Taking good care of your body’s need for sleep, healthy food and exercise supports your mental wellbeing.
A body that is tired, run down and lacking in vitamins and minerals puts you more at risk of poor mental health. If you aren’t getting the sleep, nutrition or exercise you need, you are likely to feel flat, low and lacking in energy. You are at risk of developing a mental health condition such as anxiety or depression.
Regularly getting a good night’s sleep, being physically active and eating a healthy balanced diet all support your mental wellbeing. They’re not the only answers, but they’re a good place to start.
Make sleep a priority
When you sleep, your body rests, but your brain remains active, laying down memory, restoring daytime mental function and carrying out tasks that lead to physical growth.
Not enough or poor quality sleep affects your psychological state and can contribute to developing a mental health condition. And if you have a mental health condition, it can be harder to get good quality sleep, which can contribute to developing a sleep condition such as insomnia. On the other hand, a good night’s sleep helps build mental and emotional resilience. Read more about sleep and mental health.
Eat well every day
Your brain is just like any other organ in your body – it needs nutrients so it can carry out its many tasks, including those that keep you mentally well. Eating some foods can improve your mood and mental wellbeing, while other foods can have a negative impact on how you feel.
Your gut (intestine) also plays a key role in your mood. Everything you eat passes through your gut, which is home to billions of bacteria and other micro-organisms (bugs). This is known as your gut microbiome. These bugs are involved in many functions that are key to your health and wellbeing. Therefore, eating healthy foods that support your gut microbiome helps your mental health.
If you are feeling depressed or anxious, you are more likely to want to eat more unhealthy foods (such as potato chips and takeaways) and eat fewer healthy foods (such as fresh fruit and vegetables). But, eating unhealthy foods can actually make you feel worse. Poor diet may not only be a reaction to feeling depressed, but may be one of the factors that trigger it.
Luckily, the same eating habits that keep you mentally well are those that support your physical health too.
Eat regularly and choose a wide range of food from the 4 main food groups and and limit sugary, salty and processed foods. If you eat a wide range of foods the nutrients should take care of themselves, including the main nutrients associated with depression: Omega 3, B group vitamins and vitamin D. Read more about food and mood.
What you drink matters too
Choosing healthier drinks is an important part of healthy eating and what you drink can also affect your mood.
Too much caffeine can affect your sleep and also trigger anxiety and/or panic attacks or make them worse. Read more about caffeine and sleep and caffeine.
Alcohol can also affect your mental wellbeing. Alcohol can act as a stimulant that creates feelings of euphoria and talkativeness, which is why it is so popular in social settings and as a pick me up when feeling stressed or low. However, alcohol disrupts the balance of chemicals in your brain, including serotonin – a chemical that helps to regulate your mood. This is why if you drink too much or too often you can end up feeling worse.
If you use alcohol as your main way of relieving stress and anxiety, there is a risk that you may become dependent on it. There are lots of strategies you can use so your drinking stays at the level of improving your mood rather than lowering it. Read more about alcohol and mental health.
The good news is that there is something you can drink to support your mental wellbeing: water. Studies point to a link between dehydration and a higher risk of anxiety and depression. Read more about water.
Move and feel better
When you feel down, you're much more likely to want to curl up into a ball and tell the world to go away than try to get some exercise. However, going for a walk, swim or bike ride, or kicking a ball around with your whānau, will help you feel better, as well as less tired.
There are links between physical activity and better mood, brain functioning and self-esteem. It not only appears to reduce the symptoms and frequency of depression but, better still, reduces the risk of becoming depressed at all.
Sometimes it takes a real effort to get moving, but knowing that exercise helps your body release the ‘feel-good’ chemicals, or endorphins, that lift your mood, can be enough to make you do it. Endorphins are the feel good chemicals, produced in your brain, that provide relief from stress and pain. Exercise stimulates the production and release of endorphins, making you feel better.
Lots of light to moderate bursts of activity can do the trick, and there are social benefits to physical activity too. If you join a club or team up with a walking buddy, that may have a role in keeping you happy.
- Even 5 minutes of aerobic activity, like walking, swimming, bike-riding, can reduce anxiety.
- Exercise can counteract the withdrawal, inactivity and feelings of hopelessness that are part of feeling depressed.
- Activity can change or ease stress, fatigue and anger.
- Exercise can improve the way you see yourself, which lifts self-esteem.
- Why nutrition is important for the brain Food for the Brain Foundation
- Dehydration and anxiety – how to keep calm and hydrate on Healthline, 2020