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Healthy minds live in healthy bodies

Mental health and physical health have a lot in common. Both benefit from basic and regular maintenance. Nutrition and exercise are the basic maintenance for both a healthy mind and a healthy body.  

While diet and exercise are often thought of as tools of physical health, research has shown that these factors have an impact on how we feel and how well we function mentally and emotionally, as well as physically. Many of the symptoms associated with deterioration in mental health – including fatigue, lack of energy, poor concentration, anxiety and poor body image – benefit from exercise and a healthy diet.

Diet and exercise are also crucial to the prevention and management of many chronic diseases, such as diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease, among many others. Maintaining physical health can help avoid not only physical illness, but it can also support resiliency in your mental health. Conversely, poor physical health can lead to increased vulnerability for mental illnesses, such as depression. 

Diet and nutrition | Fitness and exercise | Sleep | Stress management

Diet and nutrition

It makes sense that a nutritious diet helps keep you healthy both physically and mentally. Good nutrition helps the body maintain a healthy weight, manage stress, and fuels the physical activity that is part of a healthy lifestyle.

The brain, like any other organ, needs the right nutrients to function well. And many brain functions – from regulating hormones to falling asleep to concentrating – can affect mood.

All activities of the brain, those you are aware of and those you aren’t, involve a series of chemical processes and impulses. The raw materials for those neurological processes come from nutrients: proteins, complex carbohydrates, the right fats, and vitamins and minerals are all required to keep the brain healthy.

Studies have linked the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in fruit, vegetables, whole grains, fish and healthy fats, to decreased risk of depression. Other research has suggested a link between deteriorating diets in western countries – marked by higher intake of processed foods high in fat, sugar and sodium – and increased incidence of mental illness.

Research has shown that some foods appear to be linked to brain functions. For example, antioxidants may help prevent the memory problems associated with cell damage from chemicals called free radicals. Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and fish oil – particularly docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), the most abundant omega-3 fatty acid in the brain – have been linked to improved cognitive function.

There is debate about whether there are direct links between specific nutrients and mood. However, it does appear that all of the foods thought to be helpful – which include B vitamins, folic acid, omega-3 fatty acids, and minerals such as magnesium and zinc – are all found in healthy, balanced diets.

Certain mental illnesses can impact nutrition. For example, it is not uncommon for people who are depressed to notice changes in how much they eat – either eating significantly more or less. Others may notice an increase in craving certain foods high in sugar or simple carbohydrates. These foods might make you feel better when you first eat them, but can actually exacerbate your depression because they lead to a “sugar crash.” Certain medications used to treat mental illness can affect your diet, causing weight gain or nausea. The relationship between mental health and diet is complex – they are both impacted by and impact each other.

Fitness and exercise

All the physical aspects of exercise that benefit the body (such as increased circulation, improved metabolism, and the body’s ability to use oxygen more efficiently) also benefit the brain and all of the neurological functions it performs.

Exercise is an effective tool for managing stress, as well as symptoms that stem from stress including worry, irritability and sleep problems. Studies have shown that aerobic exercise can help alleviate anxiety, and there is a wealth of research pointing to the close link between exercise and mood. In fact, one of the most important lifestyle modifications that people at risk for depression can make is to exercise regularly.

Studies have shown that exercise releases serotonin, the same neurotransmitter in the brain that is targeted by many antidepressants. It also releases endorphins, the neurotransmitters that help alleviate pain and reduce stress. These are the same chemicals responsible for the euphoria known as “runner’s high.”

The effects of exercise on the immune system boost both mental and physical fitness. Regular exercise helps boost white blood cells and can help fight off infection. It can also help reduce levels of cytokines, a type of immune system chemical that may aggravate depression.

In addition to its physical benefits, exercise has psychological benefits as well. It can build confidence, help people set and meet goals, and may help prevent isolation by getting people into the community.

Sleep

The benefits of a good night’s sleep include being alert and refreshed, able to concentrate and perform complex physical and mental tasks. It also helps you stay healthy both mentally and physically, and is a key element in managing stress.

Sleep is important for brain function, and is closely linked to neurotransmitters associated with mood, such as serotonin and melatonin.

The effects of poor sleep on mood and emotional state are often immediate. For a magnified glimpse at some of these direct effects, have a look at an exhausted child. When toddlers miss their naps, they can be emotional, irritable, irrational, and less able to concentrate or do things they normally can. The effects aren’t much different in grown-ups! In addition to being drowsy and irritable, adults who don’t get enough sleep also don’t function as well physically, have impaired memory and attention spans, and find it difficult to concentrate.

Lack of sleep doesn’t just make you sleepy, it makes the body and the mind function poorly. Sleep is when the body does important repair and maintenance work. Tissue repair and cell regeneration get underway while we rest, and the brain appears to use this time to regulate important chemicals such as human growth hormone. This hormone is not only responsible for making us grow from children to adults, but also for the upkeep and repair of all of our tissues and organs throughout our lives.

Sleep deprivation puts the body under stress, which makes it difficult for the immune system to function properly. This makes the body more vulnerable to colds and flu and other infections. In addition, a sleep-deprived immune system is also more likely to trigger the type of inflammatory responses that are implicated in the development of many serious diseases, including high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

Not getting enough sleep can take its toll physically, mentally, emotionally and professionally. It can affect work, family, relationships and both physical and mental health.

Stress management

There’s no avoiding stress. Everyone’s life has some pressures and challenges. Sometimes these are exciting and positive things – like getting a promotion or planning a wedding or having a baby. Others are unexpected or sad, such as an illness or job loss or the death of a loved one. Sometimes stress comes from minor, day-to-day things.

Since there’s no avoiding stress, it’s important to have healthy ways to manage it.

Stress contributes to both physical and mental illness. In the body, stress can cause high blood pressure, upset stomach, aches and pains, and insomnia. It can bring conflict into family life and personal and professional relationships. In the mind, it can lead to anxiety, irritability, and negative emotions. In fact, stress has many symptoms in common with mental illnesses, such as causing sleep problems, difficulty concentrating, irritability, and appetite changes.

One of the dangers of stress is its connection with unhealthy coping mechanisms. People who are busy and stressed may neglect to eat well. It’s quicker to pick up takeout – or skip a meal altogether – than to do the shopping and prepare something nutritious. Stressed people may be more likely to skip workouts or fitness activities, stay up late to meet deadlines, and may smoke more, drink more alcohol or use more drugs.

It’s unfortunate that the things that stressed people tend to neglect are the very things that help people cope better with stress. A healthy diet, regular exercise and sufficient sleep help your body and mind manage stress. Other tips that may help manage stress include:

  • Understand your stress: being aware of what events and situations are contributing to your stress levels can help you find ways to prevent and manage it.
  • Learn how to unwind: think of relaxation as a skill that you can develop. Learn a technique such as deep breathing or visualization. Some people find activities such as yoga, tai chi, or meditation very helpful.
  • Consider learning about stress management by taking a workshop or reading about it. Ask for recommendations from your doctor, a health-care provider or your human resources department at work.
  • Many people find that balancing their roles and responsibilities can help keep stress from taking over. This often means thinking about what’s important to you, making priorities, knowing your limits, and respecting those limits by learning to say no to tasks and responsibilities that may not fit into your priorities.
  • Make your own well-being a priority: eat well, stay active, sleep and nurture healthy relationships.
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