Mental health has never been more important to discuss and develop proactive measures for as rates of mental health conditions continue to increase in our society today.
With the rise of technology we are seemingly more connected than ever before, however we have never been so disconnected as a society. As the pace of our lifestyle accelerates, and our distractions and responsibilities increase it's no wonder we feel exhausted and burnt out at the end of the day.
We keep pouring out of our cup yet we never stop to replenish it.
The current economic crisis and the situation involving the global pandemic has also greatly impacted our mental health as a collective, particularly due to the effect that it has had on our social life.
In addition, season changes also represent a significant trigger for low mood and even depression.
Also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, this is characterized by a state of depression that starts in the winter months when we lose sunlight and the days become shorter and darker.
Fortunately there are many things we can do to support our mental health daily and naturally:
Feed your microbiome
The gut-brain connection is now undeniable from the ever emerging research that is continuously confirming the impact that gut health has on our mental health.
In fact, our gut is also known as our "second brain" due to the enteric nervous system that resides in the digestive tract and communicates to our brain.
Alterations in the gut microbiome as well as intestinal permeability have been associated with depression and anxiety (1)(2).
So how we do we keep our microbiome healthy? Feed them of course! Prebiotics, found in fruits and vegetables, are the main source of fuel for our gut bugs which means we need to be eating at least 35 grams of fiber every day!
Exercise has actually been shown to be one of the most effective treatments to improve mental health, with its ability to reduce anxiety and depression (3).
Regular daily movement helps to improve cognitive health and mood by raising endorphins (our feel good hormones), increasing blood circulation, promoting neurotrophic growth (supporting brain cells to grow and create new connections) (3).
Just 30 minutes of daily exercise has been shown to make a significant difference, however even 10-15 minutes have their benefits!
Take regular breaks
As our life becomes busier and busier we are faced with more and more distractions to the point where our brain gets overwhelmed by so much data to process. This is why multitasking is a poor strategy to be efficient and also stay focused. By continuously absorbing information and staying busy our stress hormones are increased and our nervous system becomes overstimulated.
Our brain cannot efficiently be consuming on an ongoing basis, it needs regular breaks. So while pushing and shoving may be your default response to getting ahead, constant stimulation may actually be hindering your growth and progress.
Taking regular breaks are key to promote optimal performance but also support mental health. Every hour take atleast 5 minutes to get up, grab some water, move your body, do a quick meditation, cuddle your pet, practice some deep breathing or change your environment to give your mind a break.
Eco therapy, or time out in nature, is a potent stress reducer.
As there human contact with nature declines we are also seeing increasing rates of mental health issues which are said to be greater in urban areas than rural (4)(5).
Numerous studies confirm the link between happiness and spending time outdoors and go as far as saying it could even increase years to your life (6).
Mother nature can lower cortisol and promote feelings of relaxation and inner calm, while reducing anxiety and depression. If you live in the city, don't panic, just commit to taking regular breaks outside in nature and you will reap the benefits.
Eat brain friendly foods
Feed your brain! The brain is the most metabolically active organ and requires a significant amount of energy compared to the rest of the body.
It relies on a steady source of glucose but it is also comprised mainly of fat, in fact nearly 60% of it is made of fat, which means we need to give it the right fuel (7).
Remember what you eat provides the fuel and building blocks for your body, and it's no different for your brain! What you eat does matter.
Foods that are particularly beneficial for the brain include: walnuts, berries, turmeric, wild fatty fish, green tea, pumpkin seeds, and dark chocolate.
Polyhenols in particular are specific plant compounds that have been shown to exert beneficial anti-inflammatory and protective effects on the brain (8). Foods rich in polyphenols include parsley, celery, citrus fruit, soy, onion, broccoli, red wine, dark chocolate, grapes, kiwi, and apples.
Invest in a light box
Light therapy is a rising treatment for depression, especially during the winter months. Investing in a light box provides artificial light that mimics natural outdoor light, which is particularly beneficial for mental health when the days become darker.
Using a light box is said to create chemical changes in the brain resulting in a more positive mood. There are various light boxes on the market therefore it is important to choose the right one suitable for your needs.
Manage your stress
Acute stress is not a problem for the body to handle, however when it becomes chronic this can create issues with mental health, and increase the risk of depression and anxiety(9).
During longer periods of stress, the fight or flight system is activated continuously releasing stress hormones into the bloodstream and even changing the structure of the brain which can affect our cognitive abilities and mood.
Unfortunately with the rapid pace of our current lifestyle it can be quite difficult, and even impossible to escape stress. This is why it is even more important now than ever to adopt a daily stress management practice. But that doesn't mean we cannot reduce the impact of stress on our lives.
Meditation, journaling, exercise, nature therapy, yoga… are all great practices to reduce stress levels and should be implemented daily. I like to recommend to my clients to create a Joy Menu, which is a simply a list of 10-20 things that bring you joy and relaxation. Then I tell them to place it in a strategic location where they will see it multiple times a day and commit to completing at least 1 activity daily.
Address nutrient deficiencies
We now know how much nutrition is important for mental health but there are also specific nutrients that are needed for optimal brain health.
These include omega 3 fatty acids, folate, vitamin B12, iron, iodine, selenium, and zinc (10).
Dietary omega 3 fats are commonly talked about for brain health. The omega 3 fatty acid in particular, Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA), is particularly beneficial to the brain as it makes up more than 30% of the total phospholipid composition of plasma membranes in the brain(11).
Essential for the growth and development of the brain in infants, DHA has been shown to be able to enhance cognitive function by reducing inflammation, and promoting glucose uptake into the brain, among other mechanisms(13).
Deficiency of DHA has been linked to cognitive decline and an increased risk of neurodegenerative disease(14). There is also an association between DHA deficiency and depression(15). Curcumin is another compound shown to benefit brain health in part due to its ability to elevate levels of DHA in the brain, thus they may be beneficial to combine for best results (16).
You can obtain omega 3 fats from wild fish such as salmon and sardines but also walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds, and algae. If you don't consume fish regularly it is generally recommended to supplement with an omega 3 supplement.
Limit electronics especially the media
What you consume, will consume you. There is so much noise in our environment that it can quickly become too overwhelming to function.
It's now common knowledge that excessive electronic use and social media can promote anxiety, depression, and problems with cognition.
This is why it is important to be selective with what you choose to consume and create limits. This includes people, social media, TV, electronics, and the language you use! Developing awareness of these things will be the first step in reducing exposure to potentially toxic influences affecting your mental health.
Set a timer on your phone to limit social media apps and take up new activities instead such as reading, writing, sports, walking, and meditation.
About the Author
Laurence Annez is a Certified Nutritional Practitioner and Health Coach, specializing in PCOS and women's hormones. She also holds a degree in Creative Writing and has extensive experience writing on health and wellness topics. Laurence's mission is to inspire and motivate individuals to take control of their own health and reach their ultimate health goals.