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Don't be sad: a natural way

This article is taken from Patrick Holford's website


Are you suffering from the winter blues? Officially 3 million people in Britain do, althoughthe real figure is probably double, meaning one in every ten people. Yet there are some simple things that you can do . These simple steps include light exercises, diet, supplements and exercise itself. Patrick Holford & Dr Hyla Cass explain.

Score 1 for each YES answer

Do you feel downhearted, blue and sad?
Do you feel worse in the morning?
Do you have crying spells, or feel like it?
Do you have trouble falling asleep, or sleeping through the night?
Is your appetite poor?
Are you losing weight without trying?
Do you feel unattractive and unlovable?
Do you prefer to be alone?
Do you feel fearful?
Are you often tired and irritable?
Is it an effort to do the things you used to do?
Are you restless and unable to keep still?
Do you feel hopeless about the future?
Do you find it difficult to make decisions?
Do you feel less enjoyment from activities that once gave you pleasure?
If your score is:

Below 5: You are normal. You appear to be positive, optimistic and able to roll with the punches. You can use some of the following tips to help you handle those occasions when things aren't going so well for you.

5 to 10: You have a mild to moderate case of the blues. Use the following tips as much as possible. You might also consider seeking outside help.

More than 10: You are moderately to markedly depressed. Please seek help from a medical professional.

There are two likely reasons for feeling blue in the winter. The first is that brain levels of serotonin the ‘happy’ neurotransmitter, tend to fall partly because light stimulates the brain to produce this, and other tryptamines. The second is that you may not be eating so well and getting enough mood boosting nutrients.

Mood, behaviour and mental performance all depend on a variety of nutrients that both make up and fuel the brain, nervous system and neurotransmitters. So a low mood may have less to do with past trauma or a faulty belief system than with deficient nutrients. These include vitamins B3, B6, folic acid (folate), B12 and C, zinc, magnesium, essential fatty acids, and the amino acids, tryptophan and tyrosine.

Research at King’s College Hospital, for example, found that 33 per cent of those with psychiatric disorders, including depression, were deficient in the B vitamin folate. Other surveys of depressed patients found that many were deficient in iron or B vitamins, especially folate. It seems a shame that with such a simple solution, so many people are suffering needlessly. What is more worrisome is that government dietary surveys show that a large portion of the population doesn’t get even the bare minimum, the recommended daily amount (RDA) of these vitamins and minerals, in their daily diet. It is no wonder that depression is on the increase, especially in the winter when we don’t eat enough fresh fruit and vegetables.

Are you low in serotonin?

Serotonin is considered the ‘mood neurotransmitter’, which keeps us emotionally, and socially stable. It is interesting to note that women seem to have more problems than men in maintaining their serotonin levels. Yes, women are moodier – and this is not a sexist comment, but just a reflection of biological truth, likely due to the interplay between serotonin and the female hormone cycle. This would explain the emotional shifts related to menstrual periods, when many women experience increased moodiness, irritability and sensitivity to pain. Women who are low in serotonin are likelier to express their anger inwardly, with depression and even suicidal behaviour.

Research shows that, in contrast, men who are low in serotonin are often violent and can even engage in dangerous criminal acts. Alcohol and drug abusers also turn out to be low in serotonin. The good news is that we can successfully correct these imbalances by supplying supplements that raise serotonin.

‘Good Mood’ foods: the tryptophan connection

Serotonin comes from the essential amino acid tryptophan, which is found in protein-containing foods such as fish, turkey, chicken, cottage cheese, avocados, bananas and wheat germ. Researchers have found that when they take recovered depressed patients and deprive them of tryptophan, their depression returns. This has been well demonstrated by research at Oxford University’s Department of Psychiatry. Women with a history of depression were divided into two groups, and given a diet excluding or including tryptophan under double-blind conditions (that is, neither the subjects nor the researchers knew who received which diet). At the end of the experiment, ten out of fifteen women on the tryptophan-free diet were significantly depressed, while no one on the tryptophan diet had any problem at all. When the deprived group was given diets containing tryptophan, their depression lifted.

In general, giving tryptophan to depressed people has been beneficial, although some trials have not found it had a significant effect when compared with a placebo. One possible explanation is that, without sufficient B3 and B6, tryptophan can be processed along a different chemical pathway, turning into a substance called kynurenine instead of serotonin (see Figure 14).

For this reason, supplementing an amino acid called 5-hydroxytryptophan, which is one step closer to turning into serotonin, has been shown to produce even better mood-enhancing results.

5-HTP – Ten times stronger than tryptophan

In 1995 5-HTP – the metabolite of tryptophan, a step further along in the metabolic pathway – became available as an extract from seeds of the African shrub griffonia. Like L-tryptophan, it converts to serotonin, inducing relaxation, elevated mood and sleep. It may be even more useful than tryptophan because much of the tryptophan we eat is processed along different biochemical pathways. 5-HTP, on the other hand, is a direct precursor of serotonin and enters the brain easily. Unlike tryptophan, it can be taken with food and other supplements, including amino acids, with no interference.

Not surprisingly, results treating depression with 5-HTP have proven more effective than tryptophan. For example, a double-blind trial headed by Dr Poldinger at the Basel University of Psychiatry gave thirty-four depressed patients 300mg of 5-HTP and twenty-nine patients fluvoxamine which is a state-of-the-art SSRI antidepressant. Each patient was assessed for their degree of depression using the widely accepted Hamilton Rating Scale, plus their own subjective self-assessment. At the end of the 6 weeks, both groups of patient had had a significant improvement in their depression, however those taking 5-HTP had had a greater improvement in each of the four criteria assessed – depression, anxiety, insomnia and physical symptoms, as well as the patients self-assessment.7 5-HTP had outperformed the best antidepressant. Given that 5-HTP is less expensive and has significantly less side-effects, it is extraordinary that it is virtually never prescribed by psychiatrists.

