This article is all about mastering the most powerful computer in the world, and the strongest organ in your body - your mind. This complex human-computer single handedly controls your life and the reality you create to live in. It will lead you to your greatest successes and biggest blunders. It determines your happiness, and can spin any situation into a positive or negative experience depending on the lens it looks through. So learning actionable things you can do to help improve your mental health, without negative side-effects, is key to optimizing your life.
I want to start by saying I am not a certified mental health expert, and I am not claiming to be. This article is based on my personal beliefs and information I have accumulated from various areas of research, articles, podcasts, etc. However, I will also add that I am unbiased in this field and look at all this information from a consumer standpoint of, “how can I NATURALLY optimize my happiness, mental clarity, and peace of mind.”
Mental health is an enormous topic, and one that is beginning to be talked about much more often both in the world of research and in social groups (which is an incredibly good thing). As a society, awareness around mental health is improving significantly.
That being said, I personally believe people are still over-medicated for depression, anxiety, ADD, ADHD, and a multitude of other mental illnesses, due to lack of understanding with conventional medicine. 1 in 3 Americans is on anti-depressants! … 1 in 3 people! … That number is absolutely astonishing and concerning. Additionally, the use of prescribed psychotropic drugs by adult Americans increased by 22% from 2001 to 2010 – which, goes without saying – is a massive jump!
I am not alone in this concern. The American Psychological Association has an entire cover-story article on “inappropriate prescribing” where “Research shows that all too often, Americans are taking medications that may not work or may be inappropriate for their mental health problems” (1).
Here is two excerpts from this article:
‘ Many Americans visit their primary-care physicians and may walk away with a prescription for an antidepressant or other drugs without being aware of other evidence-based treatments — such as cognitive behavioral therapy — that might work better for them without the risk of side effects. ‘
‘ "I would say at least half the folks who are being treated with antidepressants aren't benefiting from the active pharmacological effects of the drugs themselves but from a placebo effect," says Steven Hollon, PhD, a psychology professor at Vanderbilt University who has conducted extensive research on the effectiveness of antidepressants. "If people knew more, I think they would be a little less likely to go down the medication path than the psychosocial treatment path." ‘
^ These excerpts are extremely powerful considering the source they came from, and bring up two key things we talk about at Bold Base Performance:
1- Patient autonomy – having all the correct information before making their own decision on if they want to do a certain intervention such as go down ‘the medication path.’
2- Without the risk of side effects – Finding natural ways to optimize your health and well-being such as exercise, diet, mindfulness, sleep, etc rather than relying on medications or passive interventions. Remember: “Change the System, don’t Chase the Symptoms”
With mental health, I think in many cases there are natural ways to heal, similar to with a physical impairment, without the negative side effects of long term drug use to treat the symptoms, but not fix the underlying problem. It is important to note: as with any organ in your body, your brain can heal and adapt based on the stimuli provided.
Ok, enough background info for you? … Now let’s dive into it and talk about proven natural ways to improve your happiness, well-being, and mental health:
1) We will start with the most obvious topic, and one that I’m sure nobody is expecting coming from me… Exercise (*hold your amazement until the end*).
This is extremely well established, and the one I will have to provide the least detail on because it is already well known. Our bodies were meant to move, and we all know the feeling of endorphin release and feeling better about ourselves following a workout, long walk, bike ride, etc. It is instant gratification of feeling better about yourself.
Exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function. Exercise has also been found to alleviate symptoms such as low self-esteem and social withdrawal (2).
More specifically, studies show that exercise can treat mild to moderate depression as effectively as antidepressant medication—but without the side-effects (3).
As one example, a recent study done by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that running for 15 minutes a day or walking for an hour reduces the risk of major depression by 26%.
