The function of the brain, or dysfunction, has experienced feeble attempts to understand its complexity throughout history. Horrific experiences like drilling into the brain in the Middle Ages, electric shock therapy, and mind-numbing drugs are just a few of the efforts made for severe mental distress. In the last few decades, there have been real advances because there has finally been more research dedicated to the health of the body above the neck. Mental health was largely dismissed, but the rising stresses in society mean we all experience mental health issues of varying degrees. New information makes it easier to help keep your brain functioning at its best, and add a few small steps to manage stress and mental health.
This current global pandemic has increased our need to take more action in this area. The mental health of both adults and children is suffering. A paper drafted by the Canadian Centre for Mental Health (CAMH) in July of 2020 already confirmed a marked rise in anxiety, alcohol consumption, and predicted long-term effects of financial strain and even PTSD from quarantine. We are now coming up to a full year of this societal strain. Suicide rates are expected to increase by 10% from this crisis, while less than 3% of the population has succumbed to the virus itself, and data shows that many of these cases had co-morbidity causes. I have seen firsthand how the last 30 days of a stay-at-home order in Ontario has affected mental health in my own home. While my strategy would include opening back up to relieve the financial and isolation stresses we are currently experiencing, the general consensus would paint me selfish and irresponsible due to the broader media narrative. And, unfortunately, the damage to our mental health has already happened.
Small Steps to Manage Stress and Mental Health
But I am a purveyor of hope. It has wavered, and I have seen myself uncertain, but through research and self-awareness, I continue to build my mental endurance. I have been asked to speak about nutrition at a Winter Wellness Series this month in Newmarket. Of course, this allowed me the opportunity to do more research on the brain-gut connection. Maybe I should have posted three separate blogs because there is a lot of information out there. But it’s these small steps I take to learn and share that encourage me to help make positive change. The Job Skills webinar series is focusing on various approaches to overall wellness. You can grab free access here for any sessions left this month. https://www.jobskills.org/winter-wellness-series/
The WHO published a paper related to Covid and mental health that gave me a good chuckle. They indicated during lockdown we should eliminate screen time, online gaming, and too much time on social media while they encouraged us to reach out to others in isolation, work and learn from home, and stay in touch by distance. These all require screen time and/or social media. So, how about some clear facts on keeping your head clear?
Daily movement of any kind relieves stress. Taking a few small steps is actually one of the small steps to manage stress and mental health!
Exercise also improves memory, raises self-esteem, and induces better quality sleep. The study of exercise and mental health is newer research, but facts are mounting. One study showed severe anxiety disorders could be better managed by introducing exercise regimens through relating increased heart-rate to a positive experience. A study on the relationship between exercise and mental health for children shows lower activity has a direct correlation with a risk of depression in adulthood. And in the same paper quotes, “When you look at populations with mental health issues, they typically have low physical activity or exercise. In adults, those populations also typically have a high level of obesity and cardiovascular health problems.”
Exercise releases “happy hormones” like dopamine and serotonin, a key target area for anti-depressant medication. And I’m sure there is a whole metabolic response through muscles, the lymph system, the lungs, and the heart. A daily walk or yoga is a good start if you want to add some movement into your day. But don’t let a little sweat scare you. Find something you love like dancing, weight-lifting, running, or sports and move for your brain.
I referred back to a blog I wrote on sleep during a 30 Day Reset and am amazed to see the shift in my body. As mentioned above, as well as brain stimulation, exercise helps the body sleep better. And sleep helps the brain, too. Sleep is also the time our bodies build new cells. Without allotted time for rest, our bodies can’t reproduce those new cells that keep us vital. This includes organs, like the skin (think aging) and the brain; more sleep equals more healthy brain cells. I used to work consistently late in the evening after my children were in bed. Now I am in bed most nights by 10:00 pm and get up to do that work early. This schedule is much closer to my body’s natural circadian rhythm and a small step to manage stress.
Sleep and the Brain
There are direct connections to sleep and the brain including memory, attention span, perception, mood, irritability, emotional health, and mental health. There is even a relationship with sleep, similar to exercise, in children and their future mental wellbeing. Further, there are many serious mental health disorders, including bipolar and schizophrenia, that have a complex relationship with sleep disorders.
