This post is developed in partnership with BetterHelp.
We’ve long understood that your diet and your exercise habits have tremendous power to influence your physical health – how much you weigh, your cholesterol levels, blood pressure, overall physical fitness and more. But we’re beginning to learn more and more about the importance of what you eat and how much you exercise when it comes to you mental health, too. As it turns out, you can exercise a lot of control over your mental health through both diet and exercise.
The Mind/Body Connection
The traditional and longstanding view of physical and mental health was that they were two separate worlds – what was good for our bodies was good for our bodies only, and what was good for our mental and emotional health was entirely different. So if someone struggled with a physical health condition, they would see a medical doctor, and if they experienced symptoms of a mental health condition, they might seek the counsel of a trusted therapist or online therapy benefits. It’s doubtful we’d raise mental health concerns with our primary care doctor or that we’d address physical symptoms with a therapist.
The truth, though, may be that our minds and bodies are far more connected than we imagined. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mental and physical health are equally important to our overall well-being and seem to be inextricably linked. For example, studies show that people experiencing depression are more likely also to experience physical health issues that could include heart disease, diabetes and stroke. And conversely, those who experience significant physical health conditions have been found at higher risk of developing symptoms of mental health issues as well. Some researchers have even found that patients experiencing depression are up to 50 percent more likely to die from cancer and 67 percent more likely to die of heart disease. Conversely, a 2012 Harvard University meta-analysis indicates that optimism can be associated with cardiovascular health and may even decrease the progression of heart disease.
We don’t know exactly why this is the case – one theory is that people experiencing mental illness may be less likely to care for their physical health. Another is that those who seek treatment for their mental health conditions are more likely to seek treatment for physical symptoms they experience as well. But what if it’s something more?
How Diet and Exercise Affect Mental Health
While we’ve known for some time that what we eat and how we move affect our physical health, the medical community has been much slower to associate good diet and exercise with mental health. However, the American Psychological Association has reported that counseling clients see positive results when exercise is included as part of their mental health regimen. In fact, these clients report decreased anxiety, overall better emotional mood and a heightened sense of well-being. And there’s reason to believe that the effects aren’t simply short-term – and in some studies, exercise has yielded long-term results as good as, if not better than, results achieved by using anti-depressants.
Similarly, there seems to be a strong connection between our mental health and the food we eat. If we think of food as fuel for our brains, this makes absolute sense. Our brains need the highest quality fuel to perform at optimal levels. Our key concern here should be vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, the highest quality fuel possible for our brains. Conversely, diets high in processed foods, especially sugar, have been linked to poor regulation of insulin, oxidative stress and inflammation – in some cases, a high-sugar, processed diet also has been linked to a higher incidence of depression. In fact, in some studies, those who eat a diet free of processed and high-sugar foods have emerged as 25 to 35 percent less likely to experience depression.
In addition, it’s important to note that roughly 95 percent of serotonin, a key “feel good” hormone, is produced in the gastrointestinal tract, so it’s directly influenced by our diet. Serotonin also helps inhibit pain, along with regulating moods, appetite and sleep patterns. It’s a big deal.
5 Ways to Support Your Mental Health Through Diet and Exercise
While making radical changes to your diet and exercise might feel daunting, you can start with some small steps toward adopting habits that support your mental health. Here are a few:
1. Reduce Sugar and Processed Foods
Start small. Remove some sugar and processed foods, a little at a time, and see how you feel. If all goes well, try a completely “clean” diet for a couple of weeks – that means cutting out all refined sugar and processed foods. Be cognizant of how you feel during the process. Many people are shocked by how much better they feel when they eliminate these factors from their diet.
2. Increase Whole Foods and Complex Carbohydrates
And what do you eat in place of processed snacks? Try more whole foods – foods as close to their natural state as you can find. Think lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins. Proteins are key since they contain amino acids that help regulate mood. Some people report success eating according to a Mediterranean diet, which also includes healthy portions of legumes, olive oil and seafood.
Also try to factor in complex carbohydrates, which have been shown to help you feel calmer because they may boost serotonin levels. You can get complex carbohydrates through foods like quinoa, starchy vegetables, sweet potatoes and brown rice.
3. Eat Regularly Throughout the Day
It sounds so basic, but eating on a regular schedule throughout the day keeps your blood sugar steadier and your mood more balanced. We’ve all experienced the feeling of getting too hungry, which can make us feel irritable and also diminish our ability to focus. Eating small, regular snacks and meals throughout the day helps you avoid the blood sugar crash that can make you feel so terrible.
4. Stay Hydrated
Water is essential for good physical and mental health – research shows that being dehydrated can increase your chances for experiencing symptoms of both anxiety and depression. People who don’t drink enough water also may run the risk of experiencing poor sleep, confusion and fatigue. How much water you drink depends a lot on your age, activity level and other factors, but generally, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, men should drink around 12 and a half cups of water per day, while women should aim for about nine cups. Keep in mind that this is a total amount of water per day, so it also includes water you’re taking in through fruits and vegetables.
5. Get Moving
You don’t have to run a marathon or become a triathlete to get good mental health benefits from exercise. In fact, according to the Mayo Clinic, you may see strong positive results from 30 minutes of moderate exercise, three times a week. And you can even break up that 30 minutes into smaller chunks throughout the day. Exercise also can mean many different types of activities, from gardening or cycling to walking or shooting baskets. Find something you enjoy and can sustain, and you’re likely to see great benefits.
Studies are providing more and more evidence that our bodies and minds are more connected than we ever imagined. Putting diet and exercise habits in place that support our physical health is likely also to support our mental health and overall well-being. If you start with small, manageable steps, we predict you’ll see positive results that spur you to make those changes a permanent part of your lifestyle.