You would be amazed by the way in which eating the right foods and getting the proper amount of exercise per day will positively affect your mental health. I have found that many of my individual counseling clients who suffer from anxiety and depression are often unaware of this connection.
I bring this up in individual counseling sessions when appropriate, and it typically sparks a great conversation surrounding taking better care of oneself, which includes what and how often you eat. Exercise also has huge benefits for mental health and helps people feel better, both mentally and physically.
I personally find that when I eat small, healthy, well-balanced meals throughout the day, get at least 30-60 minutes of exercise, and stimulate my brain mentally, whether by reading, writing, or talking to clients, I tend to have a fabulous day and feel amazing all around.
Funny how that works, right? I mean, who has the time in the day to take care of all of this, especially if you’re married, a mom, and working? But I can tell you all, it is very possible. It’s called self-care, and it’s about stopping to realize that your health is just as important as your family’s health. In this case, that famous saying rings true: “If Mom’s not happy, then nobody is!”
Eat a Well-Balanced Diet
Let’s start with discussing the healthy, well-balanced food groups from which you should be eating and what foods you should consume. I’ll begin by stating what amount of protein you should consume on a typical day:
You need protein for your muscles, bones, and the rest of your body. Exactly how much you need changes with age.
Here are approximate amounts of protein needed per day:
- Babies: 10 grams
- School-age kids: 19-34 grams
- Teenage boys: Up to 52 grams
- Teenage girls: 46 grams
- Adult men: 56 grams
- Adult women: 46 grams (71 grams, if pregnant or breastfeeding)
You should get at least 10% of your daily calories, but not more than 35%, from protein, according to the Institute of Medicine.
Hydration is equally important for your overall health. According to WebMD, “Eight glasses (8 ounces each), or two quarts, is a good rule of thumb; however, new recommendations suggest using thirst as the guideline for how much fluid to drink each day. Individual fluid needs vary from person to person. Pay attention to thirst, as well as the color and odor of your urine. Dry mouth and concentrated (dark) urine are good indicators that you need more fluids. Dry environments, heat, and physical activity, especially during warm weather, all increase hydration needs. Both young children and older adults are more vulnerable to dehydration. Keep in mind your body constantly loses water as it evaporates from your skin. Individuals with larger body surfaces and those who perspire more will lose greater amounts of water through evaporation in a typical day.”
How many grains should you include in your daily diet? Here is the answer, according to the USDA:
“For a 2,000-calorie diet, the USDA recommends a total of 6 ounces of grains each day. One ounce is about a slice of bread, or 1/2 cup of rice or pasta. This means that you need 3 ounces or more of whole grains per day.”
Fruit and Vegetables
“According to the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, you should consume between five and 13 servings of fruits and vegetables each day. This is equivalent to about 2 1/2 to 6 1/2 cups daily, depending on the amount of calories you need to consume for your weight and level of activity.”
Aim for 3 dairy servings (about 3 cups) of low-fat milk products each day. Low-fat dairy products include 2%, 1%, or skim (fat-free) milk.
Fitness guru Jillian Michaels has personally experienced the way food and diet affect mental health. She writes, “What you put into your body not only affects your physical well-being, but it can also impact your overall psychological well-being. Foods influence mood and contribute to the experience of both positive and negative feelings. Therefore, making healthy food choices can contribute to a variety of improvements to your overall mental and psychological state.”
Reducing Mental Illness
Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet has been shown to impact a number of mental health conditions positively. Healthy eating can help reduce depression symptoms, reduce the chances of bipolar episodes, reduce anxiety and reduce the negative symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Eating regular, healthy meals can keep blood sugar levels steady, which can reduce the dips in mood associated with depression and anxiety. Also, a diet that is based on healthy eating will limit the sugar intake, which will keep sugar-induced spikes in energy from triggering episodes of mania.
The symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder can be reduced by healthy eating, because low sugar diets and diets comprised of healthy vegetables and fruits can help improve concentration and reduce hyperactivity. In addition, a healthy diet will keep alcohol intake to a minimum, which will help reduce all these mental health symptoms. Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder can all be triggered or worsened by alcohol intake.
Eating a healthy diet can boost your energy levels. Energy can improve your mood and make you feel better about yourself. Unhealthy foods, such as those high in sugar and refined grains, provide an increase in energy levels that dip shortly after they spike. After eating these foods, you will experience short bursts of energy, but they will not be sustained, and then you will feel fatigued. Eating healthy foods will keep your energy levels up. Some energy-sustaining healthy foods include fruits, vegetables, whole grain pastas, brown rice, whole grain bread, lean animal-based proteins and plant-based proteins, such as beans and nuts.
Keep Your Brain Sharp
The nutrition in healthy foods can help maintain healthy brain activity. The Diet Channel website reports that healthy eating can keep your brain functioning at its highest potential. According to CNN, eating certain foods can help boost your brain function. Consuming chocolate, grape juice, extra virgin olive oil, apples, and spinach have all been shown to help ward off some cognitive decline and improve memory. Keeping your brain sharp and active can make you feel better about your abilities as you age and will help you remain active, which can reduce your chances of experiencing depression.
