“Take care of your mind, your body will thank you. Take care of your body, your mind will thank you.”
Debbie Hampton, author of The Best Brain Possible
The mind and body are inextricably linked. One cannot function optimally without its healthy counterpart. With England’s sharp rise in mental ill health since the start of the pandemic – according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists – it’s more important than ever to give our minds (as well as our bodies) some good old TLC. Here are five top tips to help you take care of your mind:
Rest is the Best
One of the most important natural approaches you can take to improve your mental health is to optimise the quality (and quantity) of your sleep. Good quality sleep allows the brain and body to engage in processes of recovery, promoting better physical and mental performance, and wellbeing. Crucially, our sleep also determines our energy and motivation to maintain other healthy habits that promote good mental health, such as exercising and healthy eating, as highlighted below. Top tips to maximise your sleep quality include aiming for 7-9 hours sleep per night, getting to sleep between 8pm and 12am, avoiding light disruption, keeping the room temperature between 18-19°C, avoiding caffeine after lunch, and switching all screens off for at least one hour before bedtime, especially mobiles and computers.
Keep on Movin'
Taking regular exercise has a profound impact on our mental health, in the short and long-term, with proven benefits in managing stress, improving sleep patterns, and overall quality of life. Even a short, brisk 10-minute walk is shown to increase mental alertness, energy and positive mood. That’s because exercise increases blood flow throughout the body, including to the brain, and releases endorphins, our bodies’ natural mood-boosting and pain-relieving neurotransmitters. The government recommends all adults take at least 30 minutes exercise, 5 days a week, such as walking, swimming, cycling or other physical activity.
Make Your Own
Serotonin, a.k.a the “happy chemical”, is a critical neurotransmitter found in the brain and gut, which regulates a wide range of physiological functions and behaviours, including anxiety, arousal, vigilance, aggression, mood, impulsivity, sleep, and food intake. It can be produced in the body using essential amino acid tryptophan, found in salmon, chicken, turkey, eggs, spinach, nuts, seeds, dairy and soy products. It can also be released when sunlight reaches our eyes. So, if you’re looking for natural ways to boost your own happiness, eat tryptophan-rich foods and spend plenty of time outdoors soaking up mood-boosting Serotonin, plus Vitamin D, thrown in for good measure!
Go With Your Gut
The constant two-way communication pathway between our gut and our brain, known as the gut-brain axis, is the focus of exciting new research into mental health. It’s estimated 90% of our serotonin is produced in our gut, modulated by our microbial guests, known as our gut microbiome. Evidence demonstrates that patients with depression show major differences in their gut microbiome composition, compared to those without. Also “probiotics are likely to improve depression”, according to the authors of a 2020 review. So, how exactly can your gut help your mind in practical terms? Interestingly, all points covered so far are in fact well connected to your gut microbiome. Did you know that your gut microbes are also regulated by a circadian rhythm and can be negatively affected by poor sleep? And that their diversity can be modulated by exercise? From a dietary perspective, an unrefined and diverse plant-rich diet packed with whole-grains, fruit and veg, nuts, seeds and pulses will help optimise gut health. Aim for at least 30 different types of plant-based foods each week.
Feast on Polyphenonls
Polyphenols are naturally occurring plant-based chemicals, recognised for their potent antioxidant properties, and potential health benefits. They are mainly absorbed in the large intestine and are transformed by our gut microbes to exert health benefits, to our heart and mental health. Best of all, polyphenols are widely available, naturally packaged in the most delicious range of foods and drinks, including:
- Blueberries, blackcurrants, cherries, strawberries, raspberries, plums, prunes, grapes, apples
- Olives, red onion, spinach, asparagus, broccoli, artichokes
- Flaxseed, hazelnuts, pecans, almonds, chestnuts
- Black beans, white beans, roasted soybeans
- Herbs and spices: turmeric, rosemary, fenugreek, basil, ginger, cinnamon, capers, cloves, peppermint and many more
- Filtered coffee, black/green tea, red wine, extra virgin olive oil, 70% dark chocolate
We all need a bit of TLC from time to time, and so do our minds and bodies. Because one cannot function optimally without the other, it’s especially important for us to re-double our efforts in maintaining good sleep hygiene, staying active (preferably outdoors), and feeding our inner microbial community. Daily meditation or mindfulness, and reducing alcohol consumption (and other stimulants) also helps. If you look after your body, your mind will thank you for it, and give you plenty of smiles in return!