It comes as common sense to us that looking after our body is good for our physical health. Exercising and eating well cut our risk of developing chronic illness such as heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes. So going back to the old saying, 'healthy body, healthy mind', doesn't it stand to reason that these same lifestyle choices can also help you to stay mentally healthy?
It may feel like the most difficult thing in the world to motivate yourself when you're depressed or anxious , but there is growing evidence that it could be the best thing for you. Better ,even, than medication.
Numerous studies have found that doing regular exercise, (at least 3 times a week), cuts the risk of developing mental illness significantly, even for people who have suffered in the past. It is also increasingly being prescribed as treatment for sufferers of mild to moderate depression, and has been found in studies to have greater success than anti depressants when used alongside therapy such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT).
Exercise produces endorphins (the happy hormone), increases the overall level of serotonin in the brain, and tires our body out making it easier to sleep at night.
You don't have to be sweating it our in the gym every day, but even going out for a brisk half an hour walk a few times a week can make a big difference.
2) The Great Outdoors
Vitamin D, 'the sunshine vitamin', has been described by scientists as one of the most important, but most overlooked vitamins in existence. A low level of vitamin D in your bloodstream has been linked to depressive and schizophrenic symptoms, as well as a whole range of physical illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, and osteoporosis.
The good news is the best way for our bodies to absorb vitamin D is as simple as spending time outdoors in the sunshine. It doesn't have to be bright summer sun, the most important thing is that at the least your face, hands and arms are exposed as we absorb vitamin D through our skin.
Scientists who study Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D) have found that the most important time to get sunlight is in the morning, as natural light in the morning is linked to your circadian rhythm which tells your body clock when to start.
We all know that this may not always be possible, so thankfully there are alternatives in the form of Vitamin D tablets or Full Spectrum Sunlight lamp, that mimic the light produced by the sun, and have been found to have almost the same effect as natural sunlight.
3) Brain Food
Alongside Vitamin D being essential for your mental health, there are a number of other vitamins that have been found to cut your risk of developing depression and anxiety.
Leafy greens such as spinach, broccoli and kale are great because they contain vitamin B-12 which can alleviate depressive symptoms, and folates which have been found to increase the responsiveness of anti depressant medication. Omega 3 found in oily fish has been found to improve cognitive function and focus, whilst shrimp, and cod contain iodine which helps to regulate your thyroid, responsible for maintaining energy levels. Brazil nuts are a good source of selenium which also helps to regulate the thyroid.
For women especially, a lack of iron can be a problem, making you feel tired, irritable and unfocused. Red meat, fish and poultry are the best sources of iron.
Its not always practical to fit all of these foods into your daily diet, but supplements can be found easily and cheaply on the high street.
It may seem surprising that something as simple as your morning latte could have an impact on your mental health, but a recent Harvard study found that drinking between 2 and 4 cups a day cuts the risk of suicide by up to 50%, as well as the overall risk of developing depression. The effects of coffee act as a mild antidepressant increasing hormones such as serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenalin. So that cup of coffee or two in the morning could be just what you need to stay on track!
However it has also been warned that those who drink 8 cups or more may actually be increasing their risk of mental illness and other physical health problems.
For those suffering from depression or anxiety, having a pet might just be able to ease some of the overwhelming feelings you are having.
At a time when you're feeling low and vulnerable, interacting with animals (that's if you like animals of course) can be easier than interacting with people. They give you constant companionship without using up lots of energy. They also give you a structure to your day. Being forced to take the dog for walk, or go out to buy cat food, means you have to go outside adding the double benefit of exercise and sunshine mentioned previously.
Chemically, interaction with pets has been proved to increase levels of happiness hormones dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins, as well as lower levels of Cortisol, the hormone responsible for stress. It provides you with an invaluable bond at a time when you may be feeling very lonely.
Being creative can be a good outlet and focus for a busy or clouded mind, and is increasingly used as a form of therapy for many forms of mental illness.
Creating art, theatre, music or writing, can help you to express something that you can't put into words, and unload some of the ruminating thoughts. It has been proven to be particularly successful in treating Post Traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD), as it helps the individual express feelings, or experiences that they have repressed.
Even the act of just passively listening to pleasant music has been found to decrease stress and anxiety levels and lower blood pressure.
The mind is highly complex, and by no means am I saying that following these six steps will prevent you from becoming mentally ill, nor am I saying are they are a miracle cure for those suffering. But combined with other methods and therapies, it is clear that lifestyle choices are very important in maintaining a healthy mind.