How to look after yourself during Mental Health Awareness Week and beyond

Dr Michael Barnish MBChB, who is Head of Genetics & Nutrition for preventative health specialist REVIV, shares his tips and advice on how to look after our minds and wellbeing

The science

Social isolation, not seeing your usual friends, family and colleagues, will mean that the release of several neurotransmitters, including dopamine and oxytocin are not released when we get face to face interactions.

This will not keep the stress hormone, cortisol in check at times of stress and therefore stress and its clinical manifestation of anxiety can occur.

Being outside can improve short-term memory and focus, reduce inflammation, lower blood pressure, fight against anxiety and depression, and boost our overall immune systems.

Therefore, when we are unable to venture outside as much as we could before then we can become more distracted, less motivated and more stressed.

If we exercise outdoors we get the benefits of the ‘feel good’ endorphin release as well. As humans, we are spending more and more time indoors and this is one reason thought to contribute to increasing depression, anxiety and reduced immunity levels. 

Nourish the body

There are certain mood and immune boosting micronutrients that can help maintain a good level of health during this time.

To ensure that your food is loaded with nutrition, where you can, go for wild caught (fish), grass/pasture fed (animals & eggs) and organic produce where possible. This is my food quality rule.

We are what we eat, and this is no different for animals and plants. They are only as nutritional as the food they have eaten or taken up from the soil. 

Get cooking

Cooking from scratch is essential for boosting both mood and health as fresh, non-processed foods are the best for your health. It’s a fantastic way to learn, laugh and create.  

Tired looking vegetables can be easily be boiled up to make a soup with some stock, very easily done, good for the environment and tasty.

Freezing leftovers will make sure that you stay well stocked up. Get creative with these amazing immune boosting foods:


·     Spinach & Kale
·     Broccoli
·     Cabbage (Green & Red)
·     Mushrooms
·     Garlic
·     Turmeric
·     Rosemary
·     Ginger
·     Lemon
·     Live Yogurt
·     Kombucha
·     Fish
·     Olive Oil
·     Avocado

What to avoid 

Sofa, box sets/movies, snack and booze may be appealing, as we step back from our busy day to day lives.

However, lack of exercise, excess sugar, alcohol and refined carbs will soon change the body’s metabolism and cause unnatural insulin spikes and cortisol spikes, leading to poorer mood, reduced cognitive function, hormonal imbalances and ultimately, reduced immune function. Not to mention the potential weight gain.

Practise mindfulness and mental stimulation

In self-isolation, we now have the opportunity to take some time to be mindful, reducing our anxieties and improving our mental health.

The easiest way to execute some mindfulness into your day is to concentrate on your breathing. By breathing in for 4 seconds, holding it for a further 4 seconds and breathing out over 8 seconds.

Doing this for one minute, upon waking and before sleep, is a simple way to really bring your body into the moment and focus the mind away from all thoughts. It is a proven technique to reduce stress, anxiety and even can help with depression.

Mental stimulation is also key and it is easy to move into binge mode during this period of self-isolation. If you are working from home, this will likely provide you with plenty of stimulation, however, on your days off, evenings in or weekends in, then make sure you remain mentally active.

This will help to maintain some normality and could help reduce stress and anxiety. Great ways to stimulate your brain includes, socialising (electronically of course), reading, writing, engaging in a hobby, brain games, research and even cooking or gardening.

Stand up and move

As we all know exercise is great for us. However, it is massively important in maintaining our mood. Exercise increases the release of endorphins, the feel-good chemicals released by the body.

We also know exercise helps to maintain a healthy heart and does support improved immunity. So, despite self-isolation, exercise must still form part of your day.Creativity is potentially required here if you are stuck inside, depending on the national guidance.

Doing exercise outside is a fantastic way to boost vitamin D levels, get fresh air and spike those endorphins. However, this may not be an option for you. There is a lot of help out there though.

Whether it’s following an online trainer, dancing, using home gym equipment or even using household items, then there are plenty of options to explore.

Everyone has a body, and ultimately, that is all you need. Cleaning, gardening and decorating are great sources of exercise too, so maybe incorporating exercise is easier than you think.

Socialise

Self-isolation means that we are not able to see our friends, family, or our work colleagues. This can be very difficult on our mental health.

We are lucky, though. We live in a digital age, with immensely easy and available technology at our fingertips that can ensure that we can remain in touch with everyone, wherever and whenever we want.

Get a great sleep

Eight hours sleep has been linked to better mood, better immunity and better health.  

Firstly, reduce exposure to blue light. Blue light is emitted from TV, computer, tablet and phone screens and is an intensely bright light. It will help to confuse your bodies internal clock and melatonin release, tricking the body into thinking it is not time for sleep yet.

To counteract this, try reading before bed or not engaging with the screens for 30-60minutes before you are due to sleep. This will help you drift off easier. Secondly, avoid eating before you go to bed.

Try to allow 3 hours between your last meal or snack and sleep. Digestion requires a lot of energy and can interrupt sleep. Alcohol also requires a lot of energy to process and although a sedative, it actually does not help you sleep. Sleep and sedation are two different things.

Finally, choose an early night. We all have internal clocks that naturally control when we sleep and wake up. Our clocks are all wired slightly differently, but on the most part we are programmed to go to sleep 2-3 hour before midnight and wake 5-6 hours after, at sunrise.

The chemicals released whilst we sleep means that our deepest sleep occurs before midnight/1am and this is the most biologically beneficial sleep. So, going to bed at midnight, or after, may not be as beneficial, even if you achieve the recommended 8 hours.

Final Words

Of course, this crisis isn’t making it easy for any of us, but for us to be able to come through the other side, faster and hopefully with a much lower mortality rate, these weeks of self-isolation are critical.

The points I have discussed will to make sure we emerge from this in a good state of mind with strong and healthy bodies, ready for the challenges of getting back to normal.

Stay Safe.

Pictured: Dr Michael Barnish

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