Our mental health battles can range from an occasional twinge of worry to an ever present cloud that greatly affects our quality of life. Those of us that wrestle with mental illness know that these challenges are often harder to solve for than we wish. they were. Unfortunately, doing yoga or eating more kale isn’t a magic solution to solving mental health concerns. But occasionally, our lifestyle factors and dietary choices can worsen underlying issues. It’s so important to continue to be self-aware and nurture ourselves as best we can through stressful times and storms in our minds.
Here are five factors which could be contributing to the problem, yet are often overlooked.
We’ve all heard the phrase “you are what you eat” but much what we take in affects our brain in addition to how our body feels. The food we eat can help balance the good bacteria in our gut or it can potentially contribute to an overgrowth of bad bacteria which has been shown to be present in a number of chronic illnesses. Clinical studies suggest that the bacteria in our gut can profoundly influence our mood and the cognitive centers of our brain due to the gut-brain axis. The gut brain-axis is a two-way communication pathway between our brain and our digestive system. We have an entire nervous system just in the lining of our digestive tract! Is it any wonder that what goes through it influences the signals sent to our brain? The Enteric Nervous System (ENS) has even been referred to as our second brain due to the amount of neurons that are in the wall of our gastrointestinal system. Our ENS consists of 500 million neurons. That’s five times the amount of neurons that are in our brain and spinal cord. These neurons, or nerve cells, communicate with each other sending signals from our gut to our brain. When we think of calming feel-good hormones like serotonin and dopamine, we often think of these only being in our brain. But a large amount of serotonin and dopamine are actually found in our gut. More than 90% of our serotonin and 50% of our dopamine, to be exact. There continues to be emerging findings in the field of neurogastroenterology that point to our gut bacteria playing a large role in mental health disorders. In animal studies, it was shown that by altering gut bacteria in mice, they can become more or less anxious. In human studies, subjects responded positively to high doses of probiotic therapy in treating depression. These types of studies offer a hopeful look into a possible new approach to treating mental illness at its source rather than treating symptoms. Thankfully, there is so much we can do to improve our gut health. A diverse diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, plenty of fiber, and fermented foods can do wonders for our gut. A homemade batch of savory, comforting bone broth is one of my favorite ways to give my gut some extra love and restorative nutrition. While gut health may not be the only contributing factor when examining our mental health, it can certainly make a big difference in how we feel on a daily basis.
Quality of Sleep
With everything that has happened in the last year, many of us lost sleep for months at a time. A pandemic, financial worries, major changes to our structured routines, lack of access to our support networks, and so on really wreaked havoc on the mental health of many people. Maybe you still haven’t reset your sleep cycle and are feeling the effects. For some of us, the lines between home and work have been blurred which leads to working a little later and then staying up a little later to make up for lost time. Whether it’s having a hard time falling asleep or staying asleep, numerous studies have shown that there is a direct correlation between the quality of our sleep and our mental health. In addition to poor sleep dragging down our energy levels throughout the day, it can also worsen pre-existing mental health conditions. If you find yourself unable to shut your brain off and fall asleep naturally, there are plenty of things to try to help you get some restful shut-eye. It sounds simple but many find it helpful to have a structured bedtime routine. This can require being intentional at first but once implemented this can have an incredibly positive effect on the quality of our sleep. This could include a long Magnesium Salt bath, some gentle stretches, and a chapter of your favorite book. Some also find meditation or journaling a helpful, calming part of their bedtime routine. This can help put our thoughts away for the night and prepare us for the following day ahead. It is also recommended that all electronic devices are put away at least an hour before bed. These devices emit a blue light that can disrupt our internal clock making it more difficult to fall asleep. Supplements such as Magnesium, Valerian Root, L-Theanine, and GABA are all calming in nature and may help support a healthy sleep cycle. Melatonin is a natural hormone that our bodies make and may help you fall asleep and stay asleep, and while it is available in supplement form, I urge caution with its use and much prefer exploring ways to naturally boost melatonin instead. I encourage a conversation with your doctor and possibly some lab work to identify any minerals or nutrients you may be deficient in before altering your regimen. When we sleep well, it’s easier to feel well. Restorative, restful sleep is so important for our body and brain to function optimally. Which of these suggestions do you feel would be most helpful to add into your routine?
