Nutrition & Fitness for Mental Health

Whether you were the star of your high school football team or you cowered in the corner when it was time for sit-ups, nutrition and exercise are important to your physical and mental health as an adult. They are also valuable tools for raising healthy kids. There are, however, many ways to get the diet and physical activity you need without going to extremes, and the first step is learning about your options.

The Link Between Fitness and Mental Health

In 1998, Preventive Medicine published an article analyzing four surveys that examined the link between physical activity and mental health among adults in Canada and the United States. Researchers found a positive connection between exercise and overall well-being, lower levels of depression and anxiety, and improved moods. This was true regardless of age, income, health, or sex, but it was especially obvious in men and women over 40 years old.

People who don’t get enough exercise are more prone to chronic conditions, obesity, and early death, but inactivity is not the only factor for these conditions. With the growth of social media in the 21st century, people are often more connected to devices than to their communities. Social isolation, poor diets, and the pressure to succeed also contribute to the problem, frequently leading to sedentary lives in indoor environments. As a result, people are less healthy and more prone to conditions like depression and anxiety, both of which often lead to the use of drugs and alcohol.

Physical activity helps in many ways, including
  • Increasing the flow of feel-good chemicals called endorphins
  • Distracting from worry and negative thoughts
  • Providing an opportunity to connect with others
  • Improving energy levels
  • Increasing overall feelings of well-being

A recent line of medical research suggests a connection between exercise and an increased ability of the brain to produce nerve cells in the hippocampus, a process known in scientific circles as neurogenesis. Scientists now say many antidepressants also promote the same process among nerve cells, or neurons, in the brain. Whether neurogenesis occurs through physical activity or through the use of medication, its changes make the brain more flexible and capable of processing new information.

Ten Steps to Physical Fitness

It’s tempting to take on a major project, such as working out in the gym every day, when you want to achieve a new goal, but sometimes taking small steps increases your chances of success. These ideas are easy to work into a daily schedule, and they help to build self-esteem and motivate additional activity.

  • Using the stairs instead of the elevator
  • Tracking steps with a pedometer or fitness tracker
  • Walking or biking short distances instead of driving
  • Parking further from entryways
  • Gardening or doing yard work
  • Washing the car yourself instead of going through the drive-through
  • Meeting a friend for a walk in the park
  • Stretching during phone calls
  • Mowing the lawn with a push mower
  • Joining an exercise class or gym

Other ideas include hiring a personal trainer, joining a gym, or enrolling in an exercise boot camp. Many health insurance plans now provide special benefits to help enrollees stay healthy and to reduce their need for medical treatment. Some of the offers allow members to use a variety of gyms, both locally and while they are traveling.

Sometimes committing to a new class or exercise group makes it easier for newbies to stay on track. Activities like yoga and qigong are low-impact, can lower anxiety levels, and often provide a support group of like-minded people. Many communities offer a wide range of choices in locations as diverse as parks, churches, hospitals, libraries, and community centers, and some employers provide ways for workers to be happier and healthier on the job.

The Link Between Mental Health and Nutrition

The food you eat is the fuel that operates your body, and you need high-quality nutrients to run properly. A diet high in minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants keep the brain running smoothly and protects it from free radicals, which is the waste your body makes when it uses oxygen. Eating foods that are highly processed or loaded with refined sugar make it harder for the body to regulate insulin levels and can lead to higher levels of inflammation. Besides, science shows that people who eat a lot of sugar are not only more prone to brain imbalances and mood disorders but are also subject to diabetes.

Recent research has also shown a strong correlation between gut bacteria and emotional health. A neurotransmitter called serotonin plays a role in sleep, mood, pain levels, and appetite. Most of your serotonin comes from the nerve cells in your gastrointestinal tract.

Therefore, the gut is not only involved in digestion, but it also helps to regulate emotions. The old saying about a “gut feeling” is true. Good bacteria in the gut helps keep toxins out, reduces inflammation, and increases the absorption of nutrients and minerals. It is also involved in communication between the nerve cells in the intestinal tract and the brain

The hype you’ve heard in commercials about probiotics may be true. Research suggests people who take probiotics to improve the number of good bacteria in their guts have less anxiety and better moods than those who do not. The same is true of people who eat diets with unprocessed grained, fruits, vegetables, seafood, and minimal dairy products and red meats. In addition, many unprocessed foods contain a good supply of probiotics. This is due to fermentation, a process that chemically changes sugar and converts it into substances that help keep food fresh and tasty.

