Published: 18 May 2022. Written by: Laura Potter.
You probably already know that mindfulness, journaling and breathwork can help your mental health. And there are plenty more simple things you can do to give it a boost. Here are some holistic health hacks that can improve your mental health.
You may already use a mindfulness app to help you deal with stress, and keep a gratitude diary to help you feel more positive about things. But nutrition and movement also have big roles to play when it comes to your mental wellbeing.
‘Emotional wellbeing is as much anchored in our physiology and our nervous system as it is what happens in the mind,’ says Suzy Reading, Psychologist, qualified Personal Trainer and Yoga Teacher. ‘There’s no separation between mind and body – health is health.’
What is holistic healthcare?
If you think of your mind and your body as two separate entities: stop. They are intrinsically linked, and both need nourishing.
Reading gives this example: ‘If you’re hungry, there isn’t just a physical response – it affects your decision-making, willpower and even your sense of humour.’
So, if you nourish yourself with the right kinds of foods, you can also influence your mood. ‘Eating more nutritionally dense foods can lead you to feel more positive, as well as having higher energy, clearer thinking, and calmer moods,’ says Rhiannon Lambert, Registered Nutritionist and founder of Rhitrition.
Movement is also key, as Jonathan Kibble, Head of Exercise & Physical Activity at Vitality, points out. ‘Self-care can be perceived as things like having a bath, meditation or journalling, but it’s simply looking after yourself – and doing exercise you enjoy is part of that.’
Feeding your social appetite is another part of the puzzle. ‘Connection is just as important as having food in our bellies, because we’re social animals,’ says Reading.
That doesn’t have to mean constantly socialising in person, it’s about creating shared experiences. ‘I do Wordle every day with my mum – who’s on the other side of the world. It’s a small ritual that gives us a means to come together,’ says Reading, who also recommends listening to podcasts around a theme that we find personally galvanising, to remind us that we aren’t alone.
None of this replaces seeing your GP if you need to, but taking positive actions to improve your wellbeing every day can be empowering. So, if a stressful meeting has left you with a tension headache, or you’re lacking energy following a nasty cold, here’s a toolkit you can use to soothe and re-energise yourself.
If you’re stressed, practise yoga
‘Yoga is a beautiful distraction from unhelpful thoughts,’ says Reading. Rather than doing a hot or vigorous form of yoga, choose something ‘softer’. ‘This will stimulate the vagus nerve, which moves our nervous system into rest-and-digest mode, as opposed to fight-or-flight,’ says Reading.
Doing yoga is also good for building your confidence. ‘Things like yoga, Pilates and strength exercises, whether with weights or using your bodyweight, improve your flexibility, mobility and strength, and seeing your progress is empowering,’ says Kibble.
If you’re feeling down, feed your gut
When we’re nervous, we get butterflies, and when we’re excited, our tummy does cartwheels. This is thanks to the gut-brain axis, which is like a ‘conversation’ between the two. ‘95% of serotonin is produced in the gut, and this so-called “happy hormone” is responsible for many psychological functions, including regulating mood,’ says Lambert.
Therefore, to improve low mood, it’s often a good idea to nourish your gut. Lambert has four rules for keeping it happy:
- Include 30+ plant foods a week Enjoy a wide variety of different fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, wholegrains, herbs and spices, and beans and pulses.
- Eat the rainbow Different coloured plants will provide different natural chemicals, such as vitamins, minerals and antioxidant polyphenols, which protect your cells against damage.
- Include fermented foods These contain live microbes that contribute to a healthy gut microbiome, and contain plenty of useful nutrients – think tempeh (pressed soybeans), sauerkraut (fermented cabbage), kimchi (a Korean vegetable pickle) and kefir (a fermented milk drink).
- Avoid or restrict certain foods Cut down on alcohol, highly processed foods, salt, added sugar and artificial sweeteners, which can negatively influence the gut microbiome.
If you’re feeling powerless, try boxing
The idea of a high-energy boxing class when you feel hampered or constrained feels right – and there’s a good reason why.
‘Think about emotions as having an energetic charge: if something sad happens and you stifle tears, that emotion doesn’t disappear, it’s held in the body,’ says Reading. ‘We need to find ways of moving through the energetic charge of our feelings, literally dissipating them. With boxing, you can channel that energy – it’s cathartic and you’re also building a skill, so it’s empowering.’
If you’re feeling lethargic, eat brain-boosting foods
Make sure to include coloured veggies, oily fish, wholegrains, nuts and dark chocolate in your diet consistently – particularly when life is grinding you down and depleting your mental and emotional capacity.
‘These foods are commonly found within the Mediterranean diet and are rich in polyphenols and polyunsaturated fats like omega-3s, which have been associated with better brain health,’ says Lambert.
Then there’s the fibre effect. ‘Fibre helps gut bacteria to thrive and produces anti-inflammatory short-chain fatty acids that are essential for better mental health.’ A recent study backs this up: people who ate a Mediterranean-style diet were more likely to stay mentally sharp in later life, achieving higher scores on a range of memory and thinking tests in their late 70s.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a walk
Ever heard the phrase ‘go touch some grass’? It’s a nudge to get away from screens and go outside for the sake of your mental wellbeing.
‘Technology is dominating our lives and our poor nervous systems are frazzled,’ says Reading. ‘Even Instagram has gone from being mainly silent, beautiful images to flashy, noisy reels. It’s sensory overload, and we need to wrench ourselves away.’
A walk is the perfect antidote. ‘Walking is freeing, and it encourages us to tap into greater creativity and problem-solving, and to find greater clarity.’ We’ve all done it – felt utterly consumed by an unanswerable question, gone for a walk and come home with the solution – that’s because our mind and body are getting nourished by the same practice. Try it!
Rhiannon Lambert is the author of Sunday Times bestseller The Science of Nutrition, and host of the podcast Food for Thought. Follow her on social media @rhitrition.
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