May saw Mental Health Awareness week on the 10th to the 15th, so this post is all about how to keep our grey matter fit and healthy. First though, some background information about mental health...
In 2018 the Global Council on Brain Health identified a surprisingly simple test to assess brain health: whether someone functions well in daily life. As advisor to the group James Goodwin explained in New Scientist magazine recently “They found that the brain requires three vital functions to work together seamlessly: executive function, our ability to think and reason; social cognition, which enables us to interact successfully with others; and emotion regulation, through which we generate our sense of well-being.” The lifestyle choices that we make have a huge bearing on all of these functions and thanks to neuroplasticity it is never too late to make changes for the better.
Feed Your Gut Microbiome to Feed Your Brain
Our mental wellbeing is intrinsically linked to our gut health - as the expression ‘gut feeling’ implies. For example, consider that approximately 90% of the main mood stabilising hormone serotonin is produced in our gut and less than 10% in our brain, or that poor gut health has been linked to diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
When you eat, think how best to feed the microbes in your digestive tract because the health and diversity of that community affects your own health and wellbeing. They like fibre, so plant foods are good. They also like variety, so aim to eat a rainbow of different coloured fruits and vegetables each day (red, yellow, orange, green and blue/purple) and to consume at least 30 different plant foods in a week (definitely worth recording that for a week to see if your usual diet is on track - and the good news is that each type of fruit, vegetable, grain, bean, pulse, nut, seed, herb or spice that you use counts as one, no matter the quantity, you just can’t count the same thing more than once). And like us, our gut microbes like a rest, so avoid snacking between meals and try time restricted eating on a regular basis. You can read more in my blog post from last year Nutrition as a Pillar of Health.
Learn a New Skill
Learning stimulates the production of new brain cells, prevents brain cell death and improves connectivity in the brain, so acquiring a new skill can boost your brain power and protect you from cognitive decline and dementia. It doesn’t seem to matter what the skill is, as long as it is new to you and once you have mastered it find a new skill to work on whilst enjoying the one that you have just acquired.
Nurture a Sense of Purpose
As GP, author and presenter Dr Rangan Chatterjee says “...the single best way of living a calmer, happier life is to do it with a strong sense of purpose… One way of thinking about it is as living your life on purpose.” In his book The Stress Solution he gives strategies for finding purpose and for living more purposefully, which I can highly recommend. He talks about purpose and meaning in his recent short interview with Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute. And of course, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl explains in his book Man’s Search for Meaning how a sense of purpose can be life saving as well life changing.
We have all come to appreciate over the past year or so just how important social connection is to health and well being, and the statistics reflect that: people who report feeling lonely are 50% more likely to die prematurely than people who are not lonely. You can use acquiring new skills or your sense of purpose (as discussed above) to meet new people. If you feel too time pressured to meet the friends and family that you already have, try scheduling regular meetups in order to prioritise that time and to ensure that it doesn’t slip - it really is that important.
As someone who loves physical activity, I can vouch for its mood-boosting effects, not only from the endorphins that are released, but also from exercising outdoors and with others. Physical activity can also slow age-related cognitive decline and even reverse it!
Aim for at least 30-minutes of daily moderate exercise such as brisk walking or cycling. Even better if you feel up to higher intensity activities like running. Sitting down for too much of the day can counter the good effects of exercise, so aim to stand up, and even better move about, for 10 minutes in every hour. You can read more in my blog post from last year Movement as a Pillar of Health.
Although still not fully understood, sleep is vital to health. We have all experienced the effect of just one poor night’s sleep on our mood, making us feel low, negative and irritable. It also affects concentration, memory and energy levels. A chronic lack of sleep can lead to other health problems that we are not even aware of in the short term, but that can have serious, even fatal, consequences in the longer term.
If you are unable to fall asleep or stay asleep when you want to, you are suffering from insomnia. Perhaps most commonly, a lack of sleep can be the result of not allowing enough hours in the day for sleep. If you are blessed with being able to sleep well, don’t short change yourself, give yourself at least eight hours of sleep opportunity every night. And if you don’t sleep well, please seek help. If you would like to read more about sleep, I can highly recommend Matthew Walker’s book Why We Sleep. You can also learn more in my blog post The Dos and Don'ts for a Good Night's Sleep.
Connect with Nature
Nature was the theme of Mental Health Awareness Week this year. One of the silver linings of the COVID cloud for me was moving classes from inside to outside. It is a wonderful way to sense the seasons changing (even if rain stops play sometimes) and it is hard to beat being serenaded by warblers whilst working together - pure bliss! As James Goodwin says "Many stress reducing activities benefit brain health, including yoga, meditation, tai chi, art, music and the moderate consumption of alcohol." Tai chi is a form of qigong, and the beneficial effects of the practice itself are boosted by being outdoors and with others, as is traditional. It is definitely my favourite way of working!
I hope that you have found inspiration here for improving your mental health in some way. We can get used to being below par and forget what well being really feels like.
For more about the qigong classes that I run, see the qigong section of my website. If you would like a massage or reflexology treatment to help you unwind, you can book through the Formula Health website or on 0118 418 1825.