5 simple tips for better mental health

On a scale of 1-10, how well would you say you manage your mental health, where ‘0’ is not very well at all, and ’10’ is really well?

In the past, mental health issues were seen as being due to some genetic or biochemical imbalance. Modern research in psychiatric medicine however, is finding that mental health is more related to our lifestyle and environment – which means that we can change things.

Healthcare is in the middle of a big change. More patients want to know the root cause of their symptoms and how to address it, rather than just being handed prescriptions. This desire to find root causes is most prevalent in the field of psychiatric medicine. In the past, mental health issues were pushed aside to make room for the big global disease burdens of cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Today, mental health problems are a growing public concern and are actually one of the main causes of the overall disease burden worldwide. Anxiety and depression are the most common mental disorders here in the UK with the poorer and more disadvantaged being disproportionately affected by common mental health problems and their adverse consequences.

In 2014, 19.7% of people in the UK aged 16 and over showed symptoms of anxiety or depression – a 1.5% increase from 2013. This percentage was higher among females (22.5%) than males (16.8%). That’s almost 10.5 million people (aged 16 and over, 19.7%) in the UK diagnosed with anxiety, addiction, eating disorders, depression, ADHD, bipolar, insomnia or schizophrenia to name but a few.

It is estimated that 1 in 6 people in the past week experienced a common mental health problem. In fact, a recent study in the Lancet shows that mental health problems and substance abuse combined were the leading cause of non-fatal illness worldwide in 2010 which contributed to almost 23% of the total global disease burden. This study included data from 187 countries worldwide – so it’s not just the UK that’s suffering. Mental health affects us all, but given the latest research, it’s not enough to say it’s caused by genetic and/or biochemical imbalances that can be fixed with a magic pill. Lifestyle and environmental factors must be taken in to account and these are the things that anyone can change without prescriptions and expensive treatments to improve their mental wellbeing.

Fortunately, some practitioners in the field are leading the way in demanding a rethink about how we approach mental health. We need to think more laterally about prescribing pharmaceutical drugs as a first line therapy for mental health disorders, given the potentially harmful and dependency forming nature of many psychotropic medications available today.

Recent research in mental health suggests that actually having a strong connection with family and your community, your diet and nutrition, environmental toxins, having faith and managing stress are instrumental in creating optimal mental health and wellbeing. While more research is done to identify potential root causes and triggers for mental health issues, these are 5 things you can do to improve your mental health and wellbeing TODAY:

1. Exercise

Yes – you’ve heard it all before. But exercise really is fundamental to optimal mental health and wellbeing. Forget 30 minutes three times a week – we need to be active EVERYDAY. This means engaging in some form of exercise that you enjoy that gets the heart beating. Regular activity will reduce inflammation in your body, will reduce your stress levels, will improve your circulation and get that blood flowing through your body and brain, balance your blood sugars and get your detoxification pathways working.

2. Sleep

Of course! Sleep…an often overlooked part of health. Sleep is where our body rests and repairs itself. Imagine everything you have eaten, inhaled and experienced throughout the day – it all needs processing and this is why we need rest. Disrupted sleep cycles or lack of sleep have been shown to increase the risk of developing chronic diseases. Even more important is trying to sleep at the same time every evening, and waking up at the same time every morning to reset your circadian rhythms. And that Saturday morning lie-in – forget it. Sleeping too much is also not good for us. Most important is consistency and quality of sleep so aim for around 7 hours of sleep for optimal health.

3. Stress

Throughout evolution, our stress response helped us to run away form predators or hunt down prey. But today, we still have that ‘fight/flight/freeze’ response to every day stress such as the price of petrol, traffic jams or having to queue for something. This chronic, low-level stress damages our tissues and organs and can contribute to chronic disease. Since deep breathing can reset the balance between the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system, any movements that synchronise with breathing such as yoga and tai chi can have a very beneficial effect on stress levels. Even just breathing deeply – 4 seconds breathing in, hold for 7 seconds and exhale for 8 seconds – can be a fantastic tool for managing stressful situations wherever you may be. Having a community that you feel part of – whether that’s your family, friends or a walking group is really important to help you manage your stress and feel part of something. If you’re not coping, there are a multitude of professionals that can help (See links below).

4. Sugar

Hypocrates said “Let food be thy medicine and let medicine be thy food”. Sugar doesn’t fall in to any of these categories. It causes chronic inflammation in the body, blood sugar disturbances, mood swings and is addictive by its very nature. Actually your gut bacteria gets addicted to it and sends alarm signals to your brain when it doesn’t get any i.e cravings. When you eliminate refined sugars, including sugar in the form of processed carbohydrates, your cravings will subside as you shift your gut bacteria to a more favorable balance and get used to eating nutrient dense food. Your blood sugar levels will level out…be mindful of what you put in your body. Many products contain fructose syrup which is contributing to an epidemic of fatty liver disease around the world. Eat fruit.

5. Gut health

There is plenty of research and lots of good books about gut health – but more recent studies are suggesting that our gut health is directly connected to our mental health. The bacteria in our gut communicate with our brain through the vagus nerve and respond to what we eat, drink and feel. If your diet contains processed foods and sugars, it’s likely you have an inflamed gut lining, which allows large toxic particles to pass through to the bloodstream. Eating nutrient dense foods such as vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, eggs and nuts will reduce inflammation in the gut and improve your absorption of essential nutrients, nourishing your body and mind. Recent studies show that shifting the gut microbiome to a more favorable balance does directly affect our mood, cognitive performance and mental health.

So, knowing this now, how will you integrate these five tips in to your life for better mental health and wellbeing?


NHS Choices

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