These improvements in mood are proposed to be caused by exercise-induced increase in blood circulation to the brain. “Exercise promotes all kinds of changes in the brain, including neural growth, reduced inflammation, and new activity patterns that promote feelings of calm and well-being. It also releases endorphins, powerful chemicals in your brain that energize your spirits and make you feel good. Finally, exercise can also serve as a distraction, allowing you to find some quiet time to break out of the cycle of negative thoughts that feed depression” (2).
Other health benefits from regular exercise that should be noted: Improved sleep, increased interest in sex, better endurance, stress relief, improvement in mood, increased energy and stamina, reduced tiredness, improved mental alertness, weight reduction.
You don’t have to make a drastic change in exercise routine immediately, take small attainable steps in the right direction. Start with taking a walk after work or over lunch hour. Play outside with your kids after dinner. Go on a bike ride at night, etc. Keeping your body moving is what we, as humans, were intended to do.
Ok, we get it, exercise is good … tell us something we don’t already know!
2) This is a controversial topic, although I’m really not sure why … Diet.
No matter the social setting, when people start talking about their diet, or words like, “paleo” “vegan” or “keto” come up, people start getting uncomfortable and defensive.
I am not necessarily here to tell you what diet to follow; I just want to make it clear that diet does indeed matter when it comes to both physical and mental health. It stands to reason that the fuel you put in your body determines how well your body will operate. You could have a perfectly brand-new car but if instead of gasoline you fuel it with vegetable oil, it will not run well, period.
*Aside: Given our recent podcast arguing against icing and anti-inflammatories for tissue healing and local inflammation, I want to be very clear that moving forward in this article when I reference inflammation it is related to chronic system-wide inflammatory biomarkers which are related to your body as a whole, including your gut health.
“There is a large body of evidence which supports the role of inflammation in the pathophysiology of mental health disorders, including depression. Dietary patterns have been shown to modulate the inflammatory state, thus highlighting their potential as a therapeutic tool in disorders with an inflammatory basis” (4).
A recent systematic review on 11 studies, with a total of more than 100,000 participants (age 16-72 years old) found a significant association between pro-inflammatory diet and risk of depression (5). Ultimately, coming to the conclusion that adopting an anti-inflammatory diet may be an effective intervention to reduce or help prevent depression (5).
Additionally, research on more than 800 Australian teens found that the ones with the most “Western” diet (heavy on processed foods and refined sugars) were more likely to have elevated biomarkers of inflammation and had higher rates of mental health disorders (4)!
Anti-inflammatory diet, or anti-inflammatory foods can mean different things depending on what source you find via Google search, but to keep it simple: try to eat things that at natural to this earth. Things that our ancestors would have eaten: Fruits, veggies, lean proteins, nuts, etc.
On the other hand, try to avoid things that are more highly processed and contain refined sugars: bread, cakes, biscuits, snacks, cereals, soft drinks, etc.
Two easy criteria for this include: generally avoiding things that come packaged or in a box, and avoiding things with vegetable oil as an ingredient - read the label, you’d be surprised on this one. (For more information on harmful effects of vegetable oil, an incredible resource is “Vegetable Oil – The Silent Killer” with Dr. Cate Shanahan on the Bulletproof Radio Podcast).
Exercise, and eat better, where have I heard this before…
3) Let’s also talk about mental health and sleep.
Sleep is critical and the single most effective thing we can do to reset our brain and body health each day (“Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker, PhD).
Sleep is one of the most beneficial things you can do for both physical and mental health. It is your brains opportunity to process what happened in the day, compartmentalize it, and clear out the unnecessary information so your brain doesn’t get “bogged down”. Both REM and NREM sleep are crucial for cognitive functioning and emotional regulation. NREM sleep basically weeds out unnecessary neural connections, whereas REM sleep strengthens those connections and improves memory.
In his book, Dr. Matthew Walker touts sleep as a free drug with zero negative side effects which has been proven to enhance your memory, make you more creative, improve your happiness and your mood, and decrease depression and anxiety.
It stands to reason that if your sleeping process is impaired, the effect on mental health would be direct.
