Author: Katie Warriner, MSc
Note: This article is supporting content to the Optimum Nutrition for Health and Performance course and is for educational purposes only. It does not reflect the opinion of Glanbia Performance Nutrition, nor is it intended for product marketing purposes.
Looking to boost your mood, reduce stress or improve your relationships? Across two dedicated articles, we share 7 life-enhancing strategies that will show you how.
We all have mental health, and just like our physical health, we need to take care of it. Research suggests that we’re not very good at doing this, with one in four experiencing a mental health difficulty every year1.
Psychology and neuroscience can help us understand why. From an evolutionary, perspective, happiness was a luxury, survival was essential. Early humans had a lot more to gain from focusing on what might harm them than from what was pleasant. This negativity bias stopped us eating poisonous berries and made us vigilant to predators.
This also means that our brains are not wired for happiness. This is tricky in itself, and it becomes even more so when you place a negatively-wired, survival-focused brain into modern society. We used to live in small tribes, safe and protected. Early man feared rejection because it meant being shunned from the tribe and being less likely to survive. Today, advances in technology mean we can meet 50 new people before we’ve got out of bed. The primitive part of our brain is not built to cope with this and our mental health is suffering.
To make the most of life, we need strategies that counterbalance the basic biology of the brain and help us thrive in an increasingly fast-paced, connected society.
In this first article we uncover 4 life-enhancing strategies that will help you do this. Our second article introduces a further 3 keys to optimising your brain and boosting your mental health.
Do you find yourself in a bad mood or a bit on edge after a poor night of sleep? Lack of sleep makes the primitive fight or flight regions of our brain up to 60% more active. It also knocks out the pre-frontal cortex – the part of our brain that helps us to think logically and manage our emotions. This is like having a supercharged emotion accelerator pedal without the brake pedal to calm it down. Despite this, two thirds of people in developed nations sleep less than 8 hours a night.
If you’re in this group, then improving your sleep might be the key to boosting your mental health. Here are a few science-backed ideas to help:
- Go to bed 30 minutes earlier – let’s face it, you probably can’t sleep in any later!
- Create a simple bedtime routine with consistent sleep and wake times. This helps to set your body’s internal clock and improve the quality of your sleep.
- Remove technology from the bedroom
- Invest in a pillow that works for you, as big a bed as possible and separate duvets
- Keep the room cool and dark
- Take a warm bath just before bed – as your body cools down after, it tricks your body clock into promoting a stronger sleep urge
What if you could eat your way to happiness? The latest research suggests we genuinely can. In one study, a link was found between what people eat and the size of their hippocampus – a part of the brain thought to be key to learning, memory and mood. In people who had a diet higher in fruit, vegetables and fish, the hippocampus was larger than in those whose diets included more processed and takeaway foods2. Quality of diet was also linked with their risk for depression. This isn’t surprising given that up to 90% of our serotonin, the mood boosting neurotransmitter, is produced in the gut. What’s more, our brains consume an average of 420 calories a day, roughly 1/5 of our daily calorie intake, just to function5.
To eat a brain-healthy diet, focus on the following foods:
- Omega 3 rich fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, tuna, anchovies, herring
- Nuts such as walnuts, almonds, cashews
- Leafy greens such as kale and spinach
- Fresh fruit such as blueberries and raspberries
- Beans, lentils and pulses
And minimise your consumption of the following mood-detracting foods:
- Caffeine and alcohol
- Sugary or salty snacks and refined carbs such as white rice and white flour
- Fried food
- Foods high in chemical preservatives, trans fats or partially hydrogenated oil
03 Physical Activity
Did you know that being sedentary can actually cause depression and that moderate exercisers are 30% less likely to suffer from depression?3 Physical activity is as good for the brain as it is for the body.
And the good news is you don’t have to run marathons or take daily spin classes to get the benefits. In one study, just ten minutes of gentle cycling created meaningful activity in the hippocampus – the part of the brain that helps to process our emotions4.
To move your way to well-being, here are some simple ideas:
- Target 30 minutes of activity most days. If it’s easier, three 10-minute sessions can be just as effective. Focus on things you enjoy; walking, running, dancing – it all counts.
- See the value in housework - making the bed burns up to 70 calories. Scrubbing the bathroom burns 250 calories, the equivalent of a 30-minute spin class!
- Get off the bus or tube a stop earlier and consistently take the stairs – it all adds up.
- Introduce a mindfulness element – focus on how your body feels as it moves, on the small pause between each breath or the wind on your skin.
When was the last time you did nothing? In world that glorifies being busy, resting can feel like a brilliant act of rebellion. It’s vital to our mental health too, releasing stress chemicals like cortisol and restoring our balance.
The Rest Test, a worldwide survey on rest, recently uncovered the top 10 most restful activities. Practising mindfulness, day-dreaming, having a bath, listening to music, walking and being in nature all featured highly. Reading claimed the top spot.
Here are our tips to help you rediscover how to rest:
- Think about your top 5 most restful activities. Do one of them every day.
- Experiment with meditation apps like Headspace and Calm. Once you’ve learnt the skill you’ll be able to practice and benefit from it anywhere, any time.
- Come to your senses. Create a playlist of your favourite relaxing tracks. Light a scented candle. Invest in a weighted blanket. Stimulating our senses helps our nervous system to relax.
- Drop the guilt. Research shows that on a biological level, when we feel guilty, we make a restful activity stressful.
So there we have it – the science is proving what we’ve intuitively known all along - we can sleep, eat, move and rest our way to happiness. Start valuing your mental health more from today. If you commit to simple actions in each of the 4 areas we have covered, you’ll experience the mood-boosting benefits in a matter of days.
Keep your eyes peeled for the next article in which we will look at 3 psychological keys to positive mental health.
If you need someone to talk to, help available. You can contact the Samaritans 24/7, 365 days a year on 116 12 or [email protected]. Mind.org.uk also has a number of valuable resources and helplines available.
- McManus S, Bebbington P, Jenkins R, Brugha T. (eds.) (2016). Mental health and wellbeing in England: Adult psychiatric morbidity survey 2014. Leeds: NEH digital.
- Zainuddin, M.S., Thuret, S. (2012). Nutrition, adult hippocampal neurogenesis and mental health. Br Med Bull. 2012 Sep;103(1):89-114.
- Endrighi, R., Steptoe, A., Hamer, M. (2016). The effect of experimentally induced sedentariness on mood and psychobiological responses to mental stress. British Journey of Psychiatry. 2016 Mar: 208(3):245-251.; Schuch, F.B., et al (2018). Physical activity and incident depression: A meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. Psychiatry Online.
- Firth, J. & Ward., P.B. (2017). Effect of aerobic exercise on hippocampal volume: A systematic review and meta-analysis. NeuroImage, Vol 166, 230-238.