May is mental health month. Here at Cambiati we take wellness very seriously and mental wellness is no different. It is especially important because there is still some stigma associated with it and the data that signal how we as a nation and community are doing when it comes to mental wellness is concerning. The Pandemic has really caused a lot of suffering and deaths of despair such as drug overdose and suicide have been increasing. We want to do our part to discuss some of the important aspects of mental wellness and some of the most effective lifestyle and nutritional behaviors that we have found to move the needle in the right direction.
Mental health or wellness refers to a person’s overall psychological well-being, including emotional, cognitive, and social functioning. This includes how one feels emotionally in a general sense, how one’s brain works, and how one relates to themselves and others. Balancing health in all these domains can be tricky especially if one has experienced difficult life events. This is even more so if one has experienced multiple difficult events in childhood.
Part of what makes this so tricky is that mental wellness has a vast number of dimensions and impairments have a variety of causes. We can classify these dimensions into 3 main categories. These include experiences, genetics, and nutritional inputs.
Let’s take a look at how we can use this knowledge to improve our mental health by proactively seeking some of the most effective ways to influence these inputs.
The importance of self-care when it comes to Mental Wellness
Let’s look at the three main levers and discuss self-care strategies to influence them. The first are experiences. These include small and big experiences. The most impactful experiences are relationships with other people and how those experiences impact our relationship with ourselves. Working on this can be tricky and many can benefit from the guidance of an experienced therapist. Many of the most impactful experiences are subconscious and we are unaware of how they have shaped the way we experience the world. Experiences we do have more control over include how much sunlight we get in each day, how much sleep we consistently get, and whether we make the time to observe our thoughts and sit with our emotions.
These all fall into the bucket of self-care and are extremely important as a strategy to improve our mental health. By setting up the proper experiences we can influence another major lever which is our genetic expression. In other words, these experiences influence the way our genes express themselves. Influencing our genetic expression in a favorable way can improve our mental health. Our cells do not function properly without the proper inputs. These inputs can be experiences and they can be nutrients such as folate or omega 3 fatty acid, both of which are important for mental and cognitive health.
To successfully manage these influences, we need to prioritize ourselves without guilt or judgement that by doing so we are being selfish. It is not selfish to work on getting your biological and psychological needs met. That is a thought worth repeating.
Practical tips for improving Mental Wellness
If you are really suffering with your emotional health, it is important to seek the appropriate help. This may include a therapist, a psychologist, or even a psychiatrist. Nutritional guidance will likely play a supportive yet powerful role here. So, our first suggestion is taking your symptoms seriously and getting the support you need.
Now lets talk about setting up experiences and nutritional strategies that can also support your mental health. The factors that appear to be most important are the following:
One of the most impactful ways to improve your mental health is to improve your relationships. I think half the battle is understanding just how important relationships truly are. At that point you can intend to improve them. Loneliness is considered a risk factor for early disease and death on par with smoking, obesity, and inactivity. Even if you don’t feel lonely it is worth reflecting on how significant an impact that the absence of meaningful relationships has on us and if there are things that we can do to improve our relationships. A strategy to think about in this area involves noticing and communicating what you value about the people in your life. This includes telling them that you appreciate them and expanding on that to make it specific and thoughtful. Another thing you can do is work on creating enough space for them to be able to fully express their thoughts and feelings. Disagreeing with someone’s thoughts is a lot different from expressing that they shouldn’t have those thoughts and/or feelings. When people feel scared to communicate what they think and feel it tends to create distance in the relationship.
We mentioned earlier that sunlight is an important factor and therefore we suggest making a habit of getting time especially in the morning to get outside and get some sunlight in your eyes and on your skin. We are not suggesting getting too much and getting sunburn here. It should be around 15-30 minutes and within your capacity to not burn your skin or eyes. Avoid looking directly at the sun. You still get benefits by getting outdoor light exposure when it is overcast because you will still be getting more light than in indoor environments. You can also increase the amount of artificial light you get inside but this will have a lesser effect. Lights labeled SAD which stand for Seasonal Affective Disorder can provide a much brighter burst of light than most indoor lights and are therefore more effective in this capacity.
We can’t ignore the incredible power of movement for improving both cognition and mood. Exercise improves circulation to the brain and increases Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). BDNF helps your brain to hold onto and even grow new neurons. Aim for a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week. By moderate we mean that you should be able to have a conversation but if you increase the effort, you won’t be able to. That is called zone 2 exercise and has a tremendous number of benefits. You can combine all three of these suggestions by taking a brisk walk in the morning sunlight with someone you care about and having a gratitude-oriented conversation. Wow. That is a power move!
Sleep is critical as well. We won’t go too deep into sleep science here, but it is critical to understand that one’s mood and brain function is dramatically impacted by the quality of one’s sleep. Working towards a regular sleep routine and regular bed and wake times is an excellent long-term goal. Managing stress and finding tools such as relaxing tea, deep breathing practices, and/or supplements to help can all be supportive in improving sleep onset and quality.
Getting enough Omega 3 fatty acids is another critical input to support mental health. Your brain is partially made of DHA and the other omega 3 fatty acid EPA reduces inflammation throughout the body which is shown to improve mood. Fish such as wild salmon, sardines, herring, and mackerel are great sources. For most of us getting an optimal amount of these fatty acids through diet alone is not realistic so to augment our food intake we love Omega Avail Hi Po.
A sound nutrition strategy to support mental health focuses on lots of non-starchy vegetables, berries, high quality protein, nuts, olive oil, and legumes. These are some of the essential elements of a Mediterranean diet, which has been shown to be effective in preserving cognition compared to other dietary strategies. If you would like more in-depth information and personalized nutrition support, we recommend booking a complementary session with one of our nutritionists to discuss your concerns and goals.