Boost Your Self-Esteem
Opting for foods that are healthy and nutritious can give you a sense of control and allow you to feel proud of yourself. Also, making healthy food choices can induce weight loss, which may result in positive feelings about yourself if you feel that your appearance has improved.
Fascinating stuff, right? I find it amazing that so many people, myself included, can tend to forget this on a daily basis. What you eat, how much you exercise, and what you read, watch, etc. all affect your overall physical and mental health state. Your body is a temple and it is vital to respect and take care of that temple, like you would anything that you value.
We care about what our children eat and how much exercise they get, correct? So we should take the same kind of time and attention to do this for ourselves. You have to know that you are important enough to take care of, because no one else will do this for you.
How Exercise Affects Mental Health
Let’s switch gears and focus on exercise and its effects on your mental health state. Whatever you find enjoyable that is active can count towards your exercise for the day. I tell my clients to find something they enjoy and go with that, whether it’s cardio kickboxing, weight training, running, playing sports, or taking a 20-30 minute walk everyday.
Here is some research based on the positive effects of exercise on anxiety:
“Researchers have also explored exercise as a tool for treating – and perhaps preventing – anxiety. When we’re spooked or threatened, our nervous systems jump into action, setting off a cascade of reactions such as sweating, dizziness, and a racing heart. People with heightened sensitivity to anxiety respond to those sensations with fear. They’re also more likely to develop panic disorder down the road,” says Jasper Smits, PhD, Co-Director of the Anxiety Research and Treatment Program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and co-author of the book, “Exercise for Mood and Anxiety: Proven Strategies for Overcoming Depression and Enhancing Well-being.”
Smits reasoned that regular workouts might help people prone to anxiety become less likely to panic when they experience those fight-or-flight sensations. After all, the body produces many of the same physical reactions – heavy perspiration, increased heart rate – in response to exercise. They tested their theory among 60 volunteers with heightened sensitivity to anxiety. Subjects who participated in a two-week exercise program showed significant improvements in anxiety sensitivity compared with a control group (Depression and Anxiety, 2008). “Exercise in many ways is like exposure treatment,” says Smits. “People learn to associate the symptoms with safety instead of danger.”
Buffering the Brain
“It’s also unclear exactly how moving your muscles can have such a significant effect on mental health. ‘Biochemically, there are many things that can impact mood. There are so many good, open questions about which mechanisms contribute the most to changes in depression,’ says de Groot. Some researchers suspect exercise alleviates chronic depression by increasing serotonin (the neurotransmitter targeted by antidepressants) or brain-derived neurotrophic factor (which supports the growth of neurons). Another theory suggests exercise helps by normalizing sleep, which is known to have protective effects on the brain.
There are psychological explanations, too. Exercise may boost a depressed person’s outlook by helping him return to meaningful activity and providing a sense of accomplishment. Then there’s the fact that a person’s responsiveness to stress is moderated by activity. ‘Exercise may be a way of biologically toughening up the brain so stress has less of a central impact,’ Otto says. It’s likely that multiple factors are at play. ‘Exercise has such broad effects that my guess is that there are going to be multiple mechanisms.’ Evidence is mounting for the benefits of exercise, yet psychologists don’t often use exercise as part of their treatment arsenal. Here’s more research on why they should” (from an article by Kirsten Weir in the December 2011 issue of the American Psychological Association).
If you’re still not convinced that diet and exercise play a vital role in sustaining a positive mental health state, then I don’t know that anything will convince you! You are important, your mental and physical health is important, and God wants you to take care of yourself. I will end with some Scripture passages to encourage you to realize that God wants you to be healthy, happy, and thrive in a way that is very possible. You must be the driver, though, and take charge of your life by eating healthy, exercising regularly, and reading/writing/talking to keep your brain and body healthy and active.
“Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.” – 1 Corinthians 9:26-27
“He gives power to the faint, abundant strength to the weak. Though young men faint and grow weary, and youths stagger and fall, they that hope in the LORD will renew their strength, they will soar on eagles’ wings; They will run and not grow weary, walk and not grow faint.” – Isaiah 40:29-31
“I can do all things in Him who strengthens me.” – Philippians 4:13
“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore, glorify God in your body.” – 1 Corinthians 6:19-20
“A wise man is full of strength, and a man of knowledge enhances his might.” “She girds herself with strength; she exerts her arms with vigor.” – Proverbs 24:5, 31:17
“Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one.” – 1 Corinthians 9:25
“I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” – 2 Timothy 4:7
Individual Counseling Can Help
I encourage anyone reading this today to get up, go walk, run, talk to a doctor or nutritionist about your diet, read, write, talk to a friend, family member, or call a counselor for help. I am here to help you walk through life’s struggles and get to a healthy, happy state of mind and body. Please call me if you are struggling and I hope to be of service to help you get the life back that you deserve and God wants you to have.
“Cook Islands,” courtesy of Robert Linsdell, Flickr Creative Commons; “Gentle Exercise,” courtesy of Garry Knight, Flickr Creative Commons; “Sunset Jump,” courtesy of Mikaku, Flickr Creative Commons; “Conqueror,” courtesy of KBH Auckland, Flickr Creative Commons