May is Mental Health Month
May is Mental Health Month, a time to raise awareness about mental health, and one of the most recognized mental health awareness events in the country. This year’s theme, Fitness #4Mind4Body, focuses on increasing the understanding of how the body’s various systems impact mental health based on recent research. When we talk about health, we tend to think only of our physical health, but often don’t realize that so much of what we do physically impacts us mentally. Five key areas are vital to staying physically and mentally healthy.
Diet and Nutrition
Both our physical and mental health are affected by diet. An unhealthy diet can lead to physical problems such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, and attributes to nearly 20% of all deaths in the world. Our food intake is linked to the area of the brain called hippocampus which involves learning, memory, and mental health; people with a healthy diet have increased activity in the hippocampus compared to those with an unhealthy diet. A healthy diet includes a full range of food from the five food groups with valuable nutrients such as:
- Omega 3 fatty acids: Essential to our brain health and can reduce the risk of heart disease.
- B-group vitamins: Help regulate the building blocks of proteins in the body – neurotransmitters, immune function, and amino acids.
- Vitamin D: Improves brain functioning, including mood and critical thinking.
Adding more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fish, olive oil, and other healthy foods while decreasing intake of unhealthy and processed foods can not only improve our physical and mental health. Additionally, it has been an effective treatment strategy for symptoms of depression.
Staying active can help improve our mental health, strengthen bones and muscles, and increase the chance of living longer and healthier. A lack of physical activity can increase the risk for health problems such as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, and metabolic syndrome. Physical activity does not have to be strenuous or time-consuming; incorporating just one hour of exercise a week into a routine is related to lower levels of mood, anxiety, and substance use disorders. Those who regularly get some form of physical activity, such as walking, running, and biking, are less likely to have depression, panic disorder, and phobias. Also important is to include muscle-strengthening activities such as yoga, lifting weights, resistance band exercises, and things like push-ups and sit-ups. These types of muscle-strengthening activities have physical benefits such as increased bone density, prevention or control of chronic diseases, improved posture, and decreased risk of injury. Mentally, these activities can increase self-esteem, improve self-confidence, improve body image, and improve mood.
The Gut-Brain Connection
Many times, we do not connect those delicate feelings in our stomach to our brain; but our gut is sensitive to our emotions like anger, anxiety, sadness, and happiness. Our gut, also known as the second brain, includes the organs involved in digesting food and processing it into waste and communicates with our brain through the nerves, hormones, and neurotransmitters that send messages.
Research has shown a strong connection between mental health issues and gastrointestinal symptoms like heartburn, indigestion, acid reflux, bloating, pain, constipation, and diarrhea. Changes in the gut microbiome and inflammation can affect the brain and cause symptoms that look like Parkinson’s disease, autism, anxiety, and depression. Eating a balanced and nutritious diet with whole grains, lean meats, fish, fruits, and vegetables is important in keeping a balance in the gut-brain connection.
A well-rested body is essential to our overall health. Sleep plays a role in our mood, learning, organ health, immune systems, metabolism, and hormone release, however; a consistent lack of sleep can lead to increased blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, depression, and obesity. Poor quality sleep can also increase an individual’s risk of developing psychosis, paranoia, and anxiety. It is important for your overall health to get good quality sleep that includes:
- Being asleep for 85% of the time you are in bed
- Falling asleep in 30 minutes or less
- Waking up nor more than one time at night for no longer than 20 minutes
Many people seem to do well with whatever life throws at them, however; there are others who have high levels of anxiety over life’s pressures. Stress can have a significant impact on our lives, making day-to-day living difficult. When you can let stress come and go quickly in your life, your body reacts healthily. However, chronic stress can cause inflammation in the immune system cells, high blood pressure, heart disease, and obesity.
Tips for dealing with stress:
- Be realistic: Do not take on more responsibility than you can handle, and remember it is ok to say no.
- Meditate: Give yourself 10-20 minutes a day of quiet time and reflection.
- Visualize: Picture how you can manage a stressful situation more successfully
- Get a hobby: Take a break and do something you enjoy.
- Exercise: Regular physical activity gives the body an outlet for the negative energy.
- One thing at a time: Multi-tasking can lead to stress, take on one task at a time to lessen your burden.
Looking at ourselves as a whole person, we should make use of tools and resources that benefit our minds and our bodies, focusing on the five areas affect both our physical and mental health. A healthy lifestyle can be achieved by gradually making small changes in our everyday living, and ensuring we focus on our Fitness #4Mind4Body.
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