Fifteen Healthy Foods for the Brain

Experimenting with foods is the best way to decide which ones are good for you. For starters, here is a list of foods that nutritionists recommend:

  • Green leafy vegetables like kale and Swiss chard
  • Herbs like rosemary that protect the brain
  • Dark chocolate to improve blood flow to the brain
  • Blueberries for their anti-inflammatory properties
  • Nuts for vitamins that increase brain power and help with memory loss
  • Fish that helps with depression and lowers cognitive decline
  • Avocados to help control blood pressure and improve thinking
  • Broccoli that is high in Vitamin K and improves memory
  • Coffee for its antioxidants and anti-dementia properties
  • Greek yogurts for its probiotics that improve energy and mood
  • Egg yolks to aid communication between brain cells
  • Whole grains that are rich in complex carbohydrates
  • Beets for nitrates that increase brain power
  • Extra virgin oil for its polyphenols that help prevent dementia
  • Citrus fruits that lower the risk of dementia

How Wellness Affects Mental Health

Ancient literature, such as the Yogic philosophy from India, has taught that the mind, body, and spirit are connected. Modern science has shown that poor mental health can be devastating to physical health, and poor physical health can be damaging to mental health. Researchers know that people with depression have a greater risk of heart disease, and those with schizophrenia face twice the risk of death from heart conditions and three times the risk of death from respiratory illnesses. These statistics may partially result from the fact that people with mental health issues often do not get the care or advice they need to make healthy changes.

The dangers of smoking are well-known, but people with schizophrenia are still three times more apt to smoke as other people, and those with depression are twice as likely to smoke. Although some people think smoking helps with mental conditions, any gains are short-lived. Instead, nicotine disrupts a brain chemical called dopamine, which is often already low in depressed people. This lowered dopamine level interferes with the brain’s reward system and encourages addiction.

Another example of the correlation between emotional and physical conditions is psoriasis, a skin disorder that causes flaky, red sores on the skin and mood disorders. Statistics from the United Kingdom show that one in three people with the condition feels depressed or anxious, and 10 percent think about suicide. This is an example of how illness can trigger emotional conflict whereas, on the other hand, stress can make it worse.

Mental Health and Co-Existing Conditions

Sometimes people who have been diagnosed with a mental condition have co-existing illnesses that complicate their disorder and that make them more susceptible to problems like substance use disorder. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMAHA), that description applies to over 8 million people. Sadly, a mere 7 percent get help for both illnesses. Of those, 60 percent go without treatment for either condition.

The clinical term for two conditions that occur at the same time, such as substance use disorder and depression, is co-morbidity. In one study in Spain, approximately 50 percent of patients diagnosed with major depression also had another mental condition. Other data suggests that over half of the people with a diagnosis of depression also have one or more anxiety disorders.

These facts emphasize the importance of talking to healthcare providers about symptoms of other conditions that may complicate substance use disorder treatment. The more closely the treatment matches the needs of the patient, the smoother the recovery. If two conditions are being treated, however, it is crucial for doctors to be aware of all medications and symptoms to avoid complications in care.

The good news is that many comorbid conditions can be prevented by treating conditions like mood disorders before they get worse. Proper treatment of depression or anxiety, for example, can prevent a patient from self-medicating and developing a substance use disorder.

Statistics on Mental Health

More than 44 million adults in the United States have mental conditions, and the diagnosis is rising among young people. Although many people have been helped by legislation that has improved mental health coverage, many others are going without treatment. There is also a shortage of mental health care providers in comparison to the number of patients who need care, but the situation is improving in some part of the country. In some cases, virtual providers may offer an affordable and convenient option.

In the words of the Yoga pioneer B.K.S. Iyengar, “Health is a state of complete harmony of the body, mind, and spirit. When one is free from physical disabilities and mental distractions, the gates of the soul open.” Good mental and physical health is the result of a holistic lifestyle. While the path to wellness will be different for every person, good nutrition and physical activity should be a part of everyone’s journey. It can be hard to begin being healthy and active, so remember to set small goals when you’re starting out. Even though the journey will be challenging, don’t give up because your mental health is worth it.