting the fact that not everybody is depressed for the same reason”. The role of the immune system and in particular, inflammatory proteins called cytokines, on brain function is a ground-breaking area of research involved with finding effective therapeutic treatments for depression and mental health disorders.[iii]
Inflammation is a major contributory factor in diseases of the nervous system. This can be caused by various dietary and environmental factors, for example stressful situations, negative emotions,[iv] low antioxidant intake,[v] gluten intolerance,[vi] or excess alcohol and sugar.[vii] Whilst some of these factors are beyond our control, we can take steps to promote health and wellbeing by focusing on those we can control, helping us adapt better to those factors in our lives that we cannot control.
The importance of the gut microbiome in relation to mental health is staggering with findings that out of over 1000 people suffering digestive disorders, 84% also experienced anxiety and 27% depression.[viii] Gut dysbiosis is emerging as a key factor involved in nervous dysfunction, such as mental illnesses including anxiety.[ix]
The changes need not feel overwhelming. Here are some ideas that may help point you in the right direction for a healthier body and mind:
WHERE DO YOU START?
- Break it down, what is the ultimate priority for you? Would you like to eat healthier, exercise more effectively, lose weight, improve your social life, feel happier, more contented or to achieve that often elusive work/life balance? Rate your motivation level to achieve these goals then set out a couple of small steps which may edge you closer to attaining them.
- Short walks around the block on a quick break from the office, or a stroll to your local park with friends or children may help us reconnect with nature, expose us to daylight, oxygenate the blood, and improve circulation.
- If you are particularly fatigued then perhaps suddenly jumping into several high intensity exercise classes combined with insufficient recovery may deplete your nutrient reserves further, for example magnesium, zinc, or B-vitamins, exacerbating your symptoms. Sufficient recovery, and/or finding a gentle Yoga, Pilates or a meditation class, may help to calm the stress response. Then, as your reserve energy levels increase, you can begin to gather pace for change.
- To make long standing changes to diet, it can be useful to choose your biggest weakness, such as a lack of variety, intense sugar cravings or low intake of vegetables, and focus on conquering this one aspect.
- Varying where you are doing your food shopping can be a great way to expose yourself to new ideas and get inspired.
- Ensuring an average adequate daily protein intake of 50g is vital for balanced blood sugar levels, sustaining energy levels and minimising risk of dipping into those left over chocolates. For example, on average, an egg typically contains 11g protein, a handful of nuts/seeds on average 6g, 100g tofu provides 8g, and a chicken/salmon fillet, 20g.
- Ensuring we are not deficient in key brain health supportive nutrients such as zinc, B-vitamins, C, D, magnesium and essential fatty acids is essential. If you are finding it difficult to maintain as healthy a diet as you would like to, then it can be helpful to supplement with these key nutrients.
- Supplements which may support gut integrity and restore microflora balance include probiotic bacteria, prebiotic fibres (e.g. fructooligosaccharides “FOS”, inulin, pectin), and digestive enzymes. Research has shown that nutrients such as vitamins A,[x] D,[xi] and L-glutamine[xii] contribute to optimal integrity of the gut lining, also reducing susceptibility to food intolerances.
- Gently stimulating your ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter serotonin can also help with mood, memory and brain function. You can do it by supplementing with serotonin’s precursor – 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan), or for a more indirect support, the golden spice saffron could be a great alternative. It gently stimulates serotonin levels, while reducing inflammation, oxidative stress and generally protecting the brain, [xiii] and has been shown to reduce depression.[xiv]
- Hydration is also key for good mood and efficient cognition. Drinking our recommended 1.5 – 2 litres of water daily is vital, since being dehydrated by just 2% has been shown to impair performance in tasks that require attention, psychomotor, and immediate memory skills.[xv]
With many of these dietary and lifestyle factors well within our control, we can support ourselves and our families in their daily lives by making small simple changes, making it easier to stick to them, therefore minimising any potential impact of Blue Monday and instead positively increasing our overall sense of wellbeing.