by Valueris Provider Bethany Carter MN, PMHNP-BC
Lifestyle Modification for Optimal Mental Wellness
Finding meaning in day-to-day living creates joy and accomplishment. Life without a goal ends up being just a random series of tasks that often leaves people feeling unproductive, disconnected, bitter or callous with society. Having a way to contribute can result in feeling useful, satisfaction, and building the virtue of care. Purpose can take many forms: contributing to the work through your work, raising healthy children, bringing kindness or understanding to the world through your daily interactions. Take some time to think about this, we often have a purpose in life that we have been unconsciously working toward without realizing it!
Mindfulness is a term that means developing the ability to be present in the moment, not focused on what might happen in the future or dwelling on what has already taken place. There are many ways to work on developing this skill; activities that require focus like drawing or building models, prayer, meditation, or keeping a gratitude journal, where you daily reflect on at least one thing in your life for which you are grateful. There are many mindfulness or meditation apps available. Any activity where you decide what your brain will be thinking about and keep redirecting your thoughts back to that is mindfulness. Daily practice of this type will become easier over time. In the beginning, 2-3 minutes may seem like a long time, but 5 minutes devoted to some mindfulness activity daily is a good goal. The ongoing attempt is what’s important here, not how successful you feel at doing it.
“Consistency and light are the keys to having regular restful sleep patterns.”
3. Social Connections
Humans have evolved as social beings. Forming relationships with other people was important to our ancestors in order to survive and prosper. In our times where we don’t necessarily need the safety and power of tribal memberships, an inability or avoidance socializing or having relationships can lead to isolation, loneliness, and depression. People who socialize more frequently live longer, have fewer health problems, and are happier. If you have a limited social group try taking a community or college class, joining a book or gardening club, gym, or sports group, even having conversations with people you meet in the grocery store or post office to building these skills and develop an interest in other people. Daily social interaction in meeting, calling, or texting at least one family member or friend for non-work-related interaction is a good beginning goal for improving mental health.
Research shows exercise is more effective than any antidepressant for increasing mood. Given your physical capabilities, consider the following types of exercise: walking, jogging, hiking, biking, swimming, weight lifting, aerobics, water aerobics, and all types of sports. Before deciding on the type of exercise you’ll be doing, be sure to consider any necessary modifications based on your health or physical restrictions. Thirty minutes of exercise three times a week is a good goal to begin with.
Data shows that sleep is incredibly important to mental and physical health. Consistency and light are the keys to having regular restful sleep patterns. Here are some tips for improving sleep:
Everything we take into our bodies is the components our body has to build all our tissues, neurotransmitters, and hormones. It is also the source of potential side effects including excess fatty tissues and plaques in arteries and veins, allergens and toxins, as well as the inflammation that is a contributing factor to countless disorders and diseases. A healthy diet, balanced vitamin and minerals, and therapeutic medication can be part of nourishment for optimal mental health. Keeping a daily journal with a diet log that includes medication changes and substance use can be very helpful in tracking how nutrition influences mood and mental health.
The MIND diet stands for the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. Many experts regard the Mediterranean and DASH diets as some of the healthiest. Research has shown they can lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and several other diseases. MIND is based on these and is a diet designed specifically to help improve brain function and prevent dementia. Currently, there are no set guidelines for how to follow the MIND diet. Simply eat more of the 10 foods the diet encourages you to eat, and eat less of the five foods the diet recommends you limit.
Here are the 10 foods the MIND diet encourages:
5 foods to avoid:
Vitamins, herbs, supplements: Some supplements have been shown to improve mental health. Some recommendations from Harvard Medical School are:
Vitamins B, D and iron are frequently deficient in adults. It’s a good idea to have labs run to check levels of important vitamins and minerals to see if supplementation might be helpful for you.
Folic acid for depression. The dosage of L-methylfolate (Deplin) is usually 15 milligrams (mg) per day when combined with antidepressants. Do not take more than the safe upper limit of 1,000 mcg of folic acid per day. Has not been shown to be effective taken on its own.
Omega-3 fatty acids occur in cold-water fish such as salmon, sardines, and anchovies and can be purchased in fish oil capsules. Look for supplements that contain both EPA and DHA. It has been found to improve bipolar depression and major depression as well as protecting against heart disease. Like the American Heart Association (which recommends omega-3 fats as a good way to protect against heart disease), the American Psychiatric Association recommends that all adults consume fish at least twice a week. Individuals with mood, impulse control, or psychotic disorders should take a daily 1- to 2-gram supplement containing both EPA and DHA. Don’t exceed 3 grams per day.
Melatonin is a hormone that regulates circadian rhythms in the body, such as the sleep/wake cycle. It can improve sleep quality and may be an alternative to drugs for those with sleep problems. Dosages of 0.25 to 0.3 mg per day can improve sleep.
Other substances: Substances frequently used for self-medication that have questionable value to mental health include tobacco, alcohol, cannabis, methamphetamine, or other recreational drugs. For the most part, these substances can increase depression and anxiety, increase inflammation, increase risk of psychosis and early dementia, and should be avoided. If you are currently using any of these substances, try to reduce or keep intake consistent to avoid spikes of side effects. Your care provider can also speak with you about ways to quit using any of these substances if you are interested in cessation.
Medications: Prescription medications for mental health issues are designed to treat symptoms that are problematic. Most need to be taken regularly as prescribed to be effective. Finding the right balance of effective treatment and fewest side effects can take some time in working with a medical provider.
Tracking or logging these practices can be very helpful to track what you are actually doing versus what you think you’re doing and to chart your progress. There are many apps available for tracking mood, diet, and health in general, as well as simply writing down information you would like to chart. It probably took years to develop any patterns you would like to change, so be patient and kind to yourself in building new habits. Congratulate yourself for your attempts to grow and change while recognizing opportunities for improvement or consistency. Striving to become better is a gift you give to your future self.
Harvard Medical School, Harvard Mental Health Letter, Natural supplements for Mental Health, October, 2011
Tufts University Health and Wellness Letter, June 2018
WILD5 Wellness Program, S & R Jain