There is a lot you can change within your own life that will help your mind to stay sharp. How you look after your physical health will affect your mind so changing things such as your diet, exercise, sleep and choices will all help to keep you well and reduce your risk of mental ill-health. Have a read and see what changes you could make.
Our body and mind are linked so how healthy you are physically has a direct influence on how healthy you are mentally.
One of the big players in this relationship is stress. If you are very stressed on a regular basis you can develop the symptom effects of ‘allostatic load’. This means that because of your constant stress, your body’s systems (organs, tissues, hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine) involved in the stress response become damaged over time, which can lead to disease over longer time periods (McEwan, 1998).
This weakens our immune systems so we’re more likely to suffer more often from coughs and colds and sometimes more serious complaints. Also if you’re stressed you’re more likely to have problems with sleep, are more likely to use alcohol and drugs, have a poor diet, and not exercise, which all reduce your mental and physical health further (Kiecolt-Glaser & Glaser 1988). This is why managing stress in our lives is so important.
Mental health problems
If you have a more serious mental health problem you may be at a greater risk of physical health problems. Research has linked depressive symptoms with some of the most common serious health problems in the UK, including: heart disease; cancer risk; risk of osteoporosis (weak bones) in women; and general ill-health from increasing pain and disability (Kiecolt-Glaser et al, 2002).
Anxiety has also been linked to the development of heart disease and risk of heart attacks in some groups of people (Kiecolt-Glaser et al).
Mental health medications
The side effects of certain medications used to treat mental illness (such as antipsychotics or antidepressants) can also have an impact on our physical health. Medications can sometimes have side-effects such as movement disorders, reduced sexual function or weight gain. It is important to be aware of any changes in your physical health if you have a mental health problem or take medication. There is much you can do to look after your physical health which will enhance your mental health; and vice versa.
Of course this relationship works both ways and our physical health can affect our mental state and how we feel and think about things too.
Being physically unwell
Having a physical illness can get in the way of work or school, your relationships with other people and your social life. Being unwell or having treatment can be stressful which can leave us more prone to anxiety and depression. Being unwell can make us feel angry and frustrated, worried about our health, our future and sad that we can’t do things we would usually do. If you have a serious or long-term illness these emotions can be even more intense and you may feel isolated or that you are losing your control of your life. These situations can have a big impact on your emotional wellbeing and mental health.
Exercise is a great way to improve your physical and mental health and really does help some mental health problems.
Why should I bother?
- Exercise helps to reduce our stress levels and their damaging effects on the body
- Exercise can give you a sense of power over your own recovery, which at the same time may lessen any feelings of hopelessness often experienced in problems like depression.
- Exercise helps use up the adrenaline released in the "fight or flight" response by our autonomic nervous system and relaxes the muscles, while strengthening the heart and improving blood circulation.
- Exercise can help raise your self-esteem, reduce sleep problems, improve memory and concentration, take your mind off negative thoughts as well as reduce feelings of anxiety and depression.
- Exercise is a recommended treatment for depression and has been shown to be as effective in treating depression as medication or psychotherapy.
- Exercise is holistic and can be used to treat a mix of physical and mental health problems.
- You might prefer exercise as it has less stigma than medication or therapy.
- Exercise is a sustainable behaviour change. Once you’ve learnt it you can fit it into an overall healthy lifestyle.
- Exercise has a number of coincidental benefits, including reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, some cancers, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis and obesity (Mental Health Foundation, 2005).
- Exercise is a popular treatment– in one survey, 85 % of people with mental health problems who used exercise as a treatment said they found it helpful (Mental Health Foundation, 2005).
- Doing exercise has been associated with reduced anxiety, decreased depression, enhanced mood, improved self-worth and body image, as well as increasing positive thinking (Mental Health Foundation, 2005).
- It can be fun and if you join a class or group you can also meet new people.
- It’s a great excuse to have some time to yourself.
- It can also be relaxing and fun – find a friend to exercise with and set yourself goals to stay healthy.
- It’s a good way to try something a bit different. Have a go at Krav Maga, street dance, parkour, break dancing, swimming, basketball or skateboarding.
- It can be free! If you live in Birmingham you may be eligible for their passport to leisure scheme, to receive discounted or free exercise and leisure activities - find out more at the Birmingham Council website
Exercise doesn’t have to be intense; just walking everyday can make a massive difference to your mood. You should be aiming for about 30 minutes on most days of the week.
We all know that eating healthily can ward off physical illnesses such as obesity, strokes, heart-attacks and type 2 diabetes but did you know that the same is true for our mental health? When things get too hectic and you feel stressed it's easy to forget about what you eat. However, what we eat, and when, can make a big difference.
What foods keep my mind healthy?
We have these brief tips on keeping your mind in check.
- Eat regularly throughout the day to stay alert, active and on-form
- Don’t miss out on meals, especially breakfast
- Try to eat 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day, but more if you can
- Choose less refined high sugar foods and drinks to avoid weight gain
- Include protein at each meal (from fish, meats, cheese or nuts)
- Eat wholegrain cereals and bread
- Include oily fish (omega 3 fatty acids) in your diet to keep your brain and joints healthy
- Drink at least 8 glasses of water a day to stay hydrated and keep your skin young
- Don’t overdo it on the salt; only have 6 grams a day max
- Don’t overdo it on the booze; stay within recommended limits
- Don’t rush your meals, take time to think about and enjoy what you're eating. Be mindful
- Check out sites such as NHS Live Well for information on eating well including the recommended amounts of fat, salt and sugar you need as well as shopping on a budget and recipe ideas
Getting enough sleep is important to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Find out more about sleep.
- Wilson et al (2010) British Association for Psychopharmacology consensus statement on evidence-based treatment of insomnia, parasomnias and circadian rhythm disorders
- Choice and Medication (2013) Melatonin