A Simple Recipe for Mental Health: 3 Key Ingredients

by Dr. Wendy Sims

Next time you are grocery shopping, notice a marketing trend in nutritional bars being proudly advertised with only 3 ingredients printed on the front. No need to turn it over to read the fine print that is jumbled together with long names we can’t even pronounce, much less know what they are. Can it be possible to have flavor and not taste like cardboard with so few ingredients and no added sugar? Yes, they actually taste good and the best part is feeling we did something healthy for our physical selves.

We can take that same concept, natural and simple, and apply it to our mental health. The three-ingredient combination for mental health is nutrition, exercise and sleep. The natural sweetener for this recipe that sticks it all together is repeating nutrition, exercise and sleep until you get a routine. Developing a daily routine of when we eat, move and rest syncs our natural rhythm and allows our bodies and minds to better predict when things need to happen and provides reassurance that they will happen. Then our biology will do its part and balance the chemicals that allow for more stable feelings and thoughts.

Nutrition—Food to Improve Your Mood:

Our bodies and minds use energy supplied by food to function and carry out daily activities. Choosing healthy eating patterns has shown to improve mood, lower inflammation, enhance our ability to think clearly and quickly, increase energy, and prevent or manage many chronic diseases such as keeping blood sugar level and lowering risk for heart disease. Blood sugar is a good example of how food can impact mood (too low and you might experience anxiety, too high and you might experience aggression.) Add a meal to your morning caffeine habit as breakfast is linked to dopamine levels, the chemical that helps us feel pleasure and reward.

Exercise—Activity to Boost Your Energy:

People looking for relief from depression, anxiety, or just feeling overwhelmed can find relief in exercise without having to worry about side effects from medications. One widely studied and accepted theory of depression is insufficient chemicals in our brain. During exercise our brain gets a boost of endorphins (serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine). These endorphins have documented benefits of enhancing mood, sleep, memory, focus, concentration, self-esteem, lowering inflammation, and even decreasing pain we feel. There are a variety of options for exercise. You have to be willing to try more than one form of exercise until you find the activity that keeps you motivated.

Sleep—Rest for Refueling:

It’s easy to understand how sleep can be a low priority in today’s fast paced world where we have constant access to streaming news and entertainment, not to mention daily demands of work, family and social obligations we push ourselves to meet. Sleep is crucial for mood stabilization, memory, focus, learning, attention, strengthen the immune system, longevity, reducing inflammation, energy and stamina, and maintaining healthy weight. That’s a convincing list, but if you need one more reason to build sleep into the routine all of these benefits could mean fewer behavioral accidents because we are sharper when we are adequately rested. The recommendation is 7 to 9 hours and that will vary from person to person. The importance is to find how many hours you need to feel your best and stick to the schedule.

Once you fill your cup with nutrition, exercise and sleep then you can start adding additional components. No, you are not at the yogurt bar trying to decide will it be coconut flakes, dried fruits, chocolate chips, or candy! Mental well-being will require you to add socialization, meaningful work or volunteering, and mindfulness to name a few. The key is first to get the consistency and foundation solid by repeating the routine of nutrition, exercise and sleep.

If you would like support in practicing these aspects of self-care or counseling to further alleviate any issues related to mood or anxiety, please contact MedPsych at 941-363-0878 for comprehensive mental health care.

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