5-HTP is about ten times more powerful than L-tryptophan, so the dose needed is one-tenth the L-tryptophan dose. It is available in 50 and 100mg capsules. For anxiety or depression, the dose is 50 to 200mg a day, taken in divided doses. You can take 50 to 200mg of this at bedtime if you’re having trouble sleeping.

Some people report drowsiness if they take 5-HTP during the day, so use caution to determine your best daytime dose. Since there are few studies on the long-term effects, it is best taken for a month or two at a time only, with a few weeks off before restarting.

Sceletium – an enlightening plant

According to Dr Nigel Gericke, from the African Natural Health organisation in South Africa "Sceletium is one of the most ancient of mind-altering substances, and it is likely to have had a profound influence on the evolution of human consciousness. People interested in consciousness will find that sceletium is a key, but it needs to be used wisely. It is not a quick-fix, and after ten years of use I’m still learning about it."

An unfamiliar herb to most of us, this native South African creeper, also called kougoed, has been used by hunter-gatherer tribes since prehistoric times. It lessens anxiety, stress and tension, raises spirits and enhances the sense of connection. If you take a very large dose you may even feel euphoric, then taken over by a sense of drowsiness. It does not cause hallucinations. Nor do nearly 400 years of documented use reveal many serious adverse effects, either.

Traditionally, sceletium is chewed, brewed as a tea, or used as snuff. If enough is chewed, it has a mild anaesthetic effect in the mouth, much like kava, and is used by the San people of South Africa for tooth extractions, or is given in minute doses to children with colic. A tea made from sceletium is used to wean alcoholics off their tipple. In this way the recovering alcoholic can avoid withdrawal symptoms.

People have reported that sceletium-induced relaxation has helped them to focus on inner thoughts and feelings, or to have a heightened experience of the beauty of nature. Some have reported an increased sensitivity of the skin as well as sexual arousal, while others effects have said it leaves them feeling free of fear and stress. Lewis Lewin, in his 1934 book Phantastica, reports mesembrine – one of the active chemicals in the plant – to induce a meditative state of mind.

While no clinical trials have been published yet, a number of doctors and psychiatrists have reported a wide range of positive uses for sceletium, from treating anxiety and depression to alleviating alcohol, cocaine and nicotine addiction. Moreover, by promoting a sense of empathy and connection, it has also been reported to help couples in therapy.

How does it work? Sceletium contains many nutrients, including minerals and amino acids, as well as alkaloids, including mesembrine, mesembrone, mesembrenol and tortuosamine. According to laboratory studies sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health near Washington DC, its major alkaloid, mesembrine, promotes serotonin levels. It also appears to have a harmonising and balancing effect on the other feel-good neurotransmitters, dopamine and noradrenalin, as well as on adrenalin. An effective dose is 50mg a day, although some doctors report needing to use 100 to 200mg a day for those with chronic depression or anxiety.

Enlighten Yourself

Ever wondered why a holiday in the sun leaves you feeling so high? It may all have been down to the positive effects of natural sunlight. Many people suffer from light deficiency. Some are more susceptible than others, and consequently are more prone to low moods, especially in the winter. There is now plenty of evidence that increasing light exposure boosts your mental performance as well as your mood.1

One of the pioneers of light therapy was the late Francis Lefebure, who developed a technique known as phosphenism.2 Phosphenes are the after-images that are seen when you close your eyes after looking at a light source. He studied this phenomenon and was able to demonstrate that various exercises that involved closing your eyes and focusing on these after-images could stimulating learning, mood, motivation and creativity. Unfortunately, his work has not been followed up, despite impressive results. We include one very simple phosphenic exercise at the end of this chapter that can be very helpful for those prone to low moods, especially in the winter.

Light also boosts your immune system. This is because it stimulates skin cells to produce a very powerful immune-boosting substance, interleukin-1 (IL-1).3 IL-1 is stimulated by natural daylight. This may also be why we are more prone to infections in the winter. This is a good reason to spend some time every day outdoors exposing yourself, so to speak.

It is also well worth investing in ‘full spectrum’ lighting. These are light bulbs that have the same quality of light as the sun, determined by the spread of different wavelengths. That’s why sunlight, and full spectrum lighting is a much whiter light than a normal artificial light, which is yellower. Full spectrum bulbs, although more expensive to start with, last 10 times longer and use a quarter of the electricity. They are available from Higher nature on 01435 882880.

Light Exercise

Here’s a simple exercise you can do with a regular lightbulb to increase your serotonin levels.

Sit down in a quiet place, on the floor or on a chair. It is best to choose a place that you can completely darken. If not, you will need a blindfold.
Place an angle-poise lamp, containing a 60 watt opaque (not clear) bulb, preferably with no writing on it, three feet away and directly in line with your line of vision.
Make sure you can turn the light on and off without moving your head position.
Turn the light on and look directly at the bulb for 1 minute, no longer.
After 1 minute, turn the light off, close your eyes (put on your blindfold if the room is not completely dark) and focus on the after-image, the phosphene, without moving your head, until it completely vanishes. This usually takes 3 to 4 minutes.

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