8 Lifestyle Changes That Can Improve Mental Health

Q: It seems to me that many of our modern ‘ailments’ are linked to the mind as much as the body. Is there anything preventive that we can all be doing to safeguard our brain health and sense of wellbeing?

Julie Prince, Portsmouth

A: Dr Dan Rutherford writes

Many Eastern philosophies and health beliefs do not separate mental and physical health. In the West we’ve been slower to adopt the concept that mental wellbeing is something you can work at, like physical fitness. Most of the lifestyle changes that can improve our bodies will also help our minds and we can all benefit from knowing about them.

1. Exercise: It’s not only the cheapest antidepressant but it lowers the risk of depression happening in the first place. Regular exercise improves school academic performance at one end of the age scale and reduces the risk of memory loss at the other. Some is good, more is better.

2. Nutrition: A rainbow diet of multicolored fruit and vegetables that includes oily fish and watches the calories – your granny was right when she told you fish is brain food. Fish oil supplements, and possibly vitamin D, may add benefit. (Check with your pharmacist if you take prescription medication).

3. Nature: Is for all, not only “New Agers”. Exposure to the outdoors, natural sounds (including silence), sunlight (as opposed to artificial lighting) and fresh air, can all reduce stress and ameliorate or prevent depression. Just getting out of the office for a short walk is better than staying cooped up all day.

4. Relationships: Human beings are hard-wired to be sociable. Spending more time with family and friends and widening social group contacts tends to improve happiness and quality of life. Conversely, social isolation increases the risk of mental and physical ill health. We don’t yet know enough about the impact of social media relationships to judge how well these can replace face-to-face contacts.

5. Recreation: Resurrect an old hobby or try something new. If it’s an outdoor activity all the better but what matters is that it engages your concentration and intellect. Channel surfing with the TV remote does not qualify.

6. Relaxation and stress management: Anything from basic muscle relaxation techniques through to yoga and meditation may be what does it for you. Go to a class or teach yourself – there is plenty of self-help material out there. It will work best if you use it regularly.

7. Caring and service: Altruistic behavior such as voluntary work is positively associated with improved psychological wellbeing. In helping others we help ourselves, provided the level of care input is sustainable.

8. Openness about mental health: Mental ill health is common but remains stigmatized in our society. We are all at risk of being affected. Recognizing when problems are starting, seeking help early and being receptive to the mental health needs of those around us benefits everyone.

A: Sara Stanner writes

Just like other organs, the brain needs essential nutrients to function at its optimum so good nutrition has an important role in mental health and wellbeing, influencing concentration, alertness, mood and memory. It can also help to prevent deterioration of cognitive function, which is associated with diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. Healthy eating is something that none of us, at any age, can afford to keep putting off.

Despite all the “super food” claims, no single food can be described as a “brain food”. But many nutrients influence cognitive function, including the B vitamins, the minerals magnesium, iron, iodine and zinc, omega-3 fatty acids and not least carbohydrate. Those following low-carb diets should remember that glucose is the brain’s preferred energy source, and maintaining a steady level prevents “highs” and “lows”. Eating regular meals that include starchy foods, such as potatoes, rice, pasta or bread, provides a steady supply of carbohydrate to maintain the brain’s glucose requirement all day.

It is suggested that low glycemic index (GI) foods such as whole-grain foods (wholemeal bread, brown pasta, whole-grain breakfast cereals) are more likely to provide a steady supply of glucose, with benefits for mood, memory and energy levels, than the high GI foods that cause a sudden, short-lived glucose rise. Peas, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables also provide B vitamins including folate, as well as zinc, which can help to manage depression.

The brain is one of the organs with the highest level of fat, so a good supply of unsaturated fatty acids is also needed. Foods rich in unsaturated fats include vegetable-based oil or spread (olive, rapeseed, sunflower), nuts, seeds and oily fish.

Low levels of omega-3 fatty acids have been found in people suffering from depression. Oily fish is the best source of long chain omega 3s (DHA and EPA) but all seafood contains a range of nutrients that may be of benefit (and numerous population studies have concluded that countries with higher seafood intake, such as China, have lower instances of mental disorders). The key nutrients are selenium, iodine, zinc and vitamin B12, all of which are involved in brain function – in fact, low levels of these can be predictive of depression.

Fluid intake is also necessary for normal cognitive function – even mild dehydration can impair concentration as well as influence mood – so, whatever your age, take fluid regularly. However, don’t forget that alcohol has a dehydrating effect; drinking too much of it can lower your B-vitamin levels and make you more depressed and anxious. Make sure to limit your intake to no more than two to three drinks on no more than five days a week.

Caffeine, on the other hand, can aid memory and attention in the short term, especially in those who do not consume it regularly, but a high intake can cause jitteriness and anxiety, and interfere with sleep, all of which compound stress.

A: Tony Gallagher writes

While exercise is not a panacea for all ills, it definitely helps to proactively safeguard and encourage good mental health and general wellbeing. It acts as a de-stressor, improves heart function, promotes weight loss, prevents osteoporosis, reduces asthma problems, improves sleep patterns, prevents strokes and improves brain arousal – just a few of those benefits would make you wonder why we’re not all getting more exercise.

When people get depressed or anxious, they often feel they are not in control of their lives. Exercise gives them back control of their bodies and this is often the first step to feeling better. It could just prevent things from becoming overwhelming.

I know from personal experience, having had cancer treatment 10 years ago, that if I have to be ill, I would rather be fit and ill as opposed to unfit and ill.

There is also increasing belief that the greatest threat to health is not the ageing process itself, but rather inactivity. Despite awareness of the benefits, many of us still aren’t moving enough.

It’s heartening to see that forward-looking employers are now tackling inactivity and stress in the workplace, with exercise classes and seminars on coping with stress or anxiety, developing resilience and sleep issues.

Perhaps schools could introduce something similar for their children, appropriate for their age level, to help prepare them for the challenges in the outside world, and protect the next generation from these “modern ailments” as you call them.