Whether we acknowledge it or not, healthcare as we know it is in the midst of radical change. More and more patients are demanding answers to the root cause(s) of their symptoms, not wanting merely a suppressive ‘band-aid’ approach. One major area of medicine that has patients, doctors and researchers scrambling for more answers is in the field of psychiatry. Research and awareness of psychiatric conditions have been making great strides as of late, but it has not always been the case. In fact for decades mental health conditions were marginalized to the medical sidelines without gaining much mainstream attention such as many other keynote health conditions facing us globally such as; cancer, heart disease, diabetes, etc.
Common mental health conditions diagnosed globally are; anxiety, addiction, eating disorders, depression, ADD/ADHD spectrum, bipolar, insomnia, schizophrenia, to name a few. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) 25% of North Americans suffer from a diagnosable mental condition. Just two years ago, Marcia Angell, former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, discussed how a shocking 46 percent of Americans fit a diagnosis for one form of mental illness or another(1).
In fact, according to a recent study published in The Lancet(2), mental disorders and substance abuse combined were the leading cause of non-fatal illness worldwide in 2010, contributing nearly 23 percent of the total global disease burden! Data for the study was obtained from the 2010 Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study(3), which include data from 187 countries.
There are multiple factors that impact our health on a daily basis, and this couldn’t be any truer when discussing mental health. Traditionally, many conditions labeled under the umbrella of ‘mental illness’ were summed up solely as genetic or biochemical imbalances. Modern advances in psychiatric medicine have found causation to be more and more integrated to lifestyle and environmental factors, often finding the fundamental cause to be multi-factorial. Cutting-edge practitioners like Dr’s. Kelly Brogan, Jonathan Prousky, David Perlmutter, etc. are breaking new ground and leading the charge suggesting that the conventional model psychiatric health care needs to be re-evaluated. Prescribing pharmaceuticals as a first line therapy needs to be re-addressed due to growing concerns of the potentially harmful and dependency forming nature of many psychotropic medications available today.
Recent advances in clinical research in the field of mental health are drawing strong connections to; family and community, diet & nutrition, environmental toxicity, faith, stress management, etc. as fundamental factors for optimal mental health. This is a fascinating and exciting time for mental health as more efforts are being put into establishing a route cause and identifying triggers. With this new frontier of treatment for mental disorders continuing to evolve and emerge, so is a re-vitalized hope for those dealing with mental illness. Below are my Top 5 Ways To Improve Your Mental Health and Wellness:
1. Physical Activity
For many of you following my articles for some time, this critical factor is often on repeat. It has to be folks, if we don’t move it – we lose it. It’s that simple. This goes for maintaining and improving mental health as much (if not more) as keeping us in proper physical shape. We need to be active DAILY. No, this does not mean you have to hit the gym everyday, but it does mean participating in some intentional physical activity. Sorry, window-shopping or doesn’t count! Regular physical activity helps; keep inflammation down, reduce stress, improve blood flow and circulation to our brain, balance blood sugar levels, aid in detoxification processes – all of which are critical factors for optimal mental health.
2. Adequate Sleep
An area that is often overlooked and taken for granted, sleep is how we rest, repair, and re-group. Our entire body is ostensibly under attack everyday – and like after any battle or competitive event, proper rest is required. Without adequate quality of sleep studies show that our risk of chronic illness increases exponentially. This of course includes mental conditions. Like most things in life, too much sleep can be detrimental! So what is the magic number of sleep per night? Studies consistently show that 7 hours of restful sleep per night is the optimal number required for optimal health.
3. Stress Management
As we evolved, our stress response saved our lives by enabling us to run from predators or hunt down prey. But today, we are turning on the same “life-saving” reaction to cope with everyday stressors such as; rising gas prices, public speaking, bad bosses, traffic jams, etc. – and we have a hard time turning it off. Meditation or yoga can help immensely, even deep breathing exercises (which you can take with you everywhere). Sometimes all you need to do is get outside for a walk. But in addition to that, I also recommend using a solid support community composed of friends, family and, if necessary, professional counselors. All of the above can help provide you with the tools to work through your emotional stress.
4. Ditch Sugar
Food is medicine. However, certain food can also be poison. One of the key predictors of all chronic disease is chronic inflammation, which is directly associated with poor mental health. Sugar consumption is a primary driver of chronic inflammation in your body, so consuming excessive amounts of sugar can truly set off an avalanche of negative health events – both mental and physical. Avoiding refined sugars effectively requires more than merely not eating desert or adding sugar to your coffee – be sure to look at labels of any packaged food and/or meals. Eating whole fruit is ok!
5. Gut-brain connection
Dr. Natash Campbell-McBride, an MD with a postgraduate degree in neurology, states that toxicity in our gut can flow throughout our body and into our brain, where it can cause symptoms of autism, ADHD, depression, schizophrenia and a whole host of other mental disorders. This being said, nourishing your gut flora (gut bacteria) is critical to help reduce gut toxicity, improving absorption of nutrients, ultimately helpful in re-establishing optimal mental health. The impact of our microflora on brain function was recently reconfirmed by UCLA researchers, finding that beneficial bacteria altered brain function in the participants.