How to raise your spirits—starting in as little as five minutes
Feeling less than merry this holiday season? Well, you’re not alone. During this dark, cold time of year, it’s easy to find yourself more prone to depression—even in the midst of holiday festivities. But there are a variety of ways to help offset this common occurrence.
‘Tis the season for the “raising of spirits,” after all. Which, in the Christian world, means a time of spiritual renewal and cheer. But we can also take this phrase more literally, as in hoisting a toast or two. In fact, despite what you may have heard from the “neo-prohibitionist” crowd, research shows that moderate drinking can be a highly effective way to boost your mood. Of course, there are also ways to combat depression without alcohol.
So let’s take a look at the simple steps you can take to boost your mood and raise your spirits—not only this holiday season, but throughout the entire year.
Forget what you’ve been told—alcohol is not a depressant
When you hear the phrase “have a cup of cheer” this holiday season, it’s more than just a figure of speech. In fact, a new study found that alcohol produces the same neurological effects as quick-acting antidepressant drugs.1
Researchers reported that alcohol consumption can actually lead to synaptic changes in the brain. And these changes produce “long-lasting antidepressant-like behavioral effects.”
This study actually builds on a 2016 lab analysis that shows when clinically depressed people have a few drinks, it actually makes them feel better.2
In fact, researchers found that a moderate amount of alcohol—that is, one to three glasses—acts quickly to combat depression, and it can improve a person’s mood for at least 24 hours. They also discovered that alcohol follows the same biochemical pathways in lab animals as ketamine, an antidepressant that has been shown to relieve depressive symptoms within hours.
Plus, researchers found that alcohol produced euphoric feelings in lab animals. Which flies in the face of the old “conventional wisdom” that alcohol acts as a depressant. And debunks the idea that the excitement, exhilaration, and energy we experience after a couple of drinks aren’t actually “real” feelings.
Some so-called experts have claimed these feelings occur simply because alcohol deadens our body’s signals that tell us we’re tired. But these studies show the opposite—that alcohol doesn’t dull or deaden the thoughts and feelings associated with depression after all. Instead, it actually has a neurophysiological antidepressant effect.
A drink or two can be good for what ails you
Along with its mental effects, moderate alcohol consumption also has a host of physical benefits.
A new study of female twins in the U.K., U.S., and the Netherlands shows that those who drank moderate amounts of red wine had a more diverse gut microbiome than their non-red wine-drinking twins.3
As I’ve written before, a diverse microbiome means a healthy microbiome—and has been linked to improved immunity and prevention of many chronic diseases.
Researchers also found a link between red wine consumption and lowered risk of obesity. And they attribute all of these effects to the polyphenols in red wine. (For more about the health benefits of red wine, see page 7).
Over the past 40 years, research has also shown that moderate alcohol consumption confers many heart-health benefits. Alcohol dilates peripheral blood vessels and improves circulation. Indeed, on a cold winter night, you can feel this warming effect in your fingers, toes, cheeks, and nose.
And of course, we all know that a drink or two reduces stress—the No. 1 hidden cause lurking behind most chronic diseases. In fact, alcohol is a time-tested, physiologic stress-reliever and relaxation agent.
Booze’s effect on the brain
But what about alcohol’s effect on your brain—including memory, cognition, and risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease? After all, how many times have we heard that booze kills brain cells?
Well, it turns out that’s all a bunch of propaganda, too. Sure, you might forget where you put your keys, or who took them, if you have too many drinks. But in the long term, studies show that moderate drinking may actually help improve your memory in later life. Not to mention, it reduces the risk of dementia.
And these protective effects have to do with alcohol’s ability to boost blood circulation, which is a key requirement when it comes to nourishing the brain.
In fact, one study links light and moderate alcohol consumption in people over age 60 with better episodic memory, which is the ability to recall past events.4 These older drinkers also had a larger volume in the hippocampus—the region of the brain related to memory.
Researchers believe that exposing the brain to moderate amounts of alcohol increases the release of brain biochemicals associated with cognitive functioning and information processing. But they also cautioned that long periods of excessive alcohol consumption (five or more drinks at a time) is harmful to the brain. (Which is nothing new, or shocking.)
Plus, another study furthers the evidence that increased blood flow to the brain lowers dementia risk. In fact, researchers found that men and women who develop moderately high blood pressure for the first time in older age have a lower risk of dementia.5 They also have less cardiovascular disease, including strokes, as I discussed in the October 2019 issue of Insiders’ Cures (“Here’s why I no longer recommend any blood pressure medication”).
At the end of the day, this could all simply mean that as you get older, your body naturally increases blood flow to the heart and brain. So, that one or two glasses of wine with dinner is exactly what the doctor ordered after all.
But of course, as with most things in life, moderation is key.
Know when to say when
I’ve written before about how an increasing number of states are pushing down permissible blood alcohol levels for driving while “intoxicated” to ridiculously low percentages.
Of course, as a former medical examiner, I’m all too aware of how often true excess alcohol consumption is a fatal hazard on the roads. But how much is too much?
Well, research shows that after two to three drinks over one to two hours (leading to 0.03 to 0.12 percent blood alcohol), a “euphoria” stage ensues in most people. (This effect is also dependent on your body size and weight. For instance, smaller adults might want to limit their drinks to just one over the same time period.)
This euphoric stage is characterized by sociability, talkativeness, self-confidence, and lowered inhibitions—but with only a slight relaxing of attention and control (or what can also be described as “loosening up a little”). Overall, this amount of alcohol consumption produces a generally desirable antidepressant effect. And is completely healthy.
