17 May, 2023
Sometimes in life we face what feels like impossible challenges but Mental Health Awareness Week is here to help us overcome any barrier.
With the cost of living crisis affecting virtually every household in the UK, Mental Health Awareness Week couldn’t come at a better time. Although not everyone recognises the importance of being mentally healthy. Especially those that already consider themselves to be in top form. Because we all know how important it is to keep ourselves physically healthy but how many of us give the same attention to our mental health? Which is really odd because most people will experience mental health issues at some point in their lives or at the very least know someone else who has. And although there is now far greater acceptance and awareness of mental health issues it doesn’t mean that we are any better at knowing how to safeguard our mental wellbeing. Fortunately, there are 3 key steps that you can take that will help build your resilience and will ensure your mental health continues to stay in top shape.
The benefits of doing exercise to our physical health are widely known. However, the wealth of evidence also shows that doing regular physical activity can improve your mental health. Studies show that exercising reduces feelings of stress, depression and anxiety. While at the same time, exercise increases our mood, self-esteem and cognitive function and also improves our sleep. If you exert enough doing exercise to get your heart rate going then your body will also release endorphins which produce a feeling of wellness. Most runners will recognise this feeling as the ‘runner’s high’ but that doesn’t mean it can only be felt by runners. The great thing about the mental health benefits from exercise is that it doesn’t really matter what type of exercise you do. In terms of how much is enough, Government guidelines recommend doing a minimum of 150min/week of exercise for adults. So choose an exercise that you enjoy, then you will then be more likely to want to repeat it.
Any parent of a hangry child will know that what we eat and how often really matters. But not everybody appreciates the importance of the role that good nutrition plays in our mental wellbeing. The evidence clearly shows that our diet greatly affects our mental health and influences how resilient we are to stress and illness. Which means that there are some things you can do to ensure that what you eat affects your mental health positively.
For example, if your diet is unhealthy by being high in sugar then after you eat your blood sugar will drop sooner and more rapidly. This will cause you to feel very tired, irritable and down. Before long, you will become hangry. You can also feel this way when your blood sugar is too low because you have skipped a meal or simply waited too long between them.
Principally, eating a healthy, balanced diet is essential to supporting good mental health. To start, basing your meals on healthy complex carbohydrates will prevent you getting hangry. These types of carbs are digested slowly which keeps your blood sugar and energy levels steady, and makes you feel well. Pick starchy carbohydrates such as pasta, rice, spelt, bulghur wheat, barley, couscous, potatoes, bread, and oats. Choose wholegrain versions where you can because they are digested slower and contain more nutrients. In addition to some healthy complex carbohydrates a healthy diet should also include at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day and 2-3 protein sources such as beans, pulses, tofu, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins.
It's also very important that your diet includes a variety of different foods to help ensure that you are getting a wide enough range of vitamins and minerals to support good mental health. Primarily, your mental health can be affected negatively if your diet is deficient in some particular nutrients. For example, if your diet is too low in iron then you will feel tired, out of energy and have difficulty coping with daily life. If your diet is too low in Vitamin B12 then you will feel extremely tired, have problems with your memory, understanding and judgement; and you can suffer from confusion and feelings of depression. If your diet is too high in caffeine then you will feel irritable and anxious and have disrupted sleep. Caffeine also happens to inhibit iron absorption so getting too much will not help with an iron deficiency.
Lastly, if your diet is too low in fibre then you can have problems with digestion such as constipation. Although you might not think that constipation would have anything to do with mental health there is much recent evidence surfacing about the mind-gut connection. Our gut is in fact particularly affected by how we feel and stress and anxiety cause our digestion slow down or speed up. In effect, eating a healthy diet that includes sufficient sources of fibre ensures that our gut works regularly and improves our mood and feelings of well-being.
The physical effects of not getting enough sleep are wide reaching. For example, getting inadequate sleep can influence whether you eat a nutritious diet, keep to a healthy weight and your subsequent risk of developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Perhaps it is no surprise to know that sleep and mental health are very closely linked. After all, a lack of sleep can make you feel rubbish and put you in a bad mood. At the same time, having stress and worries can cause you to have sleepless nights. Over time poor sleep can lead to exhaustion, difficulty coping, lower self-esteem, worrying and increased feelings of stress. Which is why it’s important to prioritise sleep in order to support your mental health. Ensuring that you are getting enough sleep will not only promote feelings of well-being but the physical effects will give you the energy to help you cope with the stresses of life. In terms of how much sleep is enough, everyone is different but for the majority of adults aim for 7-9 hours/night.
We can never know what mountains we will have to climb in life but at least we can try to be in the best shape to tackle it, both physically and mentally. Hopefully following these 3 steps to exercise more, eat better and get enough sleep will help you overcome whatever barriers you will have to face.
Here is some more food for thought to help you on your way in an easy recipe for some very moreish Super seedy bread.
I am originally from Canada but I settled in the UK after studying at university. Sports have always been a part of my life and I have participated and competed in several throughout my childhood. But today I would describe myself as mostly a runner, a mother of 3 grown-ups and a keen cook. As a teenager I was a sprinter and a slightly reluctant cross-country runner but while my children grew up I started to run further and further distances. I never thought that I could ever run anything longer than a half marathon but when my runner husband decided to do a marathon for his 50th in 2019 I found that I had a serious case of FOMO. My children encouraged me to sign up for my first marathon and I ran it just to see if I could finish. Somehow my time was good enough to qualify for the Boston 2020 Marathon. However, due to Covid it was postponed several times.
Like many other runners, I spent much of my time in the Covid lockdown keeping up my fitness by participating in virtual races while waiting for the real events to start up again. As time went on I found myself becoming fully immersed in the world of endurance running and ran the Threshold Trail Series ultra, Race to the Stones. Unfortunately, by the time the Boston Marathon was finally held in late 2021, I could not go because US travel restrictions were still in place. Although I missed my chance to run it and will now have to requalify again at least my time spent keeping in good shape wasn’t wasted. These days I participate in everything from half marathons up to ultras and have also run the Great Glen Way and West Highland Way in the Scottish Highlands.
I also work as a Registered Nutritionist with children and families and founded the consultancy Just add water® in 2019. I write a blog at https://justaddwaterblog.com/ to give free information and advice about nutrition and running whilst also sharing some of my favourite healthy recipes. The website is mainly aimed at busy families who want to make easy to prepare meals that are both healthy and really tasty, and for active families who want to know what they should be eating before, during and after playing sport.
I have always enjoyed cooking and previously cooked as a profession and I like to share my passion for good food. I have been involved in teaching cookery in schools, children's centres and for the NHS. I also enjoy entering the odd competition to push myself out of my comfort zone. I was awarded Highly Commended at the Teflon™ Diamond Standard Awards 2020 national culinary competition in the category of Keen Home Cook and was a National Finalist in 2022 & 2019. I have also had my recipes published in The Guardian's supplement, Cook; and featured in the 2012 Waitrose LOVE life calendar (July); and selected for inclusion in the 2020 #AnyWhichWayaBix Weetabix recipe book.
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