by Diana Arundell – university qualified Naturopath and Nutritionist
Happy days, flat days, dark days, lighter days, curve ball days, ah I actually feel ok again days, alone days, hopeful days… a true roller coaster some days can be and in truth, life can be. In particular, times of uncertainty can be extra challenging for our mental state as our ability to plan and ‘perception’ of controlling outcomes is taken away. Thinking we can actually control anything is a great illusion because the only thing we can control is in fact our choices.
Mental health and sleep are often the casualties of stressful and uncertain times, including enduring the uncertainty felt during a pandemic. Exhaustion, irritability, constant emotional concerns, confusion, inability to relax and ongoing sleep disturbance may be signs that your mental health needs some attention. Our planet is more populated than ever before and we share this world with 7½ billion other people yet many people feel so alone. You are not alone.
The core foundations of good health apply to mental health as much as physical health. The following guidelines will help provide a solid structure for better mental health.
Nutrition is the base foundation to all health
The body needs healthy, nutritionally dense fuel to manufacture hormones and neurotransmitters to help deal with ongoing stress whether it’s physical, mental or emotional stress. Vitamin C and B vitamins are heavily involved in the synthesis and regulation of stress hormones such as adrenaline, nor-adrenaline and cortisol. Magnesium is required for healthy nervous system function and at the same time is utilised at a higher rate when the body is under stress. So the more stressed the body is, the quicker it burns through magnesium and these other vitamin reserves, resulting in less key nutrients available to support a healthy sympathetic nervous system response.
These nutrients are also required by the body to synthesise calming neurotransmitters as part of the parasympathetic nervous system response. So if there’s inadequate ongoing supply of vitamins and minerals coming in, the body will not be able to initiate and sustain a healthy stress response and/or be able to down-regulate to a relaxed state after a period of ongoing stress. A healthy whole food diet will provide staple nutrients for good calming neurotransmitter synthesis which is important for mental health balance. When you’re stressed or experiencing mental health issues, it’s the worst time to eat junk food.
The best way to maintain adequate reserves of all the vitamins and minerals required to support the body during times of stress and support balanced mental health is to keep refuelling with an abundance of fresh vegetables, fruit, lean protein – from both land and sea, including vegetarian sources and complex carbohydrate grains such as brown rice, muesli, quinoa and good quality sour sough bread such as the artisan sourdough found at local markets. If 80% of your plate is vegetables or salad and the rest is good quality lean protein and grains, you’re on the right track. Of course individual dietary requirements such as sensitivities need to be taken into consideration because if certain foods create uncomfortable digestive disturbance such as bloating or pain, they need to be avoided as this can otherwise be a contributing factor to stress on the body.
Substances that will deplete the body further of nutrients as they are either nutrient deplete to start with and the nutritional reserves required to metabolise them outweigh the nutritional content, or because the substance can agitate the nervous system include – processed/refined food, high sugary food, caffeine, salt and alcohol. Eat fresh, eat real food and eat a colourful plate of vegetables and if you can’t eat them, drink them in a juice, smoothie or soup.
Moving the body, stretching muscles/joints, increasing the heart rate and improving circulation is essential for happy and balanced mental health. It is often the thought of exercise that is the biggest resistance and the reality of actually doing it is never as bad as the thought. The happy hormonal reward is worth it and may even leave you wanting to do it again. Move.
Ongoing stress literally changes our body chemistry and is a big driver of mental health issues. Explore the many freely available apps and build a personal resource library of relaxation and meditation, guided visualisation, yoga and breathing techniques.
Set and stick to boundaries with work, family and friends to maintain balance that feels good in your life. This includes taking lunch breaks at work and not continuously working excessive hours at work or at home. You are not what you do, what you have or what you achieve – you are way more than that.
Perception is everything
When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change. This stressful time is a small thread in a large tapestry of your life. The dark threads form part of a greater picture that will make sense one day. Find another thought that feels better, any better feeling thought, or find something to feel grateful for in your life, even just the random smile of a passer by or the ability to smell a flower. Regularly feeling gratitude can help reduce stress and improve wellbeing. Allow a small amount of time to ‘stress out’ then get on with other things, change perception and change momentum.
Your qualified natural medicine health practitioner can support you further with the prescription of herbal medicine and other nutritional supplements to support good production of the precursors to serotonin and GABA which are two important calming neurotransmitters.
Health care is self care. Schedule time for YOU…to do something that brings you joy and truly makes you heart smile. Create, write, sing, dance, paint, garden, listen…give yourself full permission to simply do what makes you happy. Self care is not selfish.
We didn’t sign up to be unhappy and stressed most of the time. Remember how to play and have fun.
When you’re washing dishes wash dishes
Catch your thoughts and find out where you’re mentally spending most of your time. When we spend too much time mentally in the future thinking ‘what if this….? what if that…?’ we will often find ourselves feeling more anxious and worrying a lot. If we spend too much time mentally is the past we often feel guilty ‘if only I had done/said…it would be different’. Catch your thoughts and remind yourself to spend more time in the present moment. This is where you will find freedom. Yes we have to use our mind to plan things in our lives, however spending most of our psychological time in the present moment will create a greater sense of calm, happiness and appreciation.
When feeling stuck in a bad mental state – do something nice for someone else. It will help break the cycle, as will breathing in a sunrise. Be in nature.
Diana Arundell is a university-qualified naturopath and consults from her Avoca Naturopath clinic. She has a special interest in fertility and pregnancy health, digestive health, immune function and family wellness programs. She was a nutrition lecturer at Macquarie University for 10 years, and is an accredited Journey Practitioner. For further information please contact Diana Arundell at Avoca Naturopath on 0410 465 900.