Mental health care using lifestyle modifications tools
The health of our brain is as important as the health of the rest of our body. Just as we go to the primary care physician for our yearly well check appointments, we should also periodically check in with our mental health. Unfortunately, this area of our health is often neglected even by the best of us. Many wait to seek therapy or treatment only after trauma has occurred or we consider ourselves mentally unwell. Our goal in functional medicine is to prevent dysfunction in the first place. Caring for the whole body (mind and body) on a consistent basis helps create resiliency so that we are better equipped to handle stressors as they come up.
In functional medicine, we want to know why the problem is occurring so we can address and correct the root cause(s) of disease or dysfunction. Unfortunately, medications are prescribed for an array of mental health conditions without digging deeper into the root cause. This is problematic because it doesn’t necessarily fix the issue. One study found that increased use of antidepressants and other treatments did not affect the prevalence of both depression and anxiety between the years of 1990 and 20101. Conventional medicine tends to focus on treating symptoms but symptoms don’t tell the whole story. There are times we need medications, and they can certainly be helpful, however a whole-body approach can be a great addition to standard therapy and may even prevent the need for medication in some cases.
A person’s entire history from birth to the present moment provides so much valuable information. There are many factors (emotional and physical) to consider. These include physical and mental trauma, past or present stressors, cultural factors (immigration and bigotry), adverse childhood events, infections, environmental toxins, immune dysregulation, diet, blood sugar dysregulation, imbalanced hormones, sedentary lifestyle, loneliness, genetic patterns, and faulty gut-brain axis signaling. Evaluating these factors and tailoring a therapeutic plan based on individual needs can result in dramatic improvements in health and well-being. In this blog, we will explore using lifestyle modifications to improve mental health.
Diet and Nutrition
Diet and nutrition are a foundational part of functional medicine and mental health is no exception. This is because diet affects several key biological processes that are related to mood disorders, including brain plasticity and function, the stress response system, mitochondrial health, inflammation, and other processes that contribute to cellular damage. The typical Western diet (the SAD diet), comprised of highly-processed food, is linked to systemic inflammation and an increased risk of depression, whereas a diet rich in whole, real food decreases the risk of depression. Consuming high-quality protein, essential fatty acids, vitamins, phytonutrients, and minerals empowers a person towards better mental health. Our gut microbiome also has a profound effect on our mood, as the gut and brain are intricately connected through the vagus nerve. Dysfunction in one area affects the other area. When our brain senses low grade inflammation, it sets off a cascade of events that can affect neurotransmitters which are responsible for mood2. Enhance and diversify your microbiome by eating whole foods with lots of different colors and variety. Also, foods rich in bacterial cultures (yogurt, kefir, kimchi, pickles, sauerkraut and other fermented foods) are beneficial for the microbiome.
Sedentary lifestyle habits are not just unhealthy for the body but for the brain as well. Numerous studies have shown that exercise reduces symptoms of depression. One study found that walking briskly for 2.5 hours per week was associated with a 25% lower risk of depression and even at half that dose, the risk was 18% lower compared with no activity3. In another study, twenty participants with mild-to-moderate depression were randomized to 90-minute yoga practice groups twice weekly for 8 weeks which resulted in statistically and clinically significant reductions in depression severity4. Any movement practice whether its dance or walking benefits the central nervous system, maintains hormonal balance, promotes better gut health, fights inflammation, and strengthens our immune system.
Exposure to nature
Fresh air and sunlight are another key component of mental health care. Stepping out into the sun allows biological processes to produce more vitamin D which is a key vitamin to help alleviate symptoms of depression5. Forest-air bathing, also known as Shinrin-Yoku, has also been studied in Japan and Europe to reduce acute stress and is being increasingly viewed as a therapeutic modality in mental health care6,7. This can mean a mindful walk in the garden, park, or local trail or visiting a nature center. It’s Mother Nature’s best gift to us for overall health.
Sleep disorders are associated with mental health disorders. Lack of restorative sleep can cause disruption in our circadian rhythm which can cause fluctuations in our mood. According to Matthew Walker in his book Why We Sleep, “sleep enriches a diversity of functions, including our ability to learn, memorize, and make logical decisions and choices….serving our psychological health, sleep recalibrates our emotional brain circuits”8. To read more about the Power of Sleep and get tips on how to get a better night’s sleep, check out this blog post.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is considered gold standard for psychotherapy and is considered to be effective for depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, drug use and other mental illness. The main principle of CBT is to change thinking patterns which may lead up to depression and anxiety. It empowers an individual with problem solving skills to handle any given situation and teaches the ability to develop self-confidence when problem solving9. Other therapies that have gained popularity in recent years are dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), acceptance & commitment therapy (ACT), psychodynamic psychotherapy, mindfulness meditation, relaxation therapy, and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). Therapy can be extremely beneficial and is great to use alongside functional medicine for mental health care.
Improving mental health with lifestyle modifications is possible. A diet rich in wholesome, colorful fresh food, movement, adequate sleep, and therapy strengthen the mind-body connection, resulting in enhanced mental health. Our pharmacists at PharmToTable specialize in functional medicine using a lifestyle-based approach and we also have health coaches on our team who can help you make changes towards improving your health. Book an appointment or schedule a free 15-minute discovery call today!
Written by Mariya Farooqi, PharmD
- Syme, KL, Hagen, EH. Mental health is biological health: Why tackling “diseases of the mind” is an imperative for biological anthropology in the 21st century. Yearbook Phys Anthropol. 2020; 171: 87– 117. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajpa.23965
- Huang F, Wu X. Brain Neurotransmitter Modulation by Gut Microbiota in Anxiety and Depression. Front Cell Dev Biol. 2021 Mar 11;9:649103. doi: 10.3389/fcell.2021.649103. PMID: 33777957; PMCID: PMC7991717.
- Pearce M, Garcia L, Abbas A, et al. Association Between Physical Activity and Risk of Depression: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis [published online ahead of print, 2022 Apr 13]. JAMA Psychiatry. 2022;e220609. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2022.0609
- Prathikanti S, Rivera R, Cochran A, Tungol JG, Fayazmanesh N, Weinmann E. Treating major depression with yoga: A prospective, randomized, controlled pilot trial. PLoS One. 2017;12(3):e0173869. Published 2017 Mar 16. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0173869
- Głąbska D, Kołota A, Lachowicz K, Skolmowska D, Stachoń M, Guzek D. The Influence of Vitamin D Intake and Status on Mental Health in Children: A Systematic Review. Nutrients. 2021 Mar 16;13(3):952. doi: 10.3390/nu13030952. PMID: 33809478; PMCID: PMC7999324.
- Morita E, Fukuda S, Nagano J, Hamajima N, Yamamoto H, Iwai Y, Nakashima T, Ohira H, Shirakawa T. Psychological effects of forest environments on healthy adults: Shinrin-yoku (forest-air bathing, walking) as a possible method of stress reduction. Public Health. 2007 Jan;121(1):54-63. doi: 10.1016/j.puhe.2006.05.024. Epub 2006 Oct 20. PMID: 17055544.
- Bielinis E, Jaroszewska A, Łukowski A, Takayama N. The Effects of a Forest Therapy Programme on Mental Hospital Patients with Affective and Psychotic Disorders. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019 Dec 23;17(1):118. doi: 10.3390/ijerph17010118. PMID: 31877954; PMCID: PMC6982075.
- Walker, Matthew. 2018. Why We Sleep. Harlow, England: Penguin Books.
- “Clinical Practice Guideline for the Treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Adults.” American Psychological Association. American Psychological Association. Accessed May 11, 2022. https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline.