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December 15, 2011, last updated November 8, 2012

By Alison Turner, Contributing Columnist

There’s extra food, extra family, extra opportunity to sing
and be merry -- but for some of us these holiday “extras”
are more likely to lead us towards surplus stress and
depression than lightness and joy.  Worried about
entertaining, New Year’s resolutions, financial stress, family
tensions and where we are in our lives (versus where we’re
not) may increase our likelihood for negative emotions
during the holidays, just as overeating and drinking and
inadequate amounts of sleep can weaken our bodies.  

Mental Health America (formerly the National Mental Health
Association) recommends several strategies to maintain a
healthy and happy holiday.  Setting realistic goals, effective
time management, focusing on the positive side of life, and
trying activities that are free, like looking at decorations or
lights, may be good places to start .  See the list below of ten
studies conducted by experts throughout the world, the
findings of which may help all of us have a happier holiday.

Get enough rest for your holiday best.  There are presents
to buy, presents to wrap, mouths to feed and songs to sing
– who has time to sleep?  Turns out that by not allowing
ourselves enough rest, we may also be tainting our holiday
season with stress and depression.

In 2010 a study conducted by experts at the University of
Babel, including Dr. Serge Brand with the Depression and
Sleep Research Unit,  analyzed how stress, depression, other
psychological disorders and dysfunctional sleeping habits
were interrelated in 863 participants.  They found that
“stress management should be a primary focus in the
treatment of insomnia.”  

While it might be hard to control our stress levels over the
holidays, a method of keeping that stress maintained could
be to make sure we get enough sleep – which should be
easy enough, if we give ourselves a chance.

Exercise for a merrier testosterone/cortisol ratio.  
Unfortunately, sleeping (see above) might not be enough to
keep your levels of stress and depression down over the
holidays.  Several studies suggest that exercise not only
keeps your body healthy but may also maintain the health of
your mind.

More specifically, exercise influences your levels of
testosterone and cortisol, which in turn impacts our moods
and stress levels.  

We almost always associate the hormone testosterone with
men (it helps men to produce sperm, have facial hair and
grow muscles).  

But women also make testosterone from the ovaries, on an
average of twenty times less the amount than men, which is
believed to help maintain women’s muscles and bone
strength.   Muscles and bones aside, testosterone may affect
depression and stress in both men and women, in terms of
its amount relative to cortisol, another steroid hormone
produced by the body.

Experts from SupplementWatch and the Treehouse Athletic
Club in Draper, Utah, published a study in 2006 asserting
that the ideal testosterone/cortisol ratio is to have relatively
high testosterone to cortisol, a ratio also termed “anabolic,”
meaning that fat is lost and muscle is gained.  However,
cortisol production may increase during times of stress,
dieting or sleep loss (all factors for many of us over the
holidays), which in turn decreases the production of

These experts report that “some of the clearest signs of a
testosterone imbalance are changes in attitude and mood, as
well as a loss of energy and sex drive.”  Furthermore,
testosterone peaks in both men and women in their mid-
twenties, and on average drops 10% per decade thereafter,
so that as we age we have less testosterone to help us
through stressful times.   Each holiday season could be more
stressful than the previous.  (
Read more about foods and
herbs that boost your testosterone levels.)

So how can we keep our testosterone high over the holidays
and our cortisol low?  Perhaps the easiest way is to exercise,
which both boosts testosterone and reduces cortisol.  But is
regular exercise always easy?  After studying 50 volunteers
with “high stress” and “historical holiday weight gain,” the
research team found that a “moderate” exercise program of
an average of 5 days of week of both aerobic and strength
training led to “significant stress-control and weight-control

A happier and healthier testosterone/cortisol level (and
potentially a jollier and more relaxed you over the holidays)
can be achieved with only “modest’ exercise – good news
for those worried about the holiday blues.

Get More of The Right Kind of Exercise.  Exercising is step
one for reducing depression.  But for even
higher chances of
a high testosterone/cortisol ratio (see above), we might
want to focus on the
way that we exercise.  

Earlier this year (May of 2011), several experts from Iranian
Universities, including Dr. Rahman Rahimi from the
Department of Physical Education and Sport Science at the
University of Kurdistan,  studied how taking short rest
periods during heavy resistance exercise affects the
testosterone to cortisol ratio in men.  

Their results show that longer rest periods (2 minutes)
between sets of heavy lifting more greatly increased the
ratio than did shorter rest periods (1 minute).  

So, between exercise sets, get your clocks out, and make
sure that you wait at least 2 minutes before hitting the
weights again.


The amount of exercise you need to do to avoid feeling
depressed in amazingly little, according to a 2008 study from
researchers at University College of London . The study
(called the “Scottish Health Survey”) looked at the exercise
habits of 19, 842 Scottish men and women. Of these, 3200
(16%) were found to suffer from depression. After looking
at the reported exercise habits of the participants,
researchers discovered that just doing as little as 20 minutes
of exercise per week was sufficient to lift your mood.  What
kind of exercise?  Housework, gardening, walking and sports
all did the trick. However, the more intense types of activities
–true sports –were associated with the greatest reduction in
psychological distress.

Drink More Water to Fight Anxiety and Depression.  All of
this rest and exercise over the holidays would get us
nowhere without enough water – cortisol levels may even go
up in times of dehydration .  

A few months ago (June of 2011), researchers from various
institutions in the US and France, including Dr. Matthew
Ganioa with the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas,  
analyzed “the effects of mild dehydration on cognitive
performance and mood of young males” who exercised on a
treadmill.  The team found that dehydration “degraded”
aspects of cognition, such as “visual vigilance” and working
memory, and that fatigue and anxiety increased.  

Even if you are not a young male who is exercising over the
holidays, it couldn’t hurt to make sure you balance your
eggnog with equal amounts of water.  (
Read more about
how much water you should drink and why.)

Get Enough Sun. The holidays might be more fun if they
were in the sun.  It might not be the food, the lack of sleep,
the family, the resolutions, the expectations, or our
testostone/cortisol  ratio that gets us down over the
holidays – it might be that the days are too short.  For those
of us living in the Northern Hemisphere, the holiday season
happens to fall during the time of year with the shortest
days and the least amount of sunlight, a factor that could
lead to temporary depression otherwise known as seasonal
affective disorder (SAD).  

In 2009 a team of researchers from the United States,
including Dr. Teodor Postolache with the Department of
Psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine,  
looked at light therapy as a possible treatment for SAD.  
Treatments included “10,000 lux of white cool fluorescent
light” at 20, 40 or 60 minute intervals.  Results show that
“immediate improvement in mood can be detected” after just
one session of only 20 minutes.”  

If you can’t make it to Florida for the holidays, finding an
“artificial” way to get your daily dose of sunshine might be
worth your while.

Use Behavioral Activation.  Sometimes the merry-making
and shopping lines of the holidays make us want to stock up
on novels and lock the door until the coast is clear in mid-
January.  But inaction can be just as risky for stress and
depression as over-action.

In 2009, researchers with the School of Psychology at the
Curtin University of Technology in Perth, Australia, including
Dr. Trevor Mazzucchelli,  studied how behavioral activation
(BA) could help adults with depression.  

Behavioral activation is the increase in patients’ “overt
behavior to bring them in contact with reinforcing
environmental contingencies”: or, for those of us without
our pocket dictionaries, leaving the home and interacting
with people, places and circumstances.  After analyzing 34
studies that included over 2000 patients who were
reportedly depressed, the team concluded that “BA may be
considered a well-established and advantageous alternative
to other treatments of depression.”

Keep in mind that even small actions could go a long way in
alleviating depression or stress.  

“Behavior activation” could be as simple as calling a family
member or friend to wish them a happy New Year, or
walking around the block to see what color lights the
neighbors have used this season.

Acts of kindness.  Tis the season of giving, right?  For
those of us feeling more overwhelmed than charitable, more
lonely than jolly, we might want to try returning to the old

In 2010, Kathryn Buchanan and Anat Bardi with the
University of Kent  observed the effects that acts of kindness
have on “life satisfaction.”  Adult participants who
performed acts of kindness versus those who did not for ten
days finished the study with a reported “increase in life

Giving might also be receiving, after all.

Volunteering.  One way to perform acts of kindness is to
donate your time, i.e. volunteering.  

In 2006 Dr. Yunqing Li with the New Jersey Department of
Health and Senior Services and Dr. Kenneth Ferraro with
Purdue University  analyzed three sets of data from a
national survey and found a “salutary effect of volunteering
in later life.”

Volunteering now might not only keep this year’s holidays
fully of cheer, but could lead to many a merry holiday in the

Goal setting.  If your New Year’s Resolution is to finally
become famous and host a dinner party for the ten best-paid
celebrities, you might have a disappointing year ahead of us.  

Setting achievable goals (run for an hour before you ran a
marathon) is a healthy way to keep stress and depression
levels down.

In 2010 researchers from Germany and the US, including Dr.
Annette van Randenborgh with the Department of
Psychology at the University of Muenster,  joined forces to
analyze the extent to which “rumination,” a negative way of
responding to past events that is associated with a high risk
of depression, prevents us from making more achievable
goals.  They found that rumination does, indeed, hinder our
ability to make unattainable and rewarding goals, which in
turn “may lead to decrements in adaptive functioning and

A possible new New Year’s Resolution to help control
depression and stress: no more unrealistic resolutions!

Keep an eye on your cytokines.  Cytokines are used by
the body for communication between cells, and come in
various forms (proteins, pepties, or glycoproteins).   While
this communication is vital to the body, cytokines may also
play a role in depression, as certain types (proinflammatory
cytokines) have been found in higher levels in depressed

A 2005 study led by Dr. Charles Raison with the Department
of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Emory
University School of Medicine   found that independent stress
can precipitate depression, which can additionally promote
inflammatory responses and exacerbate the problem.  The
team concludes that “targeting proinflammatory cytokines
and their signaling pathways might represent a novel
strategy to treat depression.”  

But how can we possibly watch out for our own cytokines?  
Researchers are hard at work on how to do just that.  For
example, in 2001 Dr. Milena Penkowa with the Department of
Medical Anatomy at the University of Copenhagen  led a
study that analyzed how the antioxidant protein zinc
metallothionein-II (Zn-MT-II) could lessen the damage
caused by proinflammatory cytokines.  

They found good news: Zn-MT-II does reduce the
“expression” of proinflammatory cytokines – in rats.  While
this may not quite be ready to treat holiday depression in
humans, the continued research is encouraging for those of
us who need a little extra help to stay healthy and happy
over the holidays.

Related :
Foods That Fight Schizophrenia / Bipolar Disorder-
An Ideal Diet/ADHD-Causes and Top 10 Natural Remedies
10 Foods That Fight Depression / How Much Is Too Much
Salt? /Sugar-The Disease Connection / Are Diet Sodas Bad
for Your Health? / Ideal Breakfast for Diabetics / Ideal
Breakfast for Arthritis /Healing Foods Links /  Foods That
Shrink Your Waist / Foods That Lower Cholesterol/ VLDL-
The Other Cholesterol/ Foods That Reduce Blood Pressure

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