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Beating the winter blues

Reading time: 5 minutes

Thomas was a grumpy teenage boy when his mother first brought him to see me in mid-winter. She had brought him for four reasons: he was becoming depressed and sometimes aggressive, he was very tired and listless, he was off school much of the time with flu and he was under-performing at school. His teachers knew he was extremely bright and was not remotely reaching his potential. And he had exams coming up.

Breakfast for Thomas was either a croissant or nothing. A croissant is just nutrient-free, quick-burning refined carbs, so with either option, his blood sugar would be too low by 10:30 in the morning to concentrate in class.

At school lunch he again chose only carbohydrate, going for sweet corn or mashed potato but without the accompanying meat or fish and veg. This is because his blood sugar was probably so low by then, he naturally craved carbs to try to boost it—a very common vicious circle and the reason he would also finish his lunch with a bar of chocolate.

Eating dinner at home was a strain; his mother offered him a proper meal, but he wanted only pizza or pasta. He would eat some meat but only “junk” meat: burgers, sausages and so on. He wouldn’t touch fish, eggs, fruit or veg, except for pickled cucumber.

Thomas was also playing on his phone till midnight every night. Most screens emit a blue light or a bright white light that contains blue light. It’s the color of the daytime sky. It tells the pineal gland in our brain that it is morning, time to be awake. That is one of the reasons it’s hard to sleep properly after staring at a screen (TV, computer or phone) all evening.

By midnight, Thomas had been staring at screens for so long, his pineal gland had not produced enough melatonin to let him fall asleep. The pineal gland can produce melatonin, the sleep hormone, only in darkness. Screen light confuses it, which is why he couldn’t sleep. So he turned the phone on again, trying to entertain himself, because he was bored and miserable as well as tired—another vicious circle.

We did blood tests for nutrient levels. Not surprisingly, Thomas turned out to have very low levels of vitamin D and magnesium, and desperately low zinc. He was also very low in iodine, a vital nutrient found mostly in fish and seaweed, neither of which he ate.

Confronted with the evidence, the numbers in front of him, Thomas said he was prepared to change his diet, but only a bit because he still hated the taste and texture of vegetables, fish and eggs. Furthermore, Thomas couldn’t swallow capsules, so I sourced for him liquid versions of the supplements he needed. He took drops of vitamin D, zinc and iodine in water. But he couldn’t handle the taste of the liquid magnesium, so instead he agreed to do an Epsom salt bath every evening, allowing the magnesium to soak in through his skin.

This had the added benefit of being an alternative to screen time; his parents fitted a dimmer switch outside the bathroom and turned the lights low, and Thomas listened to music in the bath instead of staring at a screen. After two or three months, he started sleeping better and getting out of bed in the morning with less drama.

I also gave Thomas a lot of vitamin C (as magnesium ascorbate powder dissolved in water), mixed with the other liquid supplements. I wanted to give him a B-vitamin complex as well to boost his energy and brain function, but he couldn’t stand the taste of the liquid version, even in orange juice, although that works well for most children and teens. So that had to wait.

Three months later, Thomas was somewhat more alert and cheerful, and doing a bit better at school. That was due to improved sleep (thanks to the magnesium baths and less screen time) and to the iodine and vitamin D, both of which improve brain function considerably. He had also started eating eggs, real meat, broccoli and tomatoes spontaneously. This is because zinc tunes up the taste buds, so people start actually wanting the food they need.

Another three months on, Thomas was achieving substantially better at school—he got excellent GCSE results—and was far more pleasant to live with. He described himself as no longer depressed. But it was now high summer. He was playing tennis and his exams were over; of course he felt better. The real test would come the following winter.

That September we repeated all of Thomas’s blood tests; iodine and zinc had normalized, while magnesium and vitamin D had nearly normalized. Interestingly, Thomas said he could now no longer stand the taste of the zinc drops. This is the “zinc taste test” and was a good sign. When a person is zinc-deficient, their taste buds don’t work properly, so they don’t taste the zinc drops (or anything else) properly.

Once the body’s zinc level is corrected, the zinc drops begin to taste revolting, so it’s time to stop them. Thomas’s experience agreed with the repeat blood test result.

Thomas started double maths and physics A-levels. He agreed to turn off all screens—computer, phone and TV—by 9:00 p.m., a degree of cooperation that would have been unthinkable a few months earlier. He also decided that he would try to swallow a capsule so he could take the vitamin B complex at breakfast to boost his energy and brainpower. He managed this about five mornings out of seven, which was fine.

When November came, Thomas made sure he was taking plenty of vitamin C at every meal, and at the first sign of a cold, he added zinc, selenium and echinacea (an herb that supports the immune system). He got one mild cold that winter, at the start of the Christmas holidays, but that was all. He didn’t get the flu.

By the spring, 15 months after his first consultation, Thomas was off all supplements and doing well. He was calm and balanced, had plenty of energy, and was doing fine in his studies.

What he needs to remember in winter, besides taking vitamins C and D, is to get some outdoor time in the daylight hours. He still needs reminding about that. But he now remembers to have breakfast every day and eats a lot more real food, although he’ll always be a fussy eater.

Thomas would prefer the system in some American high schools: the school day runs from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. rather than from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. It suits teenagers’ natural rhythms better. Nevertheless, he manages to get to school on time most days, even in the UK winter.

And he now understands the addictive power of electronic screens and how destructive they can be to his mental health. He rations his own screen time because he knows he feels better when he limits it. And he wants to do well at university, where he won’t have his mum in the next room to remind him: “Time to switch off now, Thomas!”

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