Research has shown unhealthy sleep and mental health concerns are directly linked; specifically with ADHD, anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder (6). Essentially the evidence goes both ways, in that sleep problems are more likely to affect people with psychiatric disorders, and people with sleep problems are more likely to develop mental health issues (6).
However, this can be viewed as a positive thing, in that treating sleep disorders may help alleviate mental health symptoms and vice versa.
For more information on this topic, check out “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker, PhD, and check out a previous post on how to improve your sleep hygiene and health.
4) Part of me hates to say this one, as it is how we reach out to people on a larger scale, and is ultimately what directed you to this article, but social media has a profound impact on mental health.
There have been numerous studies in this area, but to just look at it logically, it makes sense that spending significant time in front of a screen in a distorted sense of reality could throw off your mental health and well-being. Don’t get me wrong in the slightest, social media is an extremely powerful and positive tool, and one that we use daily in order to spread what we believe to be a very positive message. There are countless people out there providing powerful content that can positively change your life, and it is completely FREE to get this information! When used appropriately, social media is grand.
However, the truth is, many people on these platforms are projecting their lives in an unrealistic format, and typically nothing good can happen when you spend significant time looking at how incredible other people’s lives “appear”.
What does the research say? “A 2017 study in the journal Clinical Psychological Science found that adolescents who spent more time on new media, such as social media platforms and smartphones, were more likely to report mental health issues. Conversely, adolescents who spent more time off technology and on in-person social interaction, sports and exercise, homework, print media and attending religious services were less likely to report such issues” (7). Additionally, “There was a direct correlation between the amount of time spent on electronics and unhappiness. Happiness was highest among kids who participated in sports, followed by in-person socializing” (7).
Moral: Get unhooked from your screen. Put specific limits on you social media, computer, and television consumption. Try to limit your optional screen time to 1-2 hours each day. And when you are using social media, use it for good versus evil. Set yourself up for success by only following people that make you feel empowered to be a better person and build up your self esteem! Avoid following people you are envious of, or make you feel bad about yourself. Life is short, focus on the positives and progressing every day, and surround yourself with positivity and optimism!
5) Establish healthy mindfulness practices (meditation, breathing work, etc).
I know the article is getting long, so I’ll keep these last two short. People often overlook the effect of meditation and mindfulness strategies, but they are incredibly powerful in maintaining and improving your mental health.
Research from John Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD looked at nearly 19,000 meditation studies and found that mindful meditation can help ease psychological stress, along with anxiety, depression, and even pain.
To get started, simply Google “10 minute guided meditation” and take your pick. Other great apps are “Headspace”, “Calm”, and “Brain FM”. I have found that it typically takes people a few times to be able to fully harvest their mindfulness and reap the benefits from meditation.
6) Lastly, gratitude.
Having gratitude for what you have in life, and maintaining perspective is absolutely game-changing when it comes to your mental health. Simply by having access to this article, you are more privileged than many people on this planet. Everybody has hardships and nobodies life is perfect, but by practicing gratitude and perspective every day, it can literally change how your brain views your circumstances and provide more happiness, instantly.
Studies have found that giving thanks and counting blessings can help people sleep better, have lower stress, and improve their relationships with others. Keeping a gratitude journal was found to decrease materialism and bolstered more generosity among adolescents. Additionally, journaling on gratitude caused high school students to eat healthier and there is some evidence it could even lower depression (9).
The important take-away I want you to get from this article, is that you are in control of your life and can have a much larger positive impact on your mental health than you may think.
Will one of the above strategies completely change your mental health and well-being in isolation? Probably not, but it could. And more importantly, implementing small changes like these into your life can snowball into drastic changes.
I am here to optimize my life and try to do the same for everybody that I come in contact with. This is my passion. We have one chance at life; why not get the absolute most out of it!
Brad Baker, DPT, OCS, CSCS
Co-Founder, Bold Base Performance