Mental health is something many of us take for granted everyday. How do we know? Because many of us only think about mental health when it is an issue – we feel stressed, worried, or we feel that we just aren’t coping well. Mental health isn’t mental illness. Mental health is an aspect of our wellness that requires attention, just as our physical health does.
Our mental health is our mental state of being, it is not just the absence of mental illness. As a collective, our ability to acknowledge and discuss the challenges we face with our own mental health is growing, assisting a previously taboo subject to have light shone on it. When we face into our vulnerabilities, we become stronger and more resilient.
Mental health covers many aspects including our ability to learn, feel and express our emotions, manage our emotions, the quality of our relationships, and our ability to handle change and uncertainty.
Our ability to build and maintain relationships and bounce back from hard situations is also an aspect of our mental health. Mental health doesn’t mean there are never ups and downs or challenging times in our lives. As humans, when these times occur, we still feel emotions like sadness or disappointment, loss, fear, or worry, but people with strong mental health will be resilient to these times and understand that they won’t last forever. They have hope.
How do you build resilience and positive mental health?
- Make time for social connections (in person)
Whether it is catching up with a friend for a good natter over a glass of wine or hot chocolate, having time with other people who can listen to us, laugh with us, cry with us, and vice versa, helps us to move through life feeling understood.
- Move your body
This doesn’t mean going to the gym, unless you love doing that. It means find ways to move your body in order to help your brain. It doesn’t really matter what form it takes, but you should feel good doing it, despite it being a challenge. We are so lucky to have so many options – there are group sports like soccer or netball, or more solo options like dance classes, yoga, golf, dog walks, rock climbing, mall-walking, the list is endless.
- Get good sleep
Sounds simple doesn’t it. A lot of us can probably relate to having trouble sleeping after an argument or tense situation - it takes us longer to wind down and fall to sleep. This might also be the case if we’ve watched something on TV that triggered strong emotions just before bed. We can lie there thinking about it, unable to quiet our mind.
With increased access to technology, we are losing our wind-down time, so increasing our discipline around healthy bedtime routines is key. Remember that nature knows the best pattern for us – as the sun goes down it triggers an increase of melatonin, which initiates our sleep-wake cycle. When the sun comes up, it stimulates cortisol production to get us up and moving. The sun contains a lot of blue light, but so do our devices, so when we watch the screen late into the night, as well as having lights on in the house that are bright white LEDs, it can impact those of us who are more sensitive to poor sleep.
- Eat for your brain
Your brain is made largely of fat, so ensuring we eat adequate fat is essential to a healthy brain. Nuts, eggs and oils are a great place to start. We also need a diet rich in antioxidants, so having plenty of dark leafy greens and brightly coloured fruits and vegetables is key to a healthy brain (more nutrition tips below)
- Find more meaning and purpose.
For some of us this is easy, but for others not so much. If you aren’t feeling that your day-to-day is fulfilling you, look at ways you can be of service to others – animals, elderly, less-fortunate. Caring for others and connecting with people in ways that help you feel productive and contributing to society, help us find meaning.
If mental health is not so good for you right now, here’s some tips for bathing your brain in love.
- Know your triggers
There can be many triggers for mental health challenges. Some that sneak in on a day-to-day basis and drag us down are anxiety and worry. To reduce anxiety, try reducing social media access (deleting the app from your phone helps with this). Even if it is a short-term action, it can help to give you some control back about what your brain is seeing and, as a result, has to process.
- Get out in nature
Trees! Trees are the best! Did you know that living in an urban area is a risk factor for depression and mental disorders? There’s a growing body of research that shows in areas of forests, there are less public health issues in mental health. 1
- Choose what you put in front of your face.
The problem with scrolling through social media, is that you are at the mercy of what everyone else has decided to post – positive or negative. Following people who promote positive and inspirational aspects of life can also be helpful.
Outside of social media, what can you look at that gives you joy. For some it will be a flower or birds, or it’s going out to see how many things are growing in the garden. For others, it might be city scenes and people. Find the things that give you joy in seeing or doing and do those.
- Be spontaneous.
It’s pretty easy to be so stuck in your weekly routine that it feels hard to break free from the monotony. By the end of a long winter, we can be craving a bit of something different in our daily routine. Find a fun activity that allows for a feeling of freedom if you’re feeling a bit flat.
Nutrition for a healthy brain
Fat in food comes in a variety of forms and is essential for good brain health:
- Monounsaturated (olives/olive oil, avocado, macadamia, peanut, sesame)
- Polyunsaturated (walnuts, sunflower seeds, hemp, flaxseed, evening primrose, chia, fish, meat)
- Saturated (cream, coconut, butter, lard, meat)
- Trans (margarine, baked goods, deep fried foods)
It’s important to avoid trans fats as they are a health detracting food. The other types of fats can be consumed and can provide a great source of nutrition as well as energy.
- Fat – Omegas
Omega 3 needs an extra mention when it comes to mental health because of the amazing role that the fatty acids EPA and DHA can play in cognition, mood balance, inflammation, and protection of the nerve cells.2
- Magnesium & Zinc3
These minerals are essential to the health of our nervous system. Both can be depleted in times of stress and play key roles in mood balance. Minerals in general are hugely important to the overall health of the body.
- Balanced blood sugars
A diet that is rich in protein, fats, and fibre from vegetables and fruit is very supportive of balanced blood sugars. Having balanced blood sugars is very important to good mental health, particularly as people get older. Reducing or avoiding foods that can ‘blow out’ our balance like processed foods and sugar. Aim for foods that stop the ‘hangry’.
- MCT oil
Along with a diet low in sugar, increasing medium chain triglycerides (MCT) in the diet can support energy getting to the brain and reduce feelings of anxiety.4 Interestingly there is research occurring which looks at the support the state of nutritional ketosis can offer Alzheimer’s disease.5
Shown to be useful for relieving feelings of depression and anxiety6 as well as support brain derived neurotrophic factor7, which plays a role in neurotransmitter production and health of the neurons.
- Passionflower, Kava, or St. John’s Wort8
These amazing plants offer valuable support when things are blue. Available in various combinations with nutritional powerhouses required for a healthy functioning brain. Passionflower (Passifloraincarnata) and Kava (Piper methysticum) have been shown to be useful for helping reduce feelings of worry and sadness and can be useful in short-term temporary situations.9
This functional mushroom can be included in the daily diet to support the health and wellbeing of the brain and body. Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) helps to support the body at a fundamental level – helping with healthy hormone production from the brain and helping the body to adapt to stressors. Reishi has also been shown to be protective of the brain tissue and to be helpful at supporting mood balance.10
Liz McNamara is a Registered Naturopath with more than 16 years of experience in natural health. As the President of the Naturopaths & Medical Herbalists of New Zealand (NMHNZ) and the Natural Health Expert at HealthPost, Liz is passionate about health education and helping others lead healthy lives.