by Tayler Milbury
We learn the value of taking care of our physical health at a young age. When we fall and scrape our knee, we learn the importance of a band-aid to stop the bleeding and prevent infection. As we get slightly older, we become more conscious of our nutrition and incorporate more fruits and vegetables into our diet. In school, we take gym and health classes. As adults, we do our best to stay healthy to minimize the number of pills we need to take. But how much effort do we put into our mental health? Despite being aware of our emotions and difficulties in life, we tend to not spend as much time focusing on the activities we can pursue to lower our risk of developing mental illnesses or neurodegenerative diseases. We hear people talk about incorporating walks and a healthy diet into their daily routines to lower the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, but how often do we hear people using physical activity and nutrition to protect themselves from depression or Alzheimer’s disease? What if the same activity could protect both our physical and mental health? What we eat and our level of physical activity can not only improve our physical health but also have positive effects on our brains and therefore our mental health, if we consume the right vitamins and nutrients and engage in specific exercise for a certain amount of time.
Chemical messengers called neurotransmitters allow communication to take place between the cells in our brain. For example, when a cell releases a neurotransmitter, these messengers may tell another cell to increase its function or to slow down. One of the many neurotransmitters in our brains is called serotonin, which plays a role in various functions, such as mood, sleep, and appetite. When it comes to our mood, we often feel elevated when our serotonin levels are high; on the other hand, low levels of serotonin have been linked to depression. What’s interesting is that what we eat can affect the amount of serotonin in our brain. This is because serotonin is made from tryptophan which can be consumed through protein-rich foods like eggs, salmon, turkey, and nuts and seeds. In addition, research has shown that omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish oil, have improved mood disorders as well. This doesn’t mean that eating certain foods will completely cure a mood disorder; however, we can do what we can to make small changes to support our health.
As we age, areas of our brain, like those involved in attention and memory, are prone to deterioration. Research has provided evidence to suggest that aerobic exercise for a minimum of 30 minutes, three to four times a week, can promote the growth of new brain cells in these areas that are susceptible to neurodegeneration, and therefore can help to protect us against Alzheimer’s disease and other decline in cognition. To learn about the research being done on this topic, check out these TedTalks called The Brain-Changing Benefits of Exercise by Wendy Suzuki and Snack on Exercise: Boost Your Mind, Body and Mood by Lauren Parsons. Focusing on the more immediate effects of exercise, research has indicated that a single workout can quickly boost your mood, as well as attention and reaction time, by releasing dopamine and serotonin.
At times, starting a new exercise regimen or changing the foods we eat can seem like daunting tasks, but we don’t have to go to the extreme at the beginning to improve our health. Instead, gradually making small, consistent changes in your daily routine can pay off. This could mean that you take the stairs instead of an elevator or put on some music and dance while folding laundry. When it comes to food, shift your focus away from counting calories and instead examine the types and amounts of vitamins and nutrients you are getting from what you eat throughout the day. Food fuels our bodies, so we want to make sure we’re giving ourselves what we need.
TEDx Talks. (2020, April 15). Feed Your Mental Health | Drew Ramsay [Video}. YouTube. https://youtu.be/BbLFsQubdtw
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