In the past few weeks (I am writing this in October, 2016) I have noticed a resurgence of social media posts about mental health to raise awareness and dispel the myth that it’s something to be ashamed of.
I am totally on board with this as there is nothing worse than realising that someone who is near and dear to us is putting on a brave face to appear “normal” whereas in reality they are fighting an almighty battle with depression inside their heads all day every day.
It’s heart breaking.
It’s not my place to discuss severe mental health issues or mental health programs as I am not qualified to do so and these should be the exclusive domain of doctors and psychiatrists.
I am however professionally qualified to help clients cope and manage with mild occurrences of mood disorders like depression, stress and anxiety, also in conjunction with their medical consultants.
Therefore as we are just about to enter the 5 months of almost perpetual darkness here in the UK I thought it would be good to look at a few health tips to help us stay cheerful while we count down the days to the next Spring Equinox.
From my point of view as a fitness professional good mental health is a natural consequence of good physical health. Since I can remember I was surrounded by quotes from ancient Roman and Greek philosophers and the one that stuck with me is “Orandum est ut sit mens sana in corpore sano” i.e. let’s pray for a healthy mind in a healthy body (Giovenale, Satire, X, 356).
Although at the time of Giovenale this line was meant to encourage readers to move away from the pursuit of fame and fortune and instead focus on their health, today “mens sana in corpore sano” has become the motto of many in the health and sports industry. The meaning slightly changed to suggest that in order to have a healthy mind you must first have a healthy body.
Research seems to support this idea: a study conducted in the field of academic performance showed that pre-adolescent students who were physically active and healthy achieved better academic scores across a range of diverse subjects to include maths and reading. You can read the full study here (3). If you want to learn even more you can follow the references to similar studies conducted on adults, reaching similar conclusions.
Keeping your brain healthy is in fact not that difficult and from my point of view it looks a lot like laying the foundations to become physically fit and healthy. You see, as always, there are no magic pills that will make up for a sedentary lifestyle with questionable nutrition and unhealthy habits like smoking, taking drugs and excessive alcohol consumption. However here are some health and wellness tips that will help you cope with the Winter months.
Provided you are otherwise reasonably healthy and not taking medications that can cause you depression or anxiety, the first thing to look at if you are feeling down more often than up is your lifestyle and how this is affected by the time of the year. For example if you work a 9-5 job and have to commute daily chances are you won’t see much daylight Mon to Fri in the Winter months. The same goes if you work night shifts and sleep during the day: no matter what time you wake up, you will miss a lot of the daylight hours or miss out on your sleep. Daylight is important because it helps your body produce Serotonin which has been linked to positive moods and a calm yet focused outlook on life (4).
This is great news for business: who doesn’t want to feel calm, happy and in control in every situation you may come across at work?
Your best strategy in this respect is to honour your lunch break and go out for a walk whenever you can so that you can soak up some of the daylight. This is mandatory on sunny days.
If at all possible make sure you have to cross a park to go and get your lunch but it would be even better if you could make that at home so you are 100% sure that your macro nutrients are carefully balanced. This will help you stay full for longer and keep cravings at bay thus reducing the chances of you over-consuming starches and fat (i.e. cakes, biscuits, crisps, pizza, etc.) later in the day.
The next place to look at for great emotional health is your diet and, by association, your intestine because this is where the good nutrients you take in are processed and sent off to the various organs, including the brain. We want our gut to be as healthy and efficient as possible. We give it a hand by ensuring it is populated by “friendly bacteria” and that there is enough fibre going through to keep evacuation of toxins regular and smooth. Switching to a natural diet rich in fresh produce and poor in convenience foods will go a long way in ensuring your body is nourished and your moods stay stable.
Moving and Exercising
Once you have your lifestyle and nutrition under control you need to look at moving and exercising. There is a difference between the two: movement is what we are designed to do, exercise is what we have come up with to address specific goals. Truth is we need both to stay healthy and in good shape but if you are strapped for time or lacking inspiration then choose movement over exercise. A good walk around the shops is better than a half-hearted workout at the gym.
Walking will give you a chance to relax and reflect on your day, making peace with yourself and the whole world. It could also be an opportunity to reconnect with friends and have a jolly good laugh.
If you feel that you need a little bit extra help you may want to consider supplements. These are exactly the same supplements that I would recommend to anyone wanting to improve their health and fitness and lose weight. Why? Because when the body is healthy it’s more willing to release unwanted fat.
The first supplement on my list would be a good multi-vitamins and minerals blend carefully formulated by a reputable company as opposed to the cheap-issimo you find at the local supermarket. The vitamins that are especially useful for brain chemistry are Vitamin C, E, Folate and B12 plus you need adequate quantities of magnesium, but there are many others that your body needs to function so don’t just focus on a few, go broad spectrum. Unless, of course, you have a known deficiency that your doctor determined via a blood test.
The next supplements, which are really ex-aequo in order of importance with the above, are your Omega 3 oil capsules rich in both EPA and DHA. The latter is a major building block of the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for memory, language, creativity, emotion and attention (1). Omega 3 supplements are powerful anti-inflammatories and can help with joint pain too. Personally I got the most benefit in terms of improved cognition from taking Krill Oil as it’s a super powerful source of Omega 3 much stronger than even to strongest fish oil capsules.
Amino-acids are also important and perhaps unexpected here. They are the building blocks of your whole body and will help you retain a healthy ration of muscle vs. body fat as well as helping you recover from exercise quickly. These are typically obtained from your food but if in doubt you could consider using a whey protein supplement which is naturally rich in amino acids.
Food intolerances can affect your mental health
Finally, although we are encroaching into medical territory, let’s not dismiss the possibility of food intolerances as a cause of mood problems. Gluten intolerance has been linked to many mental health disorders like anxiety, depression, ADHD, autism and schizophrenia (2). Although for the majority of these conditions medical help is your priority, if in doubt it’s worth removing gluten containing foods from your diet for a while and see if you get better.
To conclude, if you find yourself getting moody as the hours of daylight gradually disappear don’t feel bad because of it. As you can see there is plenty that you can do to take care of yourself and then there are doctors and specialists who will be able to help you if you can’t shake off the black dog.
Remember that once the clocks go back and Summer time ends you are only a few weeks away from the Winter Solstice when the hours of daylight start to increase again. Might as well sit back with a cup of hot cocoa and enjoy catching up on the Walking Dead. Probably the only good thing about Winter.
If you need help with any of this you can start by booking a complimentary, non obligation, 30 min breakthrough call. Beating the Winter sadness doesn’t need to be difficult and small actions can make a big difference. Book your call now!
1 – Greenberg JA, Bell SJ, Ausdal WV. “Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation During Pregnancy”.Reviews in Obstetrics and Gynecology. 2008;1(4):162-169.
2 – Jackson, Jessica et al. “A Gluten-Free Diet in People with Schizophrenia and Anti-Tissue Transglutaminase or Anti-Gliadin Antibodies.”Schizophrenia research 0 (2012): 262–263. PMC. Web. 11 Oct. 2016.
3 – Darla M. Castelli, Charles H. Hillman, Sarah M. Buck, Heather E. Erwin,Physical Fitness and Academic Achievement in Third and Fifth Grade Students (PDF), in Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 2007.
4 – Mead MN. “Benefits of Sunlight: A Bright Spot for Human Health”. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2008;116(4):A160-A167.