When stress is mounting and your mood deteriorating, it is easy, almost imminent, that we get pulled into poor health habits. We've all been there. We crave and eat more salty and sugary fats, consume more alcohol and/or get less sleep and exercise. But what you might not know is that the stress self-care cycle is self-perpetuating. Before you know it, your mood declines and you just can't seem to find your old energy.
This all too familiar pattern happens because stress accumulates over time to build allostatic load and break down the system. The hormonal changes of stress increase our cravings for unhealthy foods, which provide short-term energy, but paradoxically zap our resilience. Recovery begins to take longer, and illness more likely.
My past two blogs looked at the Thinking Habits and Emotional Willingness components of Mindful-Mastery. Your Actions are the third and most powerful ally in the trifecta of mind-body wellness. Only our Actions are in our direct control, and thus each of our responsibility for maintaining our mind-body wellness.
Health habits are often all to ignored aspect of our mental well being. This might be because most of us do not realize the dynamic nature of our bodies and brains and how everything we do influences how we feel. But the good news is there is much we can do to promote our mood and psycho-biological resilience to stress! Here is a quick run down of some of our most powerful health behaviors. (Of course, check with your doctor and make self informed decisions).
1. Get up and get sweating! Hit the treadmill or the bike for 20-30 minutes, 3-5 times per week, at 70% of your personal max capacity. This will have obvious positive effects on your calorie burn and toning. But this type of workout, practiced for 3-5 weeks, also has an amazing impact on your brain.
The