Mental Health Hacks
A New Year might be full of opportunity but sometimes it is safe to say that for some of us the enthusiasm to kick start another 365 day cycle is lacking.
Sometimes it can feel like a struggle getting going again and with the dark cold days of winter there is every temptation to want to crawl back to bed and pull the duvet over our eyes. Does that feel familiar?
During the winter our feel-good neurotransmitter called serotonin and the hormone norepinephrine which together with adrenaline increases heart rate and blood pumping from the heart are depleted. This is because the production of these chemicals is partially triggered by light-sensing photoreceptors in the eyes, and as we know in the winter months the light bright days are in short supply.
The state of our mental health defines us. It mobilizes or demobilizes. That is why it is so important to stay on top of it.
As someone who has always found the winter months hard to keep motivated, I am always exploring methods, foods and techniques.
I thought I would talk about some of them here in order of the importance in my own life.
Growing up on an Island the sea has always been a large part of my life and swimming in it very normal. The feeling one got from those swimming experiences was always uplifting, recalibrating and refreshing. Skip forward and I am now living on Dartmoor. Whilst only 40 minutes from the sea it is not possible to have a daily dip so I have been looking for other ways to incorporate the power of cold water into my life. Up until the end of October (just before Wolf was born) my partner and I would go to a favourite river spot in the morning and dunk ourselves before facing the day. I have always found river water even more punchy than the sea due to its lack of salt which has a warming effect on the skin.
More recently I have been fully embracing the Wim Hof Method and changing up the river for cold showers accompanied with deep breathing.
His belief system which I fully resonate with is that over time, our relationship with the world we live in has changed. Our lifestyles have disconnected us from the natural environment. Because of this disconnection, our age-old survival mechanisms are no longer triggered and we’ve lost touch with our inner power. His method is about reconnecting to nature, ourselves and to others.
As mentioned alongside his love of the cold Wim has developed a breathing technique which he claims helps with a huge array of dis-ease due to its anti-inflammatory effects in the body. Where there is inflammation there is usually a lack of oxygen.
This is similar to ancient practice of yogic breathing techniques known as pranayama which has shown to decrease stress, lower blood pressure, and improve immunity.
By utilising cold therapy, breathing techniques and our commitment he claims to have positive effects on Increased energy, Better sleep, Reduced stress levels, Heightened focus & determination Increased willpower, Stronger immune system.
I can definitely vouch for this as can so many of his disciples.
Over the last 5 years I have really become addicted to a good incline. I wanted to understand why it feels so much better to walk a shorter distance on a horizontal than a longer distance on the flat. Whilst I believe there is a mental satisfaction in overcoming the challenge of an incline and from reaching the top of the hill like a metaphor for the challenges, we face in our lives I believe there is also a physical reason I like it. Discussing this with a serious running friend of mine I was informed that uphill walking uses the same motor patterns as running. It places an intensity on the cardiovascular system that is almost the equivalent to running and higher than walking on a flat terrain.
This increased intensity leads to improved heart and lung functioning with a decreased risk of developing heart disease.
If like me you are not a fan of running, this is the perfect middle game. So, I encourage you to find a good hill near you!
Food as Medicine
First thing is first. Keeping your blood sugar level is the first step to maintaining a good mood and reducing the likelihood of feeling tired, irritable and depressed. To do this we must be eating regularly and choosing foods that release energy slowly will help to keep your sugar levels steady.
Now going back to Serotonin which I talked about earlier. Not only does it help you to feel good it helps regulate sleep and appetite, mediate moods, and inhibit pain. About 95% of your serotonin is produced in your gastrointestinal tract, and your gastrointestinal tract is lined with a hundred million nerve cells, or neurons, so it makes sense that your digestive system also guides your emotions. The function of these neurons — and therefore the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin is highly influenced by the billions of “good” bacteria that make up your intestinal microbiome. These bacteria play an essential role in your health helping you to absorb the nutrients from your food and boost your immunity. So when it comes to diet anything we can support a healthy gut is going to help us feel good on all levels.
Kefir and sauerkraut provide beneficial bacteria to support your gut. Gut bacteria need fibre to flourish so apples and peas are good examples providing good insoluble and soluble fibre. Chicory which makes a great addition to salads provides prebiotics to feed the good bacteria. Fatty acids from high quality hemp and olive oil provide potent anti-inflammatory effects to support gut health. One of my favourite snacks is almonds and studies show almonds possess probiotic qualities.
In addition, Vitamin D is crucial for brain development and health so incorporating Vitamin D rich foods into your diet is a great idea. These are foods like egg yolks, oily fish and nettles to regulate mood and stave off those low feelings.
Interestingly areas in the world where they eat a more traditional varied diet which include a lot of fermented foods and no processed foods show a lower rate of mental illness such as depression.
I always think with hacks you want to keep them short and simple so they are memorable and easier to implement.
These are my go-to mood enhancers and feel-good optimizers. The only addition to the above I would make is to not forget to interact with others. We create great things together as a collective, being in community (agreed harder to do of late!) Remembering you are part of a whole is key, we are not on our own. We all have a valuable role to play in the great plan of life even if we might feel like we haven’t discovered what it is yet!