Exercise and a healthful diet can improve mental well-being

It’s cold. It’s grey. It’s dreary. The lights and sparkle of Christmas are gone and the January blues are setting in deeply for many people.

Add to this the uncertainty and upheaval of a COVID-weary world and the political instability of the past two years and we have a recipe for serious mental health challenges among even the most resilient people.

These cold winter months after the holidays are notorious for people self-reporting poor mental health.

But what can you do to be proactive about your mental health? Just like physical wellness, mental wellness requires effort and the two are interrelated.

It’s well known that physical activity is associated with improved mood and feelings of well-being. Numerous studies have shown that exercise boosts mood, lowers stress levels and even improves cognitive functions like attention, memory and problem solving.

For starters, according to a study published in the journal Brain Plasticity, exercise can increase our brains’ production of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine is a chemical associated with motivation, reward and attention and serotonin helps regulate sleep, emotions, and appetite.

But with gyms closed and challenging winter weather, people are tempted to become sedentary at this time of year. You can always bundle up and try out some winter activities like snowshoeing, ice skating, and cross-country skiing.

Local ponds are also frozen so check them out and go for a skate! If you’re not a fan of the cold weather, you can try some indoor exercise. Put some music on and dance with the kids. Play with your pets. Do some intense cleaning and tackle long held off organizing projects.  And good old aerobics in front of the TV are an option, too. YouTube has plenty of free aerobics videos to help you get moving.

With all that activity, you’re going to need some nutritious food to keep you going. And it’s well known that eating healthfully is connected to feelings of well-being.

The diet and mental wellness connection goes far beyond limiting junk food.

There is a lot of emerging research that the gut-brain connection is very powerful. They are physically connected through millions of nerves. There is a large presence of neurotransmitters in the gut, such as serotonin and dopamine, and a whole branch of medicine is devoted to the gut-brain connection, called neurogastroenterology.

Teri Morrow, a Haudenosaunee dietitian, says food plays a vital role in mental well-being.

“Just as the chemical composition of the tears and blood of our ancestors brought forth life here, the chemical composition of the foods we eat today are also just as important in feeding our body and mind so they can work effectively together. Various B vitamins, such as thiamine, riboflavin, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12, help to make DNA, a building block of cellular function, the insulation and covering of our neurons; that help to send messaged from the mind to the body and back efficiently. These messengers are called neurotransmitters and they can change our mood. The mood-altering messengers need vitamin D to help make enzymes that help produce neurotransmitters like dopamine and noradrenaline. When we don’t have enough of these messengers we can develop mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.”

Morrow stresses eating traditional foods as a way to help improve mental well-being.

“Our traditional berries and vegetables produce antioxidants and their job, as delivered in the creation story from Skywoman, help to keep our blood strong and prevent what’s called oxidative stress that can harm our blood. There are microbes in our stomach that help us to break down foods to be used for energy in our body.”

Morrow encourages eating high-fiber foods to keep the gut healthy.

“High-fiber foods support the microbiome-brain-gut-axis that facilitates that communication through hormones between the body and the mind. Aim for 20-30 grams of fibers a day by eating more whole foods and less processed or fast foods that are typically low in nutrients and high in calories. Foundational foods are always important and bringing these traditional foods back to our babies in their first foods and diets is key to encourage their mental health development.”

Fermented foods and foods high in probiotics – “good” bacteria – are also beneficial for gut health. Kefir, a fermented milk drink, is full of billions of gut-healthy probiotics per serving. Yogurt and fermented foods like kimchi, miso and tempeh are also high in good bacteria.

Eating healthfully and getting your body moving are just two lifestyle changes you can make to improve your mental health during these difficult times.

You should also try to maintain contact with friends and family, have a loving animal by your side, set time aside daily for meditation with calming music and candles, and maintain spiritual connections and practices.

Related Posts