In many states, it’s a crime to drive with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or higher. Whether or not that level truly impairs your driving ability is debatable. But either way, it’s better to not spend the holidays behind bars. Stay within the one-drink-an-hour range to be safe.
However, if you’re not driving, I think up to two drinks an hour is a good definition of “moderate” alcohol consumption for most people. If you indulge further, you could be in danger of emotionality, poor judgement, confusion, stupor, and even coma and death. And that’s the very definition of unhealthy spirits!
The nonalcoholic way to boost your spirits
Of course, there are plenty of ways to elevate your spirits without booze, too. Aside from the antidepressant effects of moderate, social drinking, there are the mood-boosting benefits of simply being social.
Don’t believe me? Try going to a holiday party and not having a drink. You’ll probably still feel a lot of what happens in the “euphoria” stage of alcohol consumption—simply from the social interaction and festive holiday surroundings.
And maybe that’s because there’s something in the atmosphere this time of year. It’s not just the nip in the air and the chestnuts roasting—there’s a collective consciousness and a kind of positive energy flowing about when everyone eases up and enjoys the moment.
In fact, the “Christmas spirit,” can be seen as a collective aspiration for benevolence toward and from our fellow men and women. But that can be hard to keep in mind when you’re faced with rampant consumerism, hectic schedules, and maybe even reminders of happier holidays in years gone by.
Indeed, it’s all too easy to feel disconnected this time of year. But the good news is, our ability to connect with others is something we can improve.
Like a muscle that gets stronger with exercise, our benevolence toward others increases with practice. And a growing body of research gives us a concrete way to “train” for the social marathon that the holidays often prove to be.
You already know how meditation can calm your mind and body. But research shows this ancient spiritual practice can actually rewire your brain to improve both your personal and collective positive energy.
For instance, one study showed that people who practiced a type of mindfulness meditation known as “loving kindness” (see the sidebar on page 3 for details) for six weeks improved their outlook and felt more connected to others.6
Their physical health benefited as well. And it all had to do with increases in vagal tone.
Vagal tone refers to the health of the vagus nerve, which plays a key part in regulating our major bodily functions—including breathing, heart rate, and digestion. It’s also responsible for helping us deal with stress.
The vagus nerve is also essential for social interactions. It helps us control our facial expressions and tune into others’ voices. So when we improve our vagal tone, we increase our capacity for connection, friendship, and empathy.
In addition to meditation, there are other noninvasive, pill-free techniques for stimulating the vagus nerve. In fact, there are several step-by-step courses available through OmniVista Health Learning, the same organization I work with to create my online learning protocols. These protocols are led by sound-healing expert Jim Donovan. To learn more, or to enroll today, visit Learning.OmniVistaHealth.com.
It’s the most personal time of the year
Other research on loving-kindness meditation shows it reduces symptoms of post-traumatic stress and depression.7 It’s even being studied in connection with improving longevity.8
Of course, this isn’t the only type of meditation you can do. Even just sitting still and concentrating on your breathing for five minutes a day can have a positive effect on your physical, mental, and emotional health.
When it comes down to it, the terms “raising spirits” and the “spirit of the season” can have more than one meaning. Different people “feel their feelings”—and face seasonal stress—in their own ways. But we can all benefit from learning how to enjoy the magic, possibility, and human connection the holidays offer—with or without raising a toast to the New Year.
How to maximize peace and love this Christmas—and all year long
Making loving-kindness meditation a part of your everyday routine is simpler than you may think. Here’s how…
- Sit in a comfortable position with your eyes closed. Take in a few deep breaths.
- Think of what you want for your life. Is it health? Peace? Love? Hold onto that thought.
- Repeat to yourself silently, “May I be healthy (or happy, or peaceful, etc.).” If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to your wish for yourself.
- Picture someone you care about. Repeat the same phrase for that person, while holding his or her image in your mind: “May you be healthy; may you be happy; may you be peaceful; etc.”
- Now, picture someone you don’t have any feelings about or connection to—maybe the person who was in front of you in line at the coffee shop this morning—and direct the wish to him or her.
- Think of someone you have negative feelings toward—the obnoxious in-law you’ll be sharing Christmas dinner with, or a boss or co-worker you’re sure to encounter at a holiday affair—and direct the wish toward him or her.
- Now, direct the wish toward the whole world: “May everyone, everywhere, be happy (or healthy, or peaceful, etc.).”
- Slowly open your eyes and return to your day, keeping this expansive feeling of benevolence with you, in all that you do.
1”Ethanol and a rapid-acting antidepressant produce overlapping changes in exon expression in the synaptic transcriptome.” Neuropharmacology. 2019 Mar 1;146:289-299.2“FMRP regulates an ethanol-dependent shift in GABABR function and expression with rapid antidepressant properties.” Nature Communications, 2016; 7: 12867.
3“Red Wine Consumption Associated With Increased Gut Microbiota α-diversity in 3 Independent Cohorts.” Gastroenterology. 2019 Aug 23. pii: S0016-5085(19)41244-4.
4“Effects of Alcohol Consumption on Cognition and Regional Brain Volumes Among Older Adults.” Am J Alzheimers Dis Other Demen. 2015 Jun;30(4):364-74.
5Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC) 2014. Abstract P2-083. Presented July 14, 2014.
6 “How positive emotions build physical health: Perceived positive social connections account for the upward spiral between positive emotions and vagal tone.” Psychological Science. 2013;24(1123-1132).
7“Loving-kindness meditation for posttraumatic stress disorder: a pilot study.” J Trauma Stress. 2013;26(4):426-434.
8“Loving-Kindness Meditation practice associated with longer telomeres in women.” Brain Behav Immun. 2013;32:159-163.