Dealing With The Holiday Pitfalls

Now that Thanksgiving is over, most of us are thinking of the upcoming Christmas holiday (especially we teachers that get 16 days off!). However, this time of the year is generally bad for your health. Well, perhaps I should say that the choices we often make during these days are bad for our health, which, when coupled with certain naturally occurring conditions (like winter), make matters worse. There are a few things I think we should all keep in mind as the season of holiday parties and treats approaches.

First, let me start with a little philosophy. As a Catholic, I believe that life consists of both feasting and fasting. Christmas (which, as a Church holiday, begins on December 25th) is a time of feasting. Advent, which runs roughly four weeks before Christmas, is generally a time of restraint and simplicity, and in some traditions, fasting. So keep in mind as I share some of these ideas, that I most certainly believe in both fasting and feasting properly!

– The first pitfall to watch out for is gainig too much weight around the holidays. The average person gains 7 to 10 pounds between Thanksgiving and Christmas. This is really quite a lot of weight to pack on in such a short time, and stresses the body physically and mentally. We have compiled ways to lose and maintain weight that are applicable any time of the year, including the holidays.

– The second pitfall is holiday-related stress. Money, travel, family visits, etc, all create stress, and this is in addition to the daily stresses we encounter. Studies show one solution to stress is to simply smile. Using the facial muscles necessary for smiling tells the brain that it is happy. You may look crazy randomly smiling, but you’ll be happier.

– The third pitfall is winter depression. Winter is a rough time for a lot of people. Add holiday stress, and holiday eating to this, and many people are less than joyful around Christmas. One way to beat the winter blues is to get some sunlight. As simple as it sounds, it is true: sunlight triggers the brain to produce serotonin. Unlike Vitamin D, whose production requires sunlight to hit the skin during a limited range of months, simply looking in the direction of the sun with one’s eyes closed triggers serotonin production. This can even be done from the inside. In the winter, I make it a point to go to the window and soak in some sun during planning periods.

Fighting the Coming Winter Blues

flower in vase

Fall is a good time for many of us, since we associate the season with holidays (such as Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Advent), chilly nights at football games, campfires, and good food. However, for others, the beginning of fall signals the coming winter, and with it, the winter blues, given the name “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” appropriately abbreviated SAD.

There are ways to fight back. I have suffered from mild SAD in the past, and I am more likely to get “down” in the winter. Since I have become very active in the summers, I have generally dreaded winters. However, last winter was a notable exception, and it was a long, cold, winter to boot, so I was doing something right. One of the things I was doing was getting sunshine whenever possible. Every morning at school, I would go to window of my room, and just “take in” the strong sunlight for a few minutes.  I also made sure I got outside if possible. Usually we get some freak warm days in the winter months, and you can bet I am outside, and the windows of the house are open to air it out (again, if it’s possible). Using this strategy (among others, which I’ll share in the future), I avoided any trace of the “winter blues.”

Science backs me up on this. I came across a study that connected serotonin levels in the brain to sunlight. Sunlight raises serotonin levels, while lack of it lowers serotonin levels. This could explain why a) people get more down in the winter, and b) why people who spend a lot of time indoors, even in the summer, often suffer from depression.

It’s not winter yet; heck, it’s not even autumn, but now is a good time to start thinking about strategies to deal with the coming winter blues and blahs.

Some Thoughts On Exercise and Mood


Exercise is thought to enhance mood, and studies confirm this. According to research presented in Dr. Bob Arnot’s  The Biology of Success, for moderate anxiety and depression, exercise is just as beneficial as counseling therapy, and results in brain chemistry change similar to what is experienced through pharmaceuticals. Exercise has been shown to raise serotonin levels. In fact, long term exercise, done regularly for years, actually changes personality traits. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I think a lot of the anxiety and depression in the U.S.A. is the result of altered brain chemistry resulting from living in ways contrary to our wiring, i.e. we are inactive, spend most of our time inside, live in big cities, etc, when our brains are wired for constant activity, being outside, living in the country, etc. Exercise may be one way to reconnect to our natural wiring.

However, not every exercise in every situations enhances moods. According to Arnot, “the harder, the better.” He believes we have been sold a bill of goods about “over-exercise.” He says that only about .01% of Americans are in danger of over-exercise, and these are well-trained athletes, while most of us are in danger of under-exercise. To see an enhancement in mood, we have to work a little lot.

Also, where we exercise has an impact on mood. Exercising outside seems to provide the most mood enhancement, as is confirmed by research mentioned in my article Sun and Speed, and by a 1995 study by Harte and Eifert, which I came across in The Biology of Success. The research by Harte and Eifert showed that those who exercised outside had greater mood enhancement than those exercising indoors. However, if those exercising indoors had plenty of stimuli around, i.e. watching people, looking out windows, listening to music, etc, they experienced  mood enhancement. When the researchers placed participants on a treadmill in front of a blank wall, participants actually reported a worse mood following exercise. So, this research suggests that if you are using exercise to enhance your mood, you should make sure you are exercising vigorously (within your physical limits, of course, so consult your doctor before beginning any exercise routine), and preferably exercising outside, or at the least, inside with plenty of stimuli around.

Recently, I have been feeling really craving aerobic exercise. I have been pushing up to about 7 miles of running, and I think this could be part of it, since I am perhaps hitting the point of a “runner’s high.” Or it could be that I have been taking phosphatidylserine prior to running, and it happens to kick in near the middle of the run.