Those of you that have followed me for some time know how passionate I am about female hormone health and working with a functional medicine doctor to help bring them into balance when needed. That is not to say that traditional or western based physicians may not be able to help identify these imbalances, but functional, integrative, or holistic physicians tend to see more value in comprehensive hormone evaluation and other lab work. While there can certainly be chemical imbalances in the brain, there can also be hormone imbalances in the body that manifest as worsened mental health. Our hormones are our body’s messengers and alert us when something needs attention. Whether hormone levels are too low or too high, both can result in anxiety, depression, fatigue, and changes in thoughts and behaviors. We deal with excess stressors in our life now more than ever due to our busy on-the-go lifestyles. When we live in a constant state of stress, this can lead to adrenal fatigue, thyroid dysfunction, and can kick our hormone production into overdrive. Cortisol, the hormone that is released during times of stress, can cause both anxiety and depression when levels are elevated for a prolonged period of time. High levels of cortisol can also result in sleep disturbances which in turn can also worsen our mental health. In addition to our cortisol, it’s important to keep an eye on our sex hormones like estrogen and progesterone and our thyroid hormones like TSH, T3, and T4, among others. These hormones being out of balance can lead to a myriad of physical and mental symptoms. Getting a full blood work panel done with your physician is a great place to start if you are feeling off but aren’t sure what the problem is. Finding support with a healthcare professional that you trust and really listens to your concerns is the first and most important step to bringing you back into balance so you can start to feel better. From there, you can develop a treatment plan that feels right for you and hopefully start to feel like yourself again.
Our daily nutrition and how it relates to our mental health can either be a really empowering conversation or it can cause some to feel like it’s missing the mark. I understand this completely. If I was in the thick of battling depression, the last thing I would want to hear is someone telling me that I just need to eat more vegetables. In fact, following our miscarriage in 2017 the first thing I wanted to do was eat my feelings with Oreos and Toaster Strudels. So I hope that you hear my heart when I say that saying “eat more veggies and be happy” is not the purpose of this post. I am passionate about using whole, nutrient dense foods to help improve quality of life but I am also passionate about helping people meet themselves where they are. Sometimes a little bit of tweaking rather than a complete diet overhaul can make a world of difference. When our digestion is running smoothly, when our energy levels normalize, and when our body is moving well, and when our cells are receiving the fuel they need to function effectively, we feel better equipped to handle all that life throws at us. The approach that I have taken in working through my own mental health difficulties is “What if it helps? Even just a little.” What if by making sure you are getting the appropriate amount of nutrients in your diet, you help yourself feel a little bit better? What about making sure you are eating enough food throughout the day? What about staying properly hydrated? None of these things are a magic pill for curing mental illness but what if they can make it easier to get through your day? Numerous studies have shown that our diet greatly influences our mental health. While pre-packaged processed food is convenient and gives us that sugar or carb rush we crave, the consequential effect on our health when consumed regularly is just not worth it. Those battling mental illness can find it overwhelming at times to prepare meals that take time or energy. Many recipes I share here on the blog and in my social media are quick and delicious, no culinary degree required. I’ll be posting more recipes soon that are simple to prepare, nutrient packed, and quick to get on the table. It can be helpful without being overwhelming to try to add in one new food a week, or simply looking at their plate and asking themselves “how can I make this even more supportive of my body?” Sometimes adding just a small bit of colorful produce or reducing the portion size of something less optimal is a great start. Another great place to start is adding in foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s in fish oil have been studied in individuals with various mood disorders and mental health conditions with promising results. Some of my favorite foods containing omega-3s are wild caught salmon, chia seeds, flax seeds, walnuts, and avocados. Our nutrition doesn’t have to be perfect! But the more goodness we fuel our bodies with, the less room we leave for being weighed down physically and mentally by the foods that don’t serve our body well.
For most, 2020 was one of the most stressful years they’ve been through. For me, that included some good stress, some bad but undoubtedly lots and lots of change. As someone who tends to overwork and at times can struggle with boundaries with what all I can take on, I often have to remind myself to take a step back and ask myself what I need when my mind starts to go into overdrive. Is it some quiet time to myself? A long walk? Do I need to just get everything that’s tumbling around in my brain down onto paper so it feels more manageable? Burning the candle at both ends usually comes with unwanted consequences like worsened anxiety, depression, fatigue, and even chronic health issues. These symptoms are signals that our body and mind need some extra care. Prolonged exposure to stress can have adverse effects on our brain, our hormones, and our immune system. With our society glorifying productivity above all else, many of us put our mental and physical needs on the back burner. I want to gently encourage you to make yourself a priority again. You deserve to have your needs met and you deserve to feel better. When we frequently put everyone else’s needs before our own this often leads to stress, burnout, and depression. But when we take time for ourselves to de-stress and give our body and soul what it really needs, we usually end up being able to love and serve others better. I have found that moving my body helps tremendously with what goes on in my mind. Studies have shown that moving your body for 30 minutes a day, five days a week, is highly beneficial for both physical and mental health. If 30 minutes a day sounds overwhelming with where you are right now, remember that doing something is better than doing nothing at all. Taking a walk around the block, walking the dog, or exploring a new park or trail are all great ways to increase activity level and reduce stress. Remember, you don’t want to add more stress when you are attempting to de-stress! Ask yourself what you need and then really listen. Is it more movement? More rest? More things that bring your soul joy? Better boundaries? Managing mental illness can feel like a full time job at times but you never have to do it alone. If you need help figuring out exactly what would be most helpful for you, I am a huge proponent for finding a therapist that fits well with you, that you trust, and can help you prioritize your needs. Let’s normalize talking about going to therapy. Let’s normalize advocating for improved mental health treatment. Let’s slow down and give ourselves the love and the care that we so greatly deserve.