The circular relationship between sleep and the brain is also apparent concerning mood and stress. Insomnia, sometimes caused by worry, or anxiety, can lead to further anxiety or depression. That state of mind may lead to further sleep problems. Sleep hygiene is a newer term, and that relates to sleep quality affected by other stressors like blue light in the room from electronics, the amount of sleep before midnight, and total sleep time. A few simple things you can do to improve sleep include shutting off electronics two hours before bed, avoiding caffeine and alcohol, hitting your pillow before midnight, and getting eight hours of sleep each night. Try just one of these small steps to manage stress and mental health.
Some of the newest information in the mental health field falls in the nutrition category, identified as nutritional psychiatry. Our bodies are a miraculous complexity we will never fully understand, but looking at all the body’s systems as a whole is a better approach to grasping those intricate dynamics. Our digestive system feeds our whole body. And the direct connection between our stomach and our brain is uncovering some fascinating data. It was long thought, for example, depression caused irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), but studies now show IBS can be the cause of depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders. There is not only a direct signal between our gut and our brain but a secondary brain, of sorts, resides in our gut.
The Gut-Brain Connection
First, we know foods we eat, and when we eat them, affect sleep and mood. Caffeine and alcohol are perfect examples. But alcohol also kills off bacteria in the gut. These bacteria are necessary for the healthy function of the gut biome. That microbiome operates as an isolated community that must live in balance. Killing off bacteria is like ridding a society of people. These bacteria are known as probiotics and the “food” they eat is prebiotics. The environment all together is the gut biome.
What does that all have to do with mental health? First off, 90% of our serotonin is produced in the gut. Serotonin, in the gut, hormonally affects satiety, and when transported to the brain affects mood. Serotonin production is directly related to the quality and quantity of probiotics in the gut, as well as neurotransmitters that send signals between the gut and the brain. And since what we eat nourishes our entire body, the brain is also affected by the foods we eat. Think of your body as a car engine; it needs quality fuel and maintenance to run well.
Let’s focus specifically on the brain like the starter of your car’s engine. The brain is 60% fat and 85% water. This article explains the math on that one! Both are true, and so staying hydrated is important to cognitive function and eating quality fats is also necessary to feed the brain. Keep in mind not all liquids hydrate, and not all fats are healthy. Small steps to manage stress and mental health through nutrition are simple. My rule of thumb is to keep things as whole as possible, so think water, and the least processed fats, such as nuts, seeds, olives or olive oil, avocados, and oily fish, if you eat meat.
But the brain functions on glucose. What? That’s sugar! We have been steered away from eating fat, and we also have confusion about glucose. Glucose is the fuel for our engine. The key, again, is quality of fuel, and consistent supply, like a steady gas pedal. Slow-burning carbohydrates, like vegetables, provide the glucose that feeds your brain best. Processed sugars have the opposite effect. Sugar spikes insulin levels that trigger depression. Sugar also releases dopamine that triggers a reward system. What is cited as “lack of willpower” is actually a physiological response that is much more than mind over matter. And sugar is acidic and inflammatory, two things that don’t serve the gut, brain, or any part of your body well.
Sugar’s effect on the brain is directly related to mood and depression. Inflammatory foods, in general, cause free-radical damage that attacks cells, including brain cells. The protected barrier of the gut is broken down causing undigested food to circulate throughout the bloodstream and activate an alarm state that is registered in our brain. This alarm state can lead to anxiety and depression. Inflammation also affects the brain as fatigued and socially withdrawn. Studies also show a relationship between severe mental illness and chronic inflammation.
The Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean diet consists of low-inflammatory foods and is now included by CAMH (Canadian Association for Mental Health) in their recommended regimen to treat depression and anxiety. This diet focuses on whole foods: vegetables, fruits, herbs, nuts, beans, and whole grains. Plants, themselves, are natural prebiotics to feed your healthy gut bacteria. The focus on only a few servings a week of animal products relates to times in history where meat was more of a luxury. The increase of animal fats and processed foods in our diet over the past several decades has a direct relationship to poorer health. You can find some great books on the subject regarding this diet/mental health connection, like Brain Maker, and The Mind-Gut Connection. You will also see the Arbonne 30 Day Reset follows this plan in our recommended meal prep, and provides supplements to increase nutritional uptake and help break the sugar and caffeine connections that aren’t serving you well.
More research is becoming available on the bodies’ ability to heal itself. Simple steps like daily movement, rest, and good nutrition can replace medication, and even reverse disease. Regarding stress, there are many measures you can take, like avoiding the constant news and social media feeds, socializing with positive people, and practicing meditation, but the body can only perform based on what it’s fed. Mood is definitely affected by food, sleep, and exercise. You can make a big difference with a few small steps to manage stress and mental health.