These are the basic foundation and building blocks of mental health: sleep, nutrition, and exercise. They don’t fix everything but they can go a long way to improving your overall mental health. I had a young adult come to see me who was struggling with depression and ADHD symptoms. When I asked about these foundations the person informed me they regularly stayed up late cramming for exams, eating ramen noodles, and played video games frequently. This person was living a sedentary lifestyle and not feeding his brain the nutrients it needed. We worked together to first improve these foundations and he was experiencing some symptoms relief within a couple of weeks.
America is in a sleep crisis. It’s estimated that 80% of individuals with a mental health diagnosis have sleep problems. It is common to hear people share about how tired they are. Our culture glamorizes exhaustion. The lack of sleep contributes to health problems like diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
8 hours of sleep for improved mental health
No matter how little sleep you think you can function on, your brain and body NEED eight hours of sleep. It is okay to have a sleep deficit on a couple of nights of the week if you are consistently logging 8 hours of zzz’s. A full night of sleep will improve your mood and decrease your stress. Sleep helps us to be more patient, view life in a better light, and develop solutions to problems much quicker.
Only use your bed for sleep
Your brain needs to associate your bed with sleep and only sleep. For many, the bed has become a place to do work on their laptop, play on their phones, or watch TV. These activities stimulate your brain and require your attention. Your brain associates climbing into bed with awake and alert rather than drowsy and asleep. Try only going to bed when you are ready to sleep. If you feel the need to watch TV, play on your phone, etc. do so in a different room or even a different chair in the room. Over time your brain will associate your bed with sleep and secrete the chemicals needed to help you drift into sleep land.
If you can’t sleep get up out of bed
Your head hits the pillow and BAM you’re wide awake thinking about your to do list, running over a conversation, or simply thinking. Has this happened to you? We often lay there hoping and praying that the sleep fairy will eventually come, quiet our minds, and drift us off to sleep. This is not likely. Just like in the being on your phone in bed, lying awake thinking stimulates your brain and teaches your brain to be awake and alert rather than drowsy and asleep. If you find that you’re awake, get up and go to a different part of the house. Engage yourself in a boring task and once you feel the drowsiness, return to bed.
Load up on Veggies
Vegetables contain a wide variety of minerals and vitamins that are essential to good mental health. Deficits in our nutrition can cause problems with mental health. For example, low magnesium has been linked to depression, anxiety, and ADHD symptoms. You can load up on the good stuff for cheap too. Cooking vegetables does not have to be fancy. Frozen vegetables and canned vegetables are great quick, low cost options for getting in the nutrients. Aim for having a vegetable at each meal.
Cut down on refined sugars
Refined sugars are found in processed foods that are often the convenience foods or treats. While they are tasty and oh so yummy, they wreck havoc on our mental health. Sugars can increase anxiety and depression. The crashes from sugar can mimic crashes from drug use. After ingesting sugars, the person is on a roller coaster of highs and then lows of energy. Many people report experiencing ADHD symptoms. Sometimes, when taking a closer look at their diet, it is high in sodas, sugars, and caffeine. (ADHD is a real mental health challenge and there are ways to assist with mitigating symptoms).
Don’t skip meals
Our bodies love receiving a wide variety of nutrients and minerals. We require calories to be our best and think clearly. When we purposefully restrict our food intake, we do not think as clearly. Our brains are focused survival mode and our thoughts become obsessed about food. It’s imperative we feed our body enough calories to think clearly.
Move every day
We need movement! Living a sedentary lifestyle can increase negative thoughts about our self-worth and abilities. Our brains also reward us for exercising. We receive a surge of dopamine, the feel good happy chemical! Exercise brings us better self-esteem, sharper thinking and memory, better sleep, and more energy.
Make it Fun
Let’s be real- it’s near impossible to stick with something if it isn’t fun. If you don’t like going to the gym, don’t go to the gym! Find a physical activity that is fun. Explore new ways to incorporate physical movement into your life. Try to have a walking work meeting. Try out a new indoor rock climbing gym. Shake your booty at Zumba. Try a local community sports team. You are more likely to stick with incorporating a healthy lifestyle if you’re enjoying yourself. There is also the added benefit of feeling connected to others when trying something new and the improved self-esteem from engaging in a challenging activity.
Get your Heartrate Up
Exercise is the most underutilized anti-depressant in the world. In fact the World Health Organization recommends that an active lifestyle should be used along with antidepressant medication for individuals dealing with moderate to severe depression. When your heart rate increases through exercise our brains begin to receive benefits. Even just elevating your heart rate during a brisk walk is effective. Try to take the stairs or put a pep in your step when walking the dog. Anything to slightly increase your heart rate will give you the most benefit. Of course check with your physician prior to beginning an exercise program.