A few scientifically proven things rule our brain chemistry and our mental health. Taking control over them is priority number one.
Mental health is fragile, especially when life is packed with stressors. And when you’re feeling overwhelmed, anxious or depressed, self-care can feel like a full-time job. But don’t flake out on the responsibility of taking care of yourself. Instead focus on the seven things that affect your brain’s chemistry (movement, nutrition, hydration, sleep, meditation, connection to others and medication) and take control from there.
1. Don’t skip movement
Science doesn’t waver about the benefits of movement, and there’s no shortage of studies proving its effectiveness. Physical activity increases endorphins (which make you happy), takes your mind off what you’re most worried about, and isn’t so bad for your waistline either.
George Mammen, MSc and Guy Faulkner, PhD reviewed 30 studies connecting activity levels and well-being and published the results in The American Journal of Preventive Medicine. The scientists found that 25 of the 30 studies — the overwhelming majority — provide consistent evidence that physical activity reduces the risk of depression and increases happiness.
Get your heart pumping with 150 minutes of cardio training each week. Here’s a great kettlebell workout to try.
Make it easy: If you know you flake out on training (because it’s cold and it’s easier to stay in bed) put out all your clothes the night before and set your alarm for just 10 minutes before you have to be out the door. When you alarm blares, you won’t have time to lay in bed and talk yourself out of it.
2. Make healthy food choices
Just like your muscles don’t function well without good food, your brain doesn’t work so well when you have poor nutrition.
Serotonin, the neurotransmitter partially responsible for regulating your mood, is largely produced in your GI tract, not your brain. This means what you think it means, and Harvard Health confirms it: food is directly connected to how your body handles emotions. Replenish the good gut bacteria with probiotics.
Make it easy: Pack a lunch instead of eating out. It’ll take away the temptation to make an unhealthy choice come lunch time. Load up your brown bag with fruits and veggies, protein and good fat; then pass on dessert.
You might have no problem remembering to drink a bottle of water during your workout. But when you’re sitting in the temperate office climate at your desk, it’s harder to remember to down those eight cups a day.
Dehydration greatly affects your brain’s cognitive abilities (short-term memory and visual processing time) and results in a shortage of the amino acid tryptophan, which has been shown to influence anxiety and depression. Studies are clear about water intake affecting brain chemistry — so drink up!
Make it easy: Find a stylish 20-ounce tumbler you love and keep track of how many times a day you head to the water-cooler to refill. Aim for 80 ounces every day or more.
4. Get enough sleep
Oftentimes stress is what keeps you up at night, but sleep is exactly what you need to combat stress. People who are sleep deprived are 10 times more likely to have clinical depression and 17 times as likely to have clinical anxiety, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
Get to sleep at a decent hour and aim for seven to eight hours of shuteye nightly. And read more from sleep expert Shawn Stevenson here.
Make it easy: Create good sleep conditions for yourself (like keeping your bedroom dark and cool and nixing blue light like TVs and phones an hour before bed). Make sure you are getting enough magnesium in your diet to help you get enough sleep.
Mindfulness meditation has been shown to moderately decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety, according to a study out of John Hopkins. And by moderately, we mean results are on par with medication’s effectiveness.
Make it easy: Dedicate a few minutes when you first get out of bed to meditation or take a walk with the dog. A little quiet and fresh air can do a lot of good. Here’s a great way to get into the mindful zone.
6. Connect with others
Netflix at home in your pajamas is just easier sometimes, let’s be honest. But connecting to others is an integral piece of keeping up your mental health. Maintaining relationships helps us feel understood, validated and able to offer support to others when they most need it. When you’re feeling down, being reclusive is a normal response, but you’re better off getting out and being social.
Make it easy: Join a Meetup, meet a friend for coffee, call your mom. Just don’t keep all to yourself.
7. Supplement (and medicate if necessary)
Brain chemistry is altered by several things. Supplementation and properly prescribed medication is one of them. Depression and anxiety medications are abundant and for severe mood disorders, it may be (or need to be) part of your daily routine to regulate your brain chemicals and your mental health. Strategic vitamins and supplementation can support you. Both options are best advised with requires a doctor’s diagnosis and supervision, and it must be supplemented by all six other mood-boosting mental health actions above.
Make it easy: Go see your primary care provider for yearly preventive visits. A doc will be able to help you determine if medication is the right move for your mental health.
For a healthy well-being, take care of your heart, your body and your head.