Beat your festive funk through legal highs
One thing needs to be made clear from the outset: I have a tendency towards low moods and drugs are probably the reason why. This makes the winter blues a gloomy reality to me. I miss the sun. I miss warmth. I miss long days and heightened energy.
More specifically, I miss the get-up-and-go version of myself that seems to come out of hibernation around May-June every year. You as well? We’re not alone. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) affects thousands across the UK every winter and it’s not just misanthropes with a penchant for narcotics who are suffering.
With hindsight and sobriety I have gathered a passing understanding of how certain lifestyle choices have affected my brain chemistry and have decided to go on a quest to find ways to boost my mood naturally.
GET HIGH ON DOWNTIME
My dalliances with drugs (amphetamines to boost concentration at work; other white substances definitely not for work) and personal disposition (anxious, depressive tendencies) have combined to make me something of a joyless 30-year-old. I wouldn’t say I’m especially gloomy, but nor am I particularly happy.
In the absence of easy excitement, I have to work at it.
It’s for that reason that I start my quest to score some legal highs with much needed expert insight from someone entirely more normal.
Psychologist James King is a performance coach to highly functioning athletes and high-flying CEOs alike. He also happens to have a no BS approach that suits my sceptical sensibilities.
‘It’s all about finding what works for you personally,’ he says. ‘Don’t use the kind of clichéd advice you find online. Think about what really makes you feel relaxed and don’t beat yourself up about doing it.’
We discover that, for me, that includes reading the paper and carving holes into foes during gaming marathons.
‘If it’s kept to controllable amounts of time, then it’s beneficial,’ says James. ‘No matter how hard you work, you’ll be OK if you make time for downtime.’
Day one. I’ve integrated James’ advice. The alarm goes off half an hour earlier than usual, I grab the paper and make myself a coffee.
I must admit to a degree of apprehension. As it stands, mood: normal. Energy: pretty rubbish. High? Not yet. Though I don’t really expect The Guardian crossword and two hours of Fifa to hit me like a line of cocaine.
King suggests my new routine of making time for things I enjoy will open me up to allow a sense of wellbeing to exist. I’ll get back to you on that. In the meantime, I need to do something about my lack of energy.
FIND YOUR RHYTHM
You may have heard of the circadian rhythm. We know this internal clock governs our sleeping patterns and, as a consequence, our energy, but now scientists are starting to realise it also affects our organs. In terms of mood, its role is quite simple: your circadian rhythm affects your hormones, the balance of which underpins how you feel.
When the sun goes in, a few things start going on inside your body. The first comes from a lack of natural light, which confuses your sleepy brain. Then there’s vitamin D.
Billions around the world are reckoned to be D-ficient. According to a study undertaken at the University of Melbourne (and the Aussies know their sunshine science), during darker months, the lack of vit-D from sunshine could even be reducing serotonin – a mood-regulating neurotransmitter – in your brain.
So it stands to reason this is one pill worth taking. I scour labdoor.com, a group that tests the efficacy of pills and powders, and learn that Carlson Labs D-3 is among the best on the market.
It sets me back more than a tenner, which, ironically, puts me in a foul mood.
One of the most study-backed ways to boost your mood during winter is blue light therapy, it seems. After turning my nose up at a plethora of ugly sunrise alarm clocks and table lamps, I discover Philips Hue bulbs, which are techy and stylish enough to suit my love for both gadgetry and home decor.
I’ve programmed the bulbs with the Hue app and they now wake me gradually with a bright light every morning and put me to sleep with a relaxing, warmer coloured setting at night. Again, far from cheap, they’d better work.
TAKE YOUR HAPPY PILLS
A week of earlier, better lit mornings and some structured downtime has definitely set me at a more even level. Energy: better. Mood: calmer, but certainly not ecstatic. I feel I’ve established a foundation. Now I want to build a proper high.
To that end, I go in search of drugs. But this time, my dealer is a health nut. Dax Moy is a healthy lifestyle coach whose work ranges from getting actors fighting fit to putting a spring back into the step of elderly people who’d otherwise be sofa-bound.
Moy and I have worked together on many projects and his knowledge on herbal supplements always terrifies me. What I need, it seems, is rhodiola and ashwagandha.
He explains: ‘The first is a gentle stimulant with mood-boosting properties and the second is a powerful anti-inflammatory that’s been shown to help out the brain.’
He’s not wrong: both are finding their way into nootropics – new wave pills formulated by Silicon Valley scientists looking to turn a buck from the nascent smart drugs industry.
Of all my recent forays, these yield the most palpable results. Rhodiola actually has a slight rush to it mildly reminiscent to coming up on ecstasy. (Big emphasis on mildly, but there’s a feeling nonetheless).
It is a stimulant, so talk to your GP before trying. A day high-dosing ashwagandha has left me entirely calm. There’s perhaps some placebo effect at work, but who cares? I feel great.
A nutritionist friend also suggests I add L-theanine into my drug cocktail. This is the amino acid found in green tea that calms the nervous system, reducing anxiety.
He also explains that it can affect dopamine levels. I pop one in the evening. I’m not sure exactly what knocks me out (this is an inexact study, it must be said) but my girlfriend finds me three hours later after a drool-soaked nap. I’m usually far too highly strung for such pleasures.
STAY AT THE TOP
6am artificial sunrise (the ‘energy’ setting on the Hue bulbs in full effect). Rhodiola instead of coffee, washed down with a glass of water and some ashwagandha. I’m reading the paper and am genuinely pumped for the day. It feels almost trite to come to this positive a conclusion after only two weeks, but it’d be dishonest of me to say otherwise.
A surprising but entirely welcome side effect is the improvement in my work output. I feel more content and less distracted.
My girlfriend suggests I even look more relaxed in my face, whatever that means. I may not be perpetually happy but, after a fortnight of making time for myself (and with some chemical help), I’ve found moments of feeling genuinely high.
If I were to put my finger on the main cause, I’d say it’s the supplements.
But cultivating a healthy high is an accumulative process made up of lots of small building blocks (though sex does offer a sizeable boost, FYI).
Huge dopamine spikes are only found in the kind of drugs you want to avoid. As I’ve learned over time, what goes up must come down. So give me the little hits any day.
FIND YOUR BALANCE: INCREASE YOUR NATURAL HIGHS
CLIMB HIGH: Make 30 minutes on the climbing wall your new staple workout. The meditative focus and exhilaration cause a happiness spike, say researchers. Get your spirits up in more ways than one.
CHILL OUT: A quick blast of a fully cold shower can boost your mood, researchers say. In fact, some scientists believe it might even prove to be a useful treatment for people with depression.
EAT RIGHT: Getting enough L-tyrosine ensures the foundations for dopamine synthesis, says nutritionist Drew Price. Eat bananas, protein and try a supplement to boost your levels.
GET VITS: A multi-vitamin not only helps your immune system, but your mood as well. One study found almost a quarter of depressed people are lacking vitamin B6, so make that your focus.
KICK BACK: Meditation is moving out of Buddhist centres and into research labs, and with good reason: it boosts your immune system and sense of well being. Sit down, get high…