Many people are aware that things like stress, childhood trauma and alcohol and other drug abuse can have a bad affect on our mental health, which increases our risk of anxiety and depression. A lot of people also believe that mental health issues just come down to unlucky genes and a chemical imbalance in the brain. What many do not realize is that a number of lifestyle factors significantly impact our mental health and mood. These factors we have some control over and evidence is beginning to show that by changing our lifestyle we can improve our mental health.
Science has discovered that a diet high in refined carbohydrates, sugar and added fats increases the risk of depression and anxiety. The good news is that a whole food based diet (fish, nuts, legumes, whole grains, olive oil and good quality meats), has been found to improve mood and reduce depression. In fact in a world first trial in Australia 67 subjects completed an experiment where one group was given a whole foods based diet, and another group was enrolled in a social support group. After just 12 weeks the group on the healthy diet had a 30% reduction in depressive symptoms versus just 8% in the control group.
Billions of bacteria live on, and in, our bodies, with a few kilograms of those residing in our intestines. These intestinal bacteria interact directly with our vagus nerve influencing our mood, they produce vitamins and neurotransmitters that affect how our brain works, and they help to keep down inflammation in the brain – a significant risk factor for depression and anxiety. Studies have even found if you transplant bacteria from an anxious mouse into a normal mouse then the mouse will become more anxious. In human studies supplementing with certain probiotic, or friendly strains of bacteria has been found to reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety.
We have all experienced feeling cranky and tired after a poor night’s sleep. Yet as a society we undervalue the role of sleep in our lives. During deep sleep, the brain’s glymphatic system kicks in – think of this as the plumbing system of the brain that removes metabolic waste. Without deep sleep, waste starts to accumulate in the brain, increasing inflammation which thereby increases the risk of depression and anxiety.
Exercise helps us to release feel-good chemicals such as endorphins and endocannabinoids providing a natural high. Vigorous regular exercise also increases a substance called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor or BDNF. This substance is like fertilizer for the brain helping brain cells to grow normally. Increasing BDNF seems to improve recovery from anxiety and depression and to repair damage in the brain from stress. Studies have found that exercise can be as effective as antidepressants in relieving depression, and after longer periods of time exercise has been found to be even more powerful than antidepressants.
Who doesn’t feel better about life on a sunny day? Sunshine is very important for regulating our circadian rhythm. This is our internal body clock and 20 minutes of outdoor light daily has been found to improve sleep quality, mood and relieve some of the symptoms of depression. Additionally, Sunshine is our main source of Vitamin D3. This vitamin is found in low amounts in many people suffering from mental health disorders and is important for brain health.
The powerful thing about all these factors is that we all have the ability to influence them in our day-to-day lives to boost our mood and improve our mental wellbeing. To explore further how each of these factors may benefit your mood, book in and see one of our practitioners today.
BHSc Naturopathy, Grad. Dip. Counselling