Springing out of the Winter Blues: a Lifestyle and Nutrition Approach

By Lara Zakaria — © 3/2019

Most of us are dreaming of the warm, sunny days of Spring and Summer which can’t seem to come fast enough. But for many of us, the “Winter Blues” can hit us particularly hard. 

According to the National Institute for Health (NIH) an average of 5% of Americans suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), more commonly referred to as the “winter blues.”  In some areas of the country where winters are particularly long, and daylight hours are particularly short, it can be as high as 10%. Often they’re also associated with life stresses, like family, holidays, finances or work.

Associated with reduced sun exposure and shorter days, most people feel the onset in late Fall and early Winter. However, there are some people who exhibit the opposite pattern have symptoms that begin in spring or summer. 

Recognizing Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Signs and symptoms of the winter blues may include:

  • Having lower energy than usual
  • Losing interest in activities, or feeling unmotivated or sluggish
  • Feeling depressed and/or anxious most of the day, nearly daily
  • Having trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Experiencing increase in appetite an/or weight gain
  • Difficulty concentrating

Symptoms often start out more mild, progress throughout the season if not addressed. For some they might manifest to clinical depression, panic attacks, and even thoughts of death or suicide.

SAD is thought to be triggered by changes in sunlight affecting our biological clock, known as our circadian rhythm. This may alter two key brain chemicals: serotonin and melatonin, affecting mood, appetite, and sleep.

Vitamin D3: Acontroversial player in SAD

Vitamin D3 has also been considered as a potential role in SAD. However, studies have shown conflicting outcomes of benefit of Vitamin D3 supplementation on mood. It’s interesting to note that often those studies that fail to show a benefit, either use dosage that are too low (less than 1,000 IU of Vitamin D3) so that blood levels where not optimized, or are not looking at a large enough sample. 

Since there are multiple benefits of optimizing Vitamin D3, and many of us aren’t able to get adequate light exposure in the winter to make enough to meet our needs, relying on foods naturally rich in vitamin D3 or taking a supplement, particularly during the winter might be beneficial. 

I recommend foods that are naturally good sources of D3 verse those that are fortified (like dairy). Cod liver oil, salmon, sardines, eggs (look for dark yellow/orange yolks) are all great sources of vitamin D, as well as key amino acid Tryptophan, B vitamins, and Zinc (keep this in mind, we’ll tie back to this a little later). Depending on your laboratory blood levels, you may require additional supplementation of between 1,000 – 5,000 IU per day. Your Functional Medicine trained nutritionist or physician can help guide you on how to optimize your levels.

Give in to your comfort food cravings

The foods I’m about to list are not only warm and satisfying, but are also full of nutrients that work together to support the biochemical pathways that help to boost mood. The added fiber supports healthy gut bacteria which has been shown to support improved cognition and mood. Additionally, the slow and steady boost of complex carbohydrates supports the transport of serotonin to the brain. Furthermore, when combined with protein sources rich in tryptophan and tyrosine, the key nutrients found in these foods including B vitamins (particularly B6, B12, and folate), vitamin C and D, and minerals (especially magnesium and zinc) necessary for neurotransmitter production.  

If you have a slow cooker, winter is a great time to experiment with tasty mood-boosting soups and stews with a variety of colorful and rich complex carbohydrates and fiber. Experiment with using more fall and winter vegetables with savory protein and healthy fats, minimizing cold salads and raw foods like juices and smoothies. 

