Exercise and a healthy diet can improve mental well-being
It is cold. It’s gray. It’s sad. The Christmas lights and sparkle are gone and the January blues are settling in deep for many people.
Add to that the uncertainty and upheaval of a COVID-weary world and the political instability of the past two years and we have a recipe for serious mental health problems in even the most resilient people.
Those cold post-holiday winter months are notorious for people who self-report poor mental health.
But what can you do to be proactive about your mental health? Just like physical well-being, mental well-being takes effort and the two are interdependent.
It is well known that physical activity is associated with improved mood and feelings of well-being. Numerous studies have shown that exercise improves mood, reduces stress levels and even improves cognitive functions such as attention, memory and problem solving.
For starters, according to a study published in the journal Brain Plasticity, exercise can increase our brain’s production of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine is a chemical associated with motivation, reward, and attention, and serotonin helps regulate sleep, emotions, and appetite.
But with closed gyms and harsh winter conditions, people are tempted to become sedentary at this time of year. You can always bundle up and try some winter activities like snowshoeing, ice skating and cross-country skiing.
The local ponds are also frozen over, so check them out and go skating! If you’re not a fan of the cold, you can try exercising indoors. Put on some music and dance with the kids. Play with your pets. Do some intense cleaning and tackle long-delayed organizing projects. And good old aerobics in front of the TV is also an option. YouTube has plenty of free aerobics videos to help you get moving.
With all this activity, you will need nutritious food to keep going. And it is well known that eating healthy is linked to a feeling of well-being.
The link between diet and mental well-being goes far beyond limiting junk food.
A lot of emerging research indicates that the gut-brain connection is very powerful. They are physically connected by millions of nerves. There is a large presence of neurotransmitters in the gut, such as serotonin and dopamine, and a whole branch of medicine is devoted to the gut-brain connection, called neurogastroenterology.
Teri Morrow, a Haudenosaunee dietician, says food plays a vital role in mental well-being.
“Just as the chemical composition of the tears and blood of our ancestors gave rise to life here, the chemical composition of the foods we eat today are just as important in nourishing our bodies and minds so they can work effectively together.Various B vitamins, such as thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12, help make DNA, a building block of cell function, the insulation and covering of our neurons; which help to send messages from the mind to the body and vice versa effectively.These messengers are called neurotransmitters and they can change our mood.The messengers that alter mood need vitamin D to help make enzymes that help produce neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine When we don’t have enough of these messengers, we can develop mood disorders like depression and anxiety summer.
Morrow emphasizes eating traditional foods as a way to improve mental well-being.
“Our traditional berries and vegetables produce antioxidants and their work, as described in the story of the creation of Skywoman, helps keep our blood strong and prevent what is called oxidative stress which can damage our blood. There are microbes in our stomach that help us break down food to be used for energy in our body.
Morrow encourages the consumption of fiber-rich foods to keep the gut healthy.
“Fiber-rich foods support the microbiome-brain-gut axis that facilitates this communication through hormones between body and mind. Aim for 20-30 grams of fiber daily by eating more whole foods and less processed or fast foods which are typically low in nutrients and high in calories Fundamental foods are still important and bringing these traditional foods back to our babies in their first foods and diets is key to encouraging the development of their mental health .
Fermented foods and foods high in probiotics — the “good” bacteria — are also beneficial for gut health. Kefir, a fermented milk drink, contains billions of gut-healthy probiotics per serving. Yogurt and fermented foods like kimchi, miso, and tempeh are also high in good bacteria.
Eating healthy and getting your body moving are just two lifestyle changes you can make to improve your mental health during these trying times.
You should also try to maintain contact with friends and family, have a loving animal by your side, set aside time daily for meditation with soothing music and candles, and maintain spiritual connections and practices.