Lifestyle Choices that Impact Mental Health, Part 1

The mental health crisis in the United States has worsened over the past 3 years. Data comparing 2020 to 2021 showed adults are reporting an increase in anxiety from 36.4% to 41.5% (Vahratian, et al., 2021). Mental health is a serious disease process that requires working with a provider. Yet, there are some simple steps that we can all take to create a healthy environment in which our minds are better set up to deal with the increase in stress in society. The discussion today will in no way be an exhaustive list, rather these are aspects that I have found to have a tremendous impact on my own mental well-being.

God’s Love
Understanding the paternal love and care of God. God promises, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” Deuteronomy 31:6 (KJV). God is deeply involved in each of our lives, “Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” Luke 12:7 (NIV). You and I are known and valuable to God. I find it so amazing to think that the God of the universe is that engaged in my life. Nothing happens in my life that He does not notice. And He desires to grow in a personal relationship with you and me. “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with Me.” Revelation 3:20 (NIV). He desires to take the time to get to know us in an individual way.

Regular Exercise
Physical exercise and activity have been a tremendous help to me in enhancing my mental well-being. A formal exercise routine has been shown to be a mood elevator (Sarris, et al., 2014). There are several factors that lead to exercise improving mental well being. Exercise helps to decrease inflammation, increase the ability of the brain to grow, and decrease the impact of stress on the brain (Sarris, et al., 2014). Another important aspect of physical exercise and mental health is the ability of exercise to increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Stress and depression decrease the expression of  BDNF in certain areas of our brain (Duman, Deyama, Fogaca, 2021). Physical exercise increases the BDNF in our brain. BDNF has been compared to fertilizer in our brain increasing its ability to grow and adapt.

Good Nutrition
Nutrition cannot be ignored when we are discussing mental health. Good nutrition is foundational for health in every aspect of our being. We are built up from the foods that we consume. A prospective study of 3,486 individuals showed an increase in the risk of depression over five years in those consuming the traditional Western diet. In this same study those consuming a whole food diet exhibited a decreased risk in the development of depression (Sarris, et al., 2014).
Several specific nutrients are important to include in a diet that promotes mental health. These include but are not limited to omega-3 fatty acids, polyphenols, and fiber (Berding, Carbia, & Cyan, 2021). Adding these nutrients into your daily routine is an important aspect of enhancing your mental well-being.

  • There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Most plant foods contain ALA the body must then convert it to EPA and DHA, which are the active forms in the body. The one exception to this is algal oil, which contains both EPA and DHA. An algal oil supplement is a great way to ensure that you are consuming an adequate amount of omega-3. Other plant sources rich in ALA are flaxseed, hemp seed, chia seed, walnuts, and brussel sprouts. I like to ensure that I am getting at least one of the seeds or walnuts in my breakfast every morning.
  • Polyphenols are abundant in the plant kingdom, blueberries are an exceptional source, with other berries following. Spices are also an abundant source, it is simple to add them into any meal. I like to try to include at least one spice in every meal. Flaxseed, nuts, and vegetables are all sources of polyphenols. The more variety and color you can add into your diet the better.
  • Lastly, fiber, the underappreciated nutrient, has an impact on our mental health. Fiber encourages a healthy gut microbiome. This healthy gut microbiome is involved in influencing the brain through multiple signaling pathways. Bidirectional communication is ongoing between our stomach and brain. Research has firmly established the link between dysbiosis, a disease-causing microbiome, and poor mental health. The exact mechanism is not clearly defined, research is pointing to multiple factors being involved (Lach, et al., 2018). Short chain fatty acids, and gut-microbiome / gut-peptide interactions have both been shown to have an impact on mental health. The richer our diet is in whole foods the more fiber we consume thus we see an improvement in gut health and mental well-being.
Other aspects that impact mental health include time in nature, social connections, and the use of screens. These topics will be further explored in our next newsletter.

Please remember if you are experiencing a mental health crisis please reach out to SAMHSA’s National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357), or call 911.

May Your Health Prosper,

Elizabeth Perry, DNP

1) Berding, K., Carbia, C., & Cryan, J. F. (2021). Going with the grain: Fiber, cognition, and the microbiota-gut-brain-axis. Experimental Biology and Medicine, 246(7), 796-811.

2) Lach, G., Schellekens, H., Dinan, T. G., & Cryan, J. F. (2018). Anxiety, depression, and the microbiome: a role for gut peptides. Neurotherapeutics, 15(1), 36-59.

3) Sarris, J., O’Neil, A., Coulson, C. E., Schweitzer, I., & Berk, M. (2014). Lifestyle medicine for depression. BMC psychiatry, 14(1), 1-13.


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