Connect your body and brain for optimal mental fitness: Here's How
In Dr. Gabor Mate’s acclaimed book The Myth of Normal, he shares his unsettling experience in medical school where professors and textbooks talked about the human body as essentially a bag of bone, muscle, and tissue, and nothing else. The medical industry—including the mental health industry—tends to treat the human body as something that’s simply functioning optimally or not. It fails to consider the integration of body, mind, and even soul.
If you’re one of the millions of people who are coping with depression, anxiety, or other symptoms, you’re definitely not alone. While the medical industry jumps to treat with drugs, talk therapy, and other fixes, there are other powerfully simple, approachable treatments you can try today at home. Nutrition and exercise happen to be two of them!
The connection between physical and mental health are vast but they’re only now beginning to get the clinical research they deserve. In this article, we’ll talk about the science behind this connection and ways you can start to improve your mental health through your physical well-being today.
The link between your body and mind is more powerful than you realize
Before we dive into the way exercise can help, we want to first note that exercise might not be an option for every body. If that’s you, you’ll find nutritional tips further below. Don’t worry, there are tweaks we can all make to feel better and if exercise is not a possibility, there are so many other ways to feel better that we’ve listed further below (nutrition!)
How exercise can help
Boost of endorphins
According to the Mayo Clinic, physical activity bumps up the production of your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters called endorphins. Endorphins help relieve pain and stress from the body, leaving you feeling energetic and happy.
Being physically strong leads us to feel mentally strong
Studies show that exercise boosts our resilience. This connection between physical and mental strength suggests that as we master difficult physical sensations and master the mental fortitude of a workout, we build mental fortitude in other areas of our life, as well.
In a neuroscience study, researchers observed how exercise impacted rats’ ability to deal with stress. The rats were split into two groups. One group was regularly exercising and the other wasn’t. Then, both groups were introduced to an external stressor (cold water). As you might guess, the rats that regularly exercised better regulated their stress responses than the rats that were sedentary.
Improved confidence and habit building
When we’re physically active, we tend to feel better in our bodies.
More importantly, we feel confident in our ability to sustain healthy habits in our lifestyle. Building a positive habit like regularly moving, walking, or exercising can vastly improve our sense of self and outlook on our ability to create change in our life. This is true of any healthy habit we include in our lifestyle, like sleeping better or eating more nutritionally.
More energy and better sleep
While it may sound obvious, working out helps boost our energy and even sleep better at night! It’s a positive feedback loop that just keeps giving and giving. With better sleep, our mood tends to improve and so forth.
How much exercise do we need to reap mental benefits?
According to the Mayo Clinic, as little as 10 to 15 minutes of physical activity can make a difference. They suggest aiming for 30 minutes 3-5 days per week to significantly improve symptoms of depression and anxiety. But a little is better than nothing. Even a 10 minute walk around your neighborhood will help.
How nutrition can help
New research at Harvard even called this connection nutritional psychiatry. In their article called “Your Brain on Food,” they describe how 95% of serotonin (a neurotransmitter that helps regulate your mood and perception of pain) is produced in your gastrointestinal tract. They say, “it makes sense that the inner workings of your digestive system don’t just help you digest food, but also guide your emotions.”
They recommend eating more:
- Unprocessed grains (opt for sprouted grains when you can)
- Fish and seafood
- Fermented, unprocessed foods which act as natural probiotics for your intestinal microbiome
- And less processed and refined foods and sugars
While you don’t have to strictly follow any particular “diet,” it’s helpful to understand which foods help your mental health, and which ones (like processed foods and sugars) might be hurting it.
When you eat more nutrient-rich foods, you’re giving your gut and brain the fuel it needs to help you focus and limit mood swings. Clean diets with less processed foods are clinically proven to decrease (and sometimes eliminate) symptoms of depression and anxiety.
And if you’re looking to treat depression in particular, the Food for the Brain Organization provided the following nutritional recommendations backed by science:
- Increase essential fats (omega-3s): salmon, flax seeds
- Increase B vitamins: whole grains, lean meats, leafy greens, fish, eggs, dairy
- Increase protein to get more amino acids: any form of protein
- Balance your blood sugar by limiting processed sugars and any foods that are considered high-glycemic
- Consider taking magnesium and vitamin D supplements
Overcoming common obstacles to achieve better nutrition and more exercise
The two biggest obstacles for improving our physical health are often time and money.
Some of the best changes we can make for our physical health don’t have to cost a lot of money or take a lot of time.
Here’s a few tweaks to try today:
- Home cook one meal this week that you would have otherwise eaten out
- Pick up a few fresh fruits and veggies the next time you’re at the grocery store
- Walk 10 minutes in your neighborhood
- Put on a free Youtube video and stretch, dance, or workout (no need to push yourself, even gentle movement makes a difference)
How to start feeling better today
If you’re looking to feel better right now, we recommend going for a walk! If the weather doesn’t permit it, you can walk at a local indoor mall. If exercise is not an option, try drinking a glass of water and making a healthy snack, focusing on how it’s nourishing you.
One of the greatest barriers to improving our physical and mental health is often our mindset. You don’t have to change everything about your lifestyle to start feeling better. The smallest tweaks can improve our mindset and mood, starting with just a short walk or a healthy snack that feels good for us.
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