Looking after your mental health this winter
If you are experiencing low energy, loss of motivation, mood swings, or even depression, you are not alone. We have all been through unexpected and stressful moments since last year that have had a significant effect on the way many of us live our lives.
Considering the continued lockdown in many countries around the world, it feels like this is a good time to pause and reflect on our mental health. In this article we will explore the various elements that can affect your mental health and share with you some practical ways to look after it.
Photo by Toa Heftiba
While over the centuries, many cultures have recognised the clear link between the body and mind, in Western medicine, physical care and mental health care have largely been disconnected. In the past decade, a large number of studies have shown that poor mental health can also be detrimental to physical health, and vice versa. As a result, there is an increasing call on healthcare professionals to consider both when treating patients.
At PAAR we consider mental health an integral part of our wellbeing, vitality and longevity. In fact, we believe that there is no health without mental health. Creating a new path for your body as well as your mind can be a significant step forward. Let’s have a look at how you can make a positive impact in a multi-dimensional way:
1. Your nutrition and gut health affects your mental health.
Like an expensive car, your brain functions best when it gets the right type of fuel. Eating high-quality foods that contain lots of vitamins, minerals, fibre and antioxidants, and drinking plenty of fluids will nourish your brain and protect your gut. On the other hand, diets high in refined sugars, but low in nutrition (such as processed foods) can create an imbalance in your body’s insulin regulation, and promote inflammation and oxidative stress. All of these have a negative effect on your mood, the functioning of your brain and can even worsen the symptoms of depression.
95% of our serotonin (a neurotransmitter that regulates moods and inhibit pain) is produced in our gastrointestinal tract. The production of serotonin is effected by the billions of “good” bacteria that make up your intestinal microbiome. These bacteria protect the lining of your intestines and ensure the absorption of nutrients from your food, provide a strong barrier against toxins and limit inflammation. They also have a role in activating neural pathways that travel directly between the gut and the brain.
Studies have shown that the risk of depression is up to 35% lower in those who eat “traditional” diets like Mediterranean or Japanese, compared to a “typical Western” diet. Scientists account for this difference because these traditional diets tend to be high in vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, and fish and seafood, and contain only small amounts of dairy or lean meats. They also lack processed and refined foods and sugars, which appear a lot more regularly in a “typical Western” diet. In addition, many of these unprocessed foods are fermented, and therefore act as natural probiotics, supporting gut health and immunity.
Tip: Start paying attention to how eating different foods makes you feel. Notice not only how you feel in the moment, but
also the next day. Try experimenting with cutting out all processed foods and sugar from your diet for two to three weeks, and observe how you feel. Then you can slowly introduce foods back into your diet, one by one, noticing the effect they have.
When people go through this process they are often surprised how much better they feel both emotionally and physically, and how negatively they are effected when reintroducing the foods that are known to enhance inflammation.
Would you like to know more about your gut health and find out what foods do and don’t work for you?
2. Move your body.
When you exercise, after 15-30 minutes, your body starts to release endorphins. These chemicals interact with the receptors in your brain that reduce your perception of pain and make you feel great. In addition, getting up and moving also activates your lymphatic system, a network of tissues and organs that help rid the body of toxins.
Spending some time in nature, walking or hiking are all great activities for your mental health. A stroll in your local park can increase your energy levels, reduce depression and boost those feel-good chemicals. However, if you would prefer to stay close to your heater during the chilliest days this winter, there are plenty of online and streamed exercise classes that you can join even from the comfort of your home.
Tip: Try rebounding (jumping on a mini trampoline), skipping or just simply jumping up and down in your house to get
the lymphatic system pumping.
Scheduling a regular time each day for some movement, such as a 30 minute walk in the park or yoga, will not only help you feel physically fitter, but will also boost your mood and relieve stress and anxiety. At PAAR we offer yoga and movement sessions in person and online. To find out more follow this link.
3. Manage stress consciously.
Energy flows where attention goes. When we are worrying, most of our energy is concentrated around negative thoughts, which activates part of our autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic nervous system. When this “threat system” is fired up, our brain releases corticotropin and adrenocorticotropic hormones that increase our heart rate and blood pressure, preparing our bodies for fight or flight. This evolutionary fight or flight response developed as a survival mechanism to allow mammals, including humans to react quickly to life-threatening situations. While this response is necessary and important in certain situations, the human body has the same response to other, non-life-threatening events as well.
Research has shown that moderate amount of stress has powerful benefits. It can sharpen our focus, boost our motivation, and can help us adapt to a rapidly changing environment. However, excessive amount of stress that stays around for weeks or longer can lead to serious physical and mental health issues. According to this article from Harvard Health Publishing “chronic stress contributes to high blood pressure, promotes the formation of artery-clogging deposits, and causes brain changes that may contribute to anxiety, depression, and addiction.”
We can look at the sympathetic nervous system as the “accelerator” in a car, taking us away from danger. The parasympathetic nervous system, the other important part of our autonomic nervous system is the “break”, which works to relax and slow down the body’s response when there is no danger present. These two systems need to work in balance. Activation of the parasympathetic nervous system is very important, because once the threat is over, it slows the stress response by releasing hormones that relax the mind and body.
The good news is that you can learn to trigger your parasympathetic nervous system to reduce the sense of anxiety and stress, which also helps to lift your mood and even strengthens your immune system. There are many techniques that if you regularly practice can have a huge impact on your life. Meditation and mindfulness practices, breathing techniques, and movement practices, such as yoga and qui gong require focusing your attention and consciously directing your breath, therefore they can be very effective in easing the pressure and clearing the mind by activating your “soothing system”.
Tip: Just like keeping physically fit, maintaining your mental health requires practice. Try implementing a daily mindfulness
meditation practice into your routine. With practice it can not only bring you a sense of calm and peace of mind, but can also help you to be more aware of the subtle shifts in your mental health, which is key to be able to take different actions, break any unhelpful patterns and build resilience.
Would you like to learn more practical tools that you can easily fit into your schedule?
Book a Stress Management or Mindfulness & Meditation Session with one of PAAR’s experts today.
The above three areas are the fundamentals when it comes to looking after your mental health. In addition, remember to implement healthy sleep habits, speak to someone daily (even if it’s only a short phone call) and feel free to get in touch with us if you need any support.
About the author: Veronika Pongracz
Veronika is part of PAAR’s team of expert. She is a certified yoga, meditation and mindfulness teacher, coaching our clients to make positive and sustainable health & lifestyle changes through daily practices, and building healthier habits.