Image taken by me, while running (enhanced with Qtpfsgui and Gimp)

The Health Benefits of Coffee

cup of coffee

It’s a cold, December, Saturday morning. The light is streaming in through the window, and you notice your wife is not in bed, and you smell the beautiful scent of coffee wafting through air. You walk into the kitchen and she has you a nice cup of bold coffee with some real cream and stevia sweetener.

It’s a hot summer day. You just got done playing a round of golf with your buddies, and you head over to Tim Horton’s for a large iced coffee. It hits the spot!

I love coffee. These stories more or less describe scenarios in which coffee enhances my life. Coffee not only enhances my life, but also my health. While many health food enthusiasts assumed for years that coffee and tea were bad for you (and in excessive amounts, they can be), scientific studies have shown that both of these foods actually have health benefits when consumed in reasonable amounts.

Natural News has written an article highlighting some of the health benefits of coffee, a drink loved and cherished by various cultures since its discovery around the 9th century AD.

Specifically, coffee can lower the risk of Parkinson’s disease, asthma, and headaches. Additionally, coffee drinkers are at a 20% lower risk of having a stroke. Drinking the golden brown liquid also helps prevent Alzheimer’s disease and type-2 diabetes. Gallstones? Coffee reduces the chance of getting those by 50%. Liver Cirrhosis? Coffee drinkers had an 80% lower rate. And Colon Cancer? Coffee drinkers have a 25% reduced risk of coming down with this deadly form of cancer. And finally, coffee has been shown to help prevent depression, and regular coffee drinkers have lower rates of suicide.

So next time you are enjoying that nice cup of Joe, enjoy it a little more, because it’s good for you!

Image taken by me then GIMPed up

More on “The Little Things”

Jonathan recently posted about the “little things” in his life, and I thought I would copy his idea. During the winter months, the little things matter more to me, because I am not a huge fan of the winter. My winters are generally not too bad, but I often struggle with them, because I like being outdoors.

About 5 years ago, I was going through a lot of stress, and that was probably my worst winter ever. One day I walked out of the house and the cloudy sky just made me feel trapped, a sort of claustrophobia caused by the dreary winter. I vowed to never have a winter like that again! So for me, it always helps to focus on the little things during winter. Note that these are little things that I am focusing on; I am not necessarily elaborating upon the big things like family, belief in God, etc, things that are foundational to my life.

Coffee – Like my brother, I enjoy the winter trips to Duncan Donuts for hot, creamy, coffee, but I don’t have one in my area, so usually I usually go to Tim Horton’s, which I like just as well. Most Fridays at work, we make a “Tim Horton’s run” where ones of us “buys” and the other “flies.” Jennifer and I also have gourmet Starbucks coffee that we got for Christmas that we brew at home, so I get a lot of good coffee. In the summer, I get more excited about iced coffee.

Work – I like my work. I live about a 1 minute drive from work, and work from about 7:30 until 3:00. This gives me time in the late afternoon to schedule appointments, take care of business, spend more time with family and friends, and go to the Y before dinner time. I am friends with my co-workers, and I have a good group of students.

Prayer – I enjoy my daily prayer. I often pray the Liturgy of the Hours, which is the daily, liturgical, prayer of the Catholic Church. I try to pray morning prayer and night prayer with my wife. It helps orient and structure my day.

Sauna and Hot Tub – Lately I have taken a more relaxing view about the Y. I do my full workout every other day if I can, but afterward I usually sit in the hot tub and then spend a little time in the sauna (steam or regular, depending on my mood). Recently, I have been going to the Y some on my “off days” just to walk a little and relax, because the weather prevents us from walking around our neighborhood like we do in the spring, summer, and fall. Afterward I hit the hot tub and sauna, and it is just what the doctor ordered this time of year!

Facebook – I am not on Facebook all that much, but I do enjoy keeping up with old friends and new ones. Outside of Facebook, I just have no way of meaningfully knowing that much about what my friends, old and new, are up to. Facebook provides that connection.

Working Out – I am finally seeing the kind of gains I have wanted for years. By this, I mean things like defined abs, low body fat percentage, etc. I am not always motivated to go the the Y, but once I am there, and run about a mile, I am ready to give myself a great workout.

Fitday – I have gone from Fitday being a necessary chore to an enjoyable habit. I have a naturally inquisitive mind, and I like having a record of my diet and exercise handy so I can track changes in mood, weight, etc, and see how my diet and exercise contribute to this.

Saint John’s Wort as Effective as Prozac

This is an interesting article, that details the results of an analysis of many scientific studies:

Experts do not know exactly how the plant lifts depression, although most believe it probably works by keeping the chemical serotonin, which is linked to positive moods, in the brain for longer.

The study’s lead author, Dr Klaus Linde, from the Centre for Complementary Medicine in Munich, pooled data from 29 studies involving 5,489 patients with mild to moderately severe depression.

‘Overall, the St John’s Wort extracts tested in the trials were superior to placebo, similarly effective as standard anti-depressants, and had fewer side effects than standard anti-depressants,’ he said.

But he pointed out that St John’s Wort products available in health food shops and chemists differed greatly and some may be more effective than others.

‘Using a St John’s Wort extract might be justified but products on the market vary considerably, so these results only apply to the preparations tested,’ he explained.

The findings were published by the Cochrane Library, which specialises in systematic reviews of research studies…

The studies I have seen on Saint John’s Wort are mixed. Some say it is effective, others say it is not. It seems to be effective for mild depression (exercising and getting fresh air seem to be as well). Either way, it is nice to know there is a safer, cheaper, alternative to prescription anti-depressants (although I would not go off one without working with a doctor!; It is also not wise to self-treat depression).