Stress and Relaxation

Breaking Habits and Making Resolutions

Natural substances that can help our mood and support healthy choices in the New Year and beyond

As echoes of “Happy New Year” grow more distant, and we brace ourselves for the remaining long winter, the resolve with which we embarked upon our January 1 resolutions can rapidly erode. With January 17th as the official “Ditch Your New Year’s Resolution” holiday, it obviously isn’t a unique struggle.  Studies have even addressed this, and it has been found that it takes anywhere from 18 to 254 days to make a new habit, with an average of 66 days.[1] So, if you have given up by day 17, you haven’t even made it within this range! To implement a new habit or break an old one, there must be deliberate action – whether this be getting up a half-hour earlier to journal, taking time to buy and/or prepare different foods for meals during the week, or leaving your house in the cold and rain to get to the gym. Not an easy list of obstacles to overcome, especially over the test of time!

The strength of our habits varies, and different indices have been developed in attempts to assess the grip past behaviors may have on us. Factors such as a history of repetition, the automaticity (lack of control and awareness, as well as efficiency) of a habit, and how much a habit expresses one’s identity each play a role in how deeply our habits are engrained.[2] In addition to the strength associated with past behavioral frequency, much of a habit is a psychological construct. In regard to future change, the degree of engagement in a positive, therapeutic ritual determines the extent of response, even in a taking placebo, which is much of why we often see a placebo effect in medicine.[3],[4]

Factors such as a history of repetition, the automaticity (lack of control and awareness, as well as efficiency) of a habit, and how much a habit expresses one’s identity each play a role in how deeply our habits are engrained.

“She looks on the bright side,” we might say of one who always seems to see something positive through challenges and adversity. This is not the mindset with which we all start our day. Many of us wake up to self-talk which puts our mind in a negative space, whereas by choosing to start the day with a motivational reading, or end the day with a gratitude list, we slowly, bit by bit, can reframe the attitudes which shape our day and overall thought processes. Gratitude has been shown to help protect people from stress, depression and anxiety, and even directly fosters social support.[5],[6] Higher levels of gratitude predict the reduction of depression[7] and have direct impacts on our self-esteem.[8] Gratitude is even associated with sleep improvements.[3]

When we come into the day with a sense of Zen and calmness, this also impacts our mental health. Meditation is another tool that has been well studied and has an impact on mental health, as well as many other health parameters. Mindfulness practices have been shown to have broad impacts on anxiety, depression, and psychological distress in populations ranging from healthy adults, to individuals with cancer, caregivers, veterans, and students under stress.[9],[10],[11],[12]

Gratitude and meditation obviously are not the only things which can have a positive impact on mood, as for many with chronic anxiety or depression there are other biochemical imbalances which benefit from (and often necessitate) supplemental therapies or medications. Anxiety and depression are disease conditions associated with physiological changes much like diabetes or heart disease, yet with nutritional support, the acuteness of mental health struggles can be lessened, or even ameliorated completely.

Anxiety and depression are disease conditions associated with physiological changes much like diabetes or heart disease, yet with nutritional support, the acuteness of mental health struggles can be lessened, or even ameliorated completely.

Vitamin D deficiency has been found in many studies to be associated with depression, which a recent systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies and randomized controlled trials also reaffirmed.[13] Supplementation of vitamin D3 has been shown to improve depression scale scores in patients with seasonal affective disorder and major depressive disorder.[14],[15],[16] Deficiency of vitamin C also has been linked with depression, as well as lower levels of metabolites of two major mood-associated neurotransmitters, dopamine and serotonin.[17],[18] Vitamin C and B complex vitamins support adrenal function and neurotransmitter metabolism, both of which are important for supporting healthy energy levels and mood.[19],[20] Vitamin C has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression in double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trials, possibly in part by its impact on oxidative stress as well.[21],[22] Supplementation with B complex vitamins, in particular vitamin B12 and folate in their methylated forms, are associated with an improvement in mood.[23],[24] B12 and folate have also been shown to reduce levels of homocysteine, which when elevated is associated with depression, cardiovascular disease, and dementia.[25]

Vitamin C has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression in double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trials, possibly in part by its impact on oxidative stress as well.

Zen comes in other forms as well. Green tea contains a high amount of an amino acid known as L-theanine. L-theanine has been observed to promote relaxation and reduction of stress by a variety of possible mechanisms. Clinical studies have shown L-theanine may increase alpha-wave activity in the brain, the same wave forms associated with meditation, as well as increase neurotransmitters that are important for a balanced mood.[26],[27] It also has been shown to have neuroprotective effects, protecting the cells in the brain from excess excitation and support nerve growth and new pathways.[28],[29],[30] By these mechanisms, it not only has an immediate effect on mental health, but also long-term action. GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter, is one of the mediators responsible for reducing the response to fear or anxiety-provoking stimuli. Like L-theanine, supplemental administration of GABA has been shown to significantly increase alpha wave patterns in humans, accompanied by reduced levels of anxiety.[31],[32]

For more information and support for mental health for yourself or a loved one, consider reaching out to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of people with mental illness. This organization not only provides resources for support and treatment, but also attempts to decrease the stigma which mental illness still can have in our society. By reaching out, and increasing awareness, we not only improve this societal stigma, we also can reach others who are still suffering in silence.

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Intention vs. Resolution
Stressed? Find Your Zen

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