Don’t you just want to stay in bed forever these days? There’s no doubt that the dark days of winter can bring you down. Energy can be lacking, viruses can take their toll, and your mood isn’t what it would be like on a perfect warm, sunny day in June. But there’s still good news: you don’t have to live with a bad case of the winter blues. Here are some easy lifestyle tips and safe herbal supplement recommendations that can minimize the winter blahs and even put a spring in your step until we emerge from the deep freeze.
1. Don’t Dismiss The Energizing Power of Vitamin D
Most of us know by now that maintaining sufficient vitamin D levels is crucial. The structure of vitamin D is very similar to steroid hormones, which could be why its effects are so wide reaching. Vitamin D levels are linked to mood and immunity, in addition to possibly protecting against certain diseases including cancer, diabetes, autoimmune disease and heart disease. Low levels can leave you feeling fatigued and depressed, cause poor cognitive function, and lower your resistance to infection. Your body produces Vitamin D from exposure to UV-B rays; but, in latitudes above Atlanta, the sun isn’t strong enough from September through May to maintain sufficient levels. Even when the weather is warmer, very fair skinned people need 10 minutes of noonday sun exposure on their face, arms and legs, with no sunblock on. For darker skin, exposure should be considerably longer. Dark brown skin needs up to six times the sun exposure of very fair skin—that’s an hour of midday sun.
MY RECOMMENDATION: Take 5,000 IU of Vitamin D throughout the winter months. I like Thorne Research Vitamin D / K2 Liquid, $23.50, And remember, even as the weather gets warmer, you may still need to take a 500 IU daily, especially if you prefer to avoid sun exposure or if you have a darker skin tone.
2. Fight Seasonal Depression With Nature’s Prozac
St. John’s Wort is a powerful herb that is perfect to help survive the winter months. Its sunny yellow flowers, which bloom in the height of summer, is where the active constituents lie. The herb was traditionally harvested on the summer solstice, which is both the longest day of the year and St. John’s Day, hence the name St John’s Wort. Also known as the sunshine herb, its antidepressant effects have been extensively studied and shown to be as effective in treating mild to moderate depression as the commonly prescribed antidepressants Zoloft and Prozac, but without the side effects. Other winter defenses include the herb’s antiviral properties and ability to increase the skin’s sensitivity to the sun. So, if you do take a winter vacation, make sure to use sunscreen.
MY RECOMMENDATION: MediHerb St. John’s Wort and Gaia Herbs St. John’s Wort. If you choose another brand, just make sure it’s a good quality extract, as the active ingredient hypericin is very apt to deteriorate. Consult my Kick-Starter’s Guide To Herbal Supplements for shopping tips.
3. Give Cells An Energy Boost
Each cell in the body contains a powerhouse organelle, called the mitochondria, where adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is derived from glucose. This ATP is used to power every cell reaction in the body. In order to manufacture the necessary energy to power reactions, each cell needs certain vitamins and minerals. These essential vitamins and minerals for energy production are vitamin C, B-vitamins, magnesium and iron. I find that taking a supplement of the essentials can help keep energy production going when diet is lacking or the strains of modern life causes vitamins to be used up faster. Adequate protein is also important for energy production, so make sure to eat lean protein every day when you’re feeling drained.
MY RECOMMENDATION: Take a daily multi-vitamin and mineral supplement to provide you with all of these nutrients. I like the two- or three-a-day formulas for two reasons: vitamins like C only stay in the body for a few hours, so they are best taken throughout the day; also, minerals are generally poorly absorbed when taken in one go, so spreading out the dose aids absorption. I like the Vitamin Code, which has men’s and women’s formulas and you can take them several times a day to get the energy boosting effects.
4. Prime Your System For Cold & Flu Season
Viral illnesses peak in winter. And this year, the flu is spreading at even higher than normal rates. To protect against viruses, a general immune booster is a good addition to your regimen. Echinacea is a great herb to take at the first sign of a cold; it has been shown to reduce the severity and duration of the common cold. But you can also take this herb preventatively. Its roots contain polyphenols that boost the phagocytosis of microorganisms, the immune system’s major mechanism for removing pathogens. So, it could stop you from getting sick in the first place. Medicinal mushrooms like shitake are also good to take, long-term, for warding off infection. The immune boosting glucans found in medicinal mushrooms are sugar-like molecules that prime your immune system to fight off viruses.
MY RECOMMENDATION: Take six weeks of echinacea (A. Vogel Echinaforce), followed by six weeks of medicinal mushrooms (Four Sigma Foods Instant Shitake), during the winter months. If you have an acute infection, take an echinacea supplement every three to four hours.
5. Adapt To Seasonal Stresses
The name says it all: “adaptogenic” herbs help the body adapt to stress. Studies show that cortisol and blood sugar levels remain more stable on these types of herbs. They also affect an improvement in energy and a sense of wellbeing. Rhodiola is a great adaptogenic herb that improves overall energy, mood and focus. Panax Ginseng is also a good one, thanks to its powerful immune boosting qualities and blood sugar-stabilizing effects. Or, if you’re feeling anxious, Ashwaganda helps resistance to stress, as well as having a calming effect.
MY RECOMMENDATION: Try an adaptogen for six weeks and notice your energy go up and stress levels go down. I suggest taking adaptogens twice a day, in the morning and then at lunch, so there is no interfering with sleep patterns. I like Standard Process Rhodiola and Panax Ginseng Formula and Solgar Ashwaganda Root Extract. Though many adaptogens boost immunity, it’s best to stop taking them and switch to echinacea during an acute infection.
6. Feed Your Gut Flora
There are more bacterial cells in your gut than human cells in your body. And, we are learning more each year about how the ecology of the digestive system affects the whole body. We already know that weight, risk of diabetes, immune function, certain cancers and mood can be affected by this complex ecosystem within us. Taking a pre- and probiotic—a mix of good bacteria and their food—helps maintain health over the winter months.
MY RECOMMENDATION: In addition to taking a pre and probiotic, such as Garden of Life RAW Probiotic Ultimate Care, try to include fermented foods in your daily diet. I incorporate Kimchi, raw sauerkraut and kombucha into my daily routine to keep my gut flora in tip-top shape. Note that changing your gut flora can cause looseness and bloating, so make changes slowly and expect a transition period.