How to Be Happier This Holiday Season

Pamela Gail Johnson founded the Society of Happy People in 1998, created the first three globally celebrated happiness holidays, and is the author of Practical Happiness: Four Principles to Improve Your Life. She was an award-winning salesperson for American Express and Staples, and now helps leaders and teams create happier workplace cultures.

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Immune Health and Neurotransmitter Function: What You Need to Know

Fun fact: a hijacked immune system means hijacked neurotransmitters, especially in the case of tryptophan.

The primary pathway for tryptophan metabolism in the body is the kynurenine pathway, needed for supporting inflammation and immune function in case of virus or infection. In fact, tryptophan is so crucial for fighting inflammation that a recent study on mice found that mice who consumed diets low of tryptophan have altered gut bacteria and increased inflammation.

Tryptophan is needed for so many functions in the body. We need tryptophan to make serotonin, which definitely has an impact on mental well-being. We need it for sleep support, as serotonin flips the switch to melatonin at night, and we even need tryptophan to regulate GI function.

Tryptophan plays an important role for those who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) as well, so if the immune system is under attack, or the body is dealing with any other threat, tryptophan may not be available to support mood health. This is often referred to as the “tryptophan steal.” Some studies even suggest supplementing with tryptophan may be just as effective as taking an antidepressant to ward of seasonal depression. This make sense, because SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) work on the synapses of the brain to keep serotonin available for longer. If the body isn’t getting tryptophan to make serotonin, there isn’t much available to “inhibit reuptake.”

You can support tryptophan by focusing on getting more tryptophan rich food into your diet or by taking a tryptophan supplement, but I advise you to check with a professional before adding in a supplement like tryptophan.

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Tryptophan-rich foods I love and how I incorporate them:

Bananas – Not only do they contain tryptophan, they are a great source of B6, needed for the metabolism of tryptophan. I love having bananas on hand to eat with peanut butter, throw in a smoothie, or add to oatmeal or chia pudding. Which leads to…

Oats – I love making overnight oats, using a cup of liquid, 1/4 cup oats, nuts and seeds, protein powder, all mixed in a jar and put in the fridge overnight or for a few hours. I also love making power balls with a mixture of oats, peanut butter, honey, and other add-ins like coconut and chocolate chips. My boys help me roll the mixture into balls and set in fridge. Usually it gets eaten immediately!

Chocolate – The darker the chocolate, the higher the amount of antioxidants and tryptophan. I love a square in the evening, or mid-afternoon if I’m having a craving for something comforting. I love dipping a square in organic peanut butter (with one ingredient: peanuts).

Dairy – This is when quality goes a long way. For those who can tolerate dairy, looking for full fat, grass-fed and organic dairy will give the most nutrient value. Because dairy is such a staple in the American diet, I don’t need to specify how to incorporate it. But be sure you tolerate it well and the quality is top notch, or you won’t be getting the full benefits.

Tuna – Quality is extremely important in all seafood, due to water contamination. Look for wild-caught, sustainable versons, especially when you’re looking for shelf stable tuna to mix as tuna salad.

Various nuts and seeds – Pumpkin seeds are great sources to throw on a salad, while I love adding chia and flax seeds to my kids’ oatmeal or yogurt. Cashews and pistachios have more tryptophan than peanuts, but organic peanut butter is such a great quick source and can be added to anything to up the flavor (I’ve even drizzled it onto my stir fry dishes).

Chicken/Turkey – Always look for pasture-raised, antibiotic-free sources. For turkey, this is particularly challenging, so I usually stick to chicken.

Because we are in the middle of cold/flu season, our bodies are constantly fighting viruses and our immune systems are more vigilant than ever. Those with more adipose tissue will carry a higher viral load, so it is extremely important to load up on tryptophan-rich foods as much as possible.

If you’re curious to know more about tryptophan and how to supplement with it, message me. I’d love to support you as you support your neurotransmitters this season!

When the December Blahs Hit

December is my mental slump month. I recently posted about the top triggers for holiday anxiety, but to be honest, holiday anxiety is not something I struggle with throughout the month. But my “December Blahs?” They’re definitely a struggle and always have been.

Though I’ve never been formally diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder, my mood definitely shifts after Thanksgiving. The husband often catches it before I do. This year, I started feeling it earlier than usual. For me, it shows up as complete lack of motivation and willingness to engage. That’s the first symptom. I know from past history that if I let it linger there, I’ll take a deeper dive into true depression.

Last week, I made a trip to the library to load up on some fun holiday reading. As I gathered my stack of no less than seven books, I had this sudden despairing thought that it seemed like such a task to start a new book. Listen – new books bring me so much joy, so that thought was definitely an alert for me. When things that I consider fun stop feeling fun, that’s a sign that my mood is starting to tank.

At that moment, I realized I needed to take a step back and slow it down. I made no plans to fight the lack of motivation with excess activity, to beat my brain and body into submission like I used to. Instead, I came to the realization that for the rest of December, I’m committing myself to erasing to-do items off my lists. I’m not going to fight the blah. Instead, I’m going to recognize it for what it is, and re-adjust my expectations of myself.

This is a difficult mindset shift for me. I like to fill my schedule, I thrive with activity and overscheduling, and I love to have a thousand different plates spinning at one time.

Not for the rest of December.

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Five Things Triggering Anxiety over the Holidays

They say this is the most wonderful time of the year, but for those of us who struggle with seasonal mood fluctuations, it often isn’t. I always try to make an effort to enter this season on the offense, instead of playing defense.

Here are five things that could be triggering anxiety and mood instability over the holiday season. The beauty of these things is that each one of them impact the other, because so many of these important processes are connected.

Poor sleep – Sleep deprivation leads to heightened activity in the amygdala (your fear brain) and decreases the function of the prefrontal cortex. With lack of restful sleep we become reactionary and it makes it difficult to make good decisions. Listen to your circadian rhythm this season, and choose to go to bed an hour earlier. That can make all the difference in the world for your brain. Cut the electronics an hour before bed or at least wear blue light blocking glasses, because blue light blocks melatonin, which we need for restful sleep.

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Handling Grief Over the Holidays

December is never an easy month for me. Even in the years I decide to get a head start on my “seasonal lows,” I often end up getting hit by an intense overwhelm at some point during the month. This year, thanks to the added Covid-related stress, it feels like my winter blues got a superboost.

That’s why I was so grateful to get to speak to Licensed Professional Counselor Michael Sweeney on the latest episode of my podcast. Not gonna lie – it felt like free therapy. I realized that these intense feelings I am experiencing right now, on a more intense level than usual, are related to grief. Grief isn’t just losing a person – it can be any kind of loss.

There are many misconceptions to grief. I didn’t realize that my distractibility and lack of focus can also be signs that my nervous system is struggling to process grief while also stay here in the present. I don’t often find myself at a loss for words, but in this episode I definitely was. We cover why holiday grief is so common, how grief doesn’t always take the form we expect, how we need to stop comparing our grief, and ways we can process and manage our grief that is helpful to us!

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Learn more about Michael and his practice here.