Soups and stews are a perfect way to utilize more seasonal fiber-rich produce like:

  • Squash – a great source of minerals like magnesium and potassium, 
  • Potatoes are a great source of healthy gut promoting resistant starch, potassium, magnesium, folic acid, vitamin C.
  • Sweet potatoes, which contain iron, calcium, selenium, and they’re a good source of most of our B vitamins and vitamin C as well as beta carotene. 
  • Beets – support digestion, rich in minerals, and provide slow release of carbohydrates thanks to their fiber content.
  • Celeriac or celery root is a rich source of vitamin C, and several minerals
  • Carrots – aside from being a rich source of immune-boosting vitamin A, is also full of antioxidants and phytonutrients like beta-carotene, lutein, and cyanidins
  • Cruciferous veggies are rich in sulforaphane – a phytochemical associated with anti-depressant activity power, including Brussels sprouts, cabbage, turnips, and rutabaga. They’re also high in folate, vitamin C, and several important minerals that further support metal health. 
  • Onion and garlic, similarly to cruciferous veggies, are rich in sulfur compounds that promote improved mood, reduce inflammation, help to detoxify and balance hormones, and let’s face it, add amazing flavor
  • Organic and Pasteur raised eggs. Not only are the yolks rich in vitamin D, but also contain nutrients like choline, B vitamins, and omega 3 fats which support brain health and mood. The whites are a complete protein source, including key amino acids needed for supporting neurotransmitter production. 
  • Healthy fats sources like those found in the Mediterranean diet including olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds, are an important addition. Grass-fed ghee (clarified butter), is not only a good fat-source, but contains butyric acid which may also boost gut health. 

In addition to the synergistic power of all those ingredients, don’t shy away from experimenting with spices. Savory flavors like rosemary and sage, and warming spices like curry, ginger and turmeric not only lend marvelous flavor, but are also rich sources of antioxidants, reducing inflammation and supporting neurological health.

Light therapy for SAD

Bright-light therapy has proven to be an effective treatment for SAD, though it seems to be most effective when combined with nutritional interventions and therapy. Light boxes are usually transportable, flat screen devise that produce full-spectrum light. Several companies make versions you can keep at home, but some spas and health clubs offer light-box rooms. For them to be most effective, studies suggest using them daily for 30 to 60 minutes in the morning (before 10 AM).

Winter Hiking in Park City, Utah

Exercise and getting outdoors

Last but not least, many benefit significantly from spending more time outdoors and finding different ways to exercise. If you can invest in warm winter gear and take advantage of milder days outdoors, walk, run, hike, snowshoe, ski, or snowboard. If your usual workouts are interrupted by bad weather or cold, try a new sport that you can do indoors independent of the weather, like swimming, wall climbing, or spinning. Not only will the exercise do you good, but studies show that the focus on learning a new skill or hobby can also boost mood and reduce the Winter Blues.

Final Thoughts

To summarize, if you’re struggling with the Winter Blues, focus on food and lifestyle:

  • Embrace warm comfort foods with high fiber, good sources of protein and essential nutrients to support the production of mood-boosting chemicals in the brain.
  • If your vitamin D levels are low, supplement with a high-quality vitamin D3 your dose should be based on your blood work, on average most people need 3,000 IU daily to optimize their levels (but talk to your healthcare provider to optimize your levels based on your lab work).
  • Use light therapy, daily for 20-30 minutes a day in the morning. 
  • Especially if you’re having trouble sleeping, keep a regular routine. Go to sleep at the same time daily and avoid screens (especially the news) 1 hour before bedtime. Minimize alcohol and caffeine, especially in the evening, since it can affect sleep quality.
  • Incorporate exercise and try to find an outdoor activity that you enjoy, even in the winter.

If you need additional support, are feeling hopeless, or this lasts beyond the Winter months, don’t hesitate to seek out professional help from qualified therapist. 

5 reasons I’m obsessed with body-weight training.

No gym? No problem.

In the Park, at the beach — perfect. As soon as you roll out of bed, no problem. It’s definitely hard to come up with a good excuse not to workout if you do not need a gym with equipment or machines. Example, “the gym closed early today for the holiday, what do I do now?”. You really do not need machines or heavy equipment to achieve your gains. You can achieve size, strength, power, mobility and balance with only gravity and your body. The following are five reasons why bodyweight training is awesome and the core focus of my training:

1) Trains the brain and body

In kinesiology this is called kinesthetic intelligence, people who have a high level of kinesthetic intelligence generally have excellent motor skills and coordination. They are often very physical and are keenly aware of their bodies.  Kinesthetic intelligence is something that can be improved with a good bodyweight training program. When training your body to perform exercises that will help improve your gross motor skills, you will ultimately learn to move more effectively while bringing more awareness to your body and its position in immediate space. Put it this way, if you are more aware of your body in it’s space while let’s say dancing, chances are you will feel a little more comfortable and look more fluid at the same time. Bodyweight exercises that demand more muscle control and balance will help your body move more intelligently.

2) Healthy joints

Let’s talk about staying far away from knee braces slings and wraps. Body-weight training takes your joints through full rang of motion with common movements like full hanging pull-ups or deep bench dips. This kind of training strengthens joints at the end ranges of full flexion or extension (where injury usually occurs). What I’m saying is let’s try to bulletproof your body and joints while strengthening your smaller stabilizing joints so that you can train hard and come back for more. Being sidelined from overstressed joints and structural imbalance will only produce a bad mood and eventually weight gain — one of my personal favorite exercises to maintain strong and healthy joints is Dive to Hollow Body.  (demo here)

3) Get stronger, leaner and look better

Since You can use your own body resistance by doing push ups, squats and more to develop longer, leaner muscle instead of the bulky muscle that comes with heavy lifting. Instead of just burning fat with cardio, body-weight training helps you build muscle to replace fat with lean tissue. The more muscle to fat ratio, the faster your metabolism becomes. A faster metabolism means you burn fat more effectively. Bodyweight training is incredibly effective for building muscle. … However, there are still those who argue that bodyweight training isn’t as effective as weight lifting when it comes to building muscle. Since bodyweight Training is often a military style, endurance oriented workout, is should not be mistaken for its muscle building capabilities. For instance your ever see a gymnasts physique? Enough said.

4) Never get bored

I like to compare it more to a sport like skiing or tennis. I know, how do you compare push-ups and crunches to skiing? Well if you where to think of the skill levels of skier like beginners (green circles), intermediate (blue squares), and experts (black diamonds) you can compare it to an exercise progression. For instance, you can perform a basic strict push-up (green circle), you can do a “delt tap” push-up (blue square) or an Explosive “chest clap” push-up (black diamond). All three progressions have a skill, strength and ability level. Over time as your ability, strength and skill level increases, you can perform more and challenge yourself to do more dynamic movements that will keep you far from boredom.

5) It builds balance and prevents injury

Consistent bodyweight training builds structural balance, meaning you have balanced muscles front and back as well as side to side. Many people train what only they see in the mirror, while neglecting some of the most critical areas for pillar movements like pushing and pulling as well as squatting and lunging. This can affect our posture and lead to structural imbalances. One of the things I reinforce when working with clients is “its all about hips and glutes”. This is where most athletic movements are driven from. The gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in the human body. It is large and powerful because it has the job of keeping the trunk of the body in an erect posture along with acting as the chief antigravity muscle. 

Chris Vlaun performing a walking prisoner lunge.

There are many more great reasons to incorporate body-weight training to not only achieve your fitness, but to prepare you for life. It’s functional, it’s athletic and gets you ready for your sport, occupation or activity that you will use on a daily basis.

**Bonus: A study posted in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that cadets at the US Military Academy who performed bodyweight exercises such as squats, push-up and lunges sprinted faster and jumped higher than those who did a static warm-up routine.

For information about our online bodyweight training program visit us here.

Christopher Vlaun – ©2019


7 Nutrition Tips to Navigating a Healthy and Balanced Holiday

By Lara Zakaria — ©12/2018

Trying to avoid putting on that classic winter weight? Year after year, that scale starts to budge up this time of year, leaving you feeling bloated and frustrated. You’re not alone, most of us struggle finding navigating a healthy and balanced holiday season.

It can happen to the best of us. You’re on a roll for months, eating healthy, getting your workouts in, and staying on plan. But it’s inevitable – pumpkin spice season roles up and all of a sudden, it’s parties, and cocktails, and big dinners – oh my!

Generally, I try to say pretty low carb overall, leaning on a plant-based “paleo-ish” diet (it’s simply what works for me and personally makes me feel best). But as the weather starts to cool down, there is something just so enticing about those Fall and Winter treats. I find myself gravitating to more sugary foods and drinks. 

Decadent warm pumpkin spice lattes, winter-themed cocktails with creamy liquor or ginger beer, holiday parties with tempting appetizer platters, and family dinners with all the classics (and then some!). As if that’s not enough, this year I got to celebrate 3 weddings in addition to birthdays and housewarmings!

Don’t get me wrong. I’m eternally grateful to have the opportunity to indulge during the holidays and for the time I get to spend with my loved ones from near and far. But I also really value being healthy and feel like I can be most present when I invest in my health and maintain my selfcare routine. That includes how I nourish my body with food. 

For the record, I’m not here to tell you that you should punish yourself for enjoying a holiday meal (and even dessert!). You don’t need to starve yourself or do double workouts to “pay” for your extra calories. 

In recent studies about longevity, researchers found that maintaining meaningful relationships may be just as (possibly more) important as eating right and exercising. That means that the extra calories you eat during the holiday season are less likely to affect your health long-term if you’re enjoying them with friends and family. Key word: ENJOY.

So, with that said, allow me to offer you the following suggestions to find your balance of healthy this holiday season: 

  1. Start hydrating early. With all the parties, the holidays are a time for boozy cocktails and extra wine. So, if you’re not compensating by hydrating a little extra, you’ll arrive at the holiday table already dehydrated. Start your day with water (try warm lemon water for extra credit), hydrate throughout the day, and choose fruit flavored water instead of dehydrating drinks like soda, coffee, or alcoholic beverages whenever possible.
  2. Introduce “smart carbs” into your winter routine. If you’re feeling the sugar cravings creep up during the cooler months, this is a good time to introduce some mineral-dense, grounding root veggies into your routine. I love roasting butternut squash, sweet potatoes, onions, and beets along with cruciferous favorites like Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and broccoli. They make an amazing dish topped with olive oil, tahini (ground sesame paste),and aromatic herbs to curb carb cravings. Experiment with delicious winter one-pot stews and soups that feature root veggies – super easy and great to have on hand when hunger strikes! 
  3. Balance your meals and snacks with protein, fiber-rich veggies, and healthy fats.  Even when you indulge in more bread than usual, sugary treats, and decadent beverages – and this is important – do not skimp on the healthy stuff! So many of my clients attempt to “save calories” by skipping out on the main meal not realizing they’re setting themselves up for a vicious cycle of sugar crashing and cravings that lead to more binging. When you eat your veggies, protein and good fats you will help keep blood sugar and insulin levels balanced, helping you avoid crashes and more sugar cravings.
  4. Lighten up your cocktails. You don’t need to give up cocktails entirely, instead think about how much sugar is loaded in your drink. Most of us end up imbibing more frequently during the holidays at various parties and celebrations. Out socializing? Consider skipping high calorie beer and creamy drinks like eggnog, or those that contain simple syrup, ginger beer, triple sec, juice or sodas. Instead, opt for mixers like club soda with fresh fruit or herbal infusions like mint or fresh cranberry or just a splash of juice. Hot toddies and wine are usually safer choices. Alcohol makes us lose our inhibitions so we’re more likely to binge on foods we normally wouldn’t eat, so have a balanced meal or snack (see tip #3) before you drink and stay hydrated to stay in control. (Pro tip: one glass of water for every serving of alcohol). 
  5. Plan your holiday get togethers around activities instead of around food. Seeing friends from out of town? Plan a hike or a ski trip instead of happy hour. Family football games, tag, or soccer can be a great tradition. Plan a long walk, ice skating, or bike ride after brunch or dinner. If the weather doesn’t permit outdoor fun, play board games or active games like charades or twister. The idea here isn’t to burn off extra calories (though that’s a nice side effect), but rather to keep you busy and away from mindless snacking. 
  6. Eat mindfully during your meal. It’s easy to get caught up and with everything around you and forget to really focus on and enjoy your meal. Slow down, take a few deep breathes before you begin eating and really take in all the delicious scents. Take a moment to express your gratitude for the meal, all the variety of colors and flavors. Take your time to chew well, enjoy the flavors, and take a break – put your fork down and get lost in the conversation and company of the loved ones that surround you. This practice can go a long way in keeping you from overeating and even the meal even more memorable.
  7. Experiment with healthier recipes and offer to contribute to the meal. There’s no reason not appreciate traditional foods with a modern healthy twist. Avoid highly processed white flour, sugars and vegetable oils – swap them out for nut flours, natural sweeteners, and heart healthy fats like olive or avocado oil. Try some recipes using dates, apple sauce, pumpkin, maple syrup, and ghee. Trust me your family will only notice how much better it tastes! To get you started, below are 2 of my favorite holiday (or any day) classic recipes with a twist.
  1. Cauliflower Mash

  2. Prep: 10 mins

    COOK: 25 mins

    READY IN: 35 mins

    Ingredients

    • 1 Tablespoon ghee or olive oil
    • 1 medium Head Cauliflower cut into large florets, stem sliced ½ 
    • 1 butternut squash, peel, seed and cut into ¾ -inch cubes
    • 1 medium Yellow Onion chopped
    • 2-4 cloves of garlic, mince
    • 2 teaspoons curry powder
    • 1 teaspoon paprika (optional)
    • Sea salt to taste 
    • 1 cup vegetable broth

    Instructions

    1. Heat the ghee or oil in a large cast-iron pan over medium heat. Add the cauliflower, butternut squash, onion, garlic, and seasoning. Mix to coat the vegetables in the oil and spices; stir frequently for 8 minutes.
    2. Turn down the heat to low and add the broth. Cover and cook until the vegetables are completely tender, 10–15 minutes.
    3. Transfer the contents of the pan to a food processor and pulse the mixture until it is creamy. You may also use a potato masher if you don’t have a food processor. It will be thick, similar to the consistency of mashed potatoes. You may need to add a little more water to thin out the mixture out to desired consistency (but be careful not to add to much).
    4. Check seasoning and add more as needed. Leftovers can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.

    Roasted Root Veggies

    PREP: 15 mins

    COOK: 30 mins

    READY IN: 45 mins

    Ingredients

    • Favorite mix of root veggies: Carrots, beets, Brussels sprouts, butternut squash, onion, sweet potatoes, turnips, yams (diced into equal size 1-inch squares)
    • 1 tablespoon olive oil
    • 1 teaspoon dried sage and basil
    • ¼ teaspoon sea salt
    • ¼ teaspoon chili pepper (optional)

    Instructions

    1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. 
    2. In a large bowl, mix all ingredients until well combined. 
    3. Place in a baking dish, bake for 20 minutes, then switch to broil (high) and cook for another 10 minutes to crisp vegetables.

    Pomegranate Cranberry Sauce

    Ingredients

    • ¾ cup pineapple, diced 
    • 1 Lemon, juiced
    • 1 Pomegranate, seeded
    • 2 cups cranberries
    • Small pinch of sea salt o taste
    • Mint leaves (to garnish)

    Instructions

    1. In a food processor, blend orange, lemon, pomegranate. Add the cranberries at the end and pulse briefly until coarsely chopped
    2. In a medium sized sauce pan, bring the mixture to a slow boil on medium high. Turn down the temperature to low and allow to simmer for another 15 minutes. The liquid should evaporate enough to leave you with a thick 
    3. Serve with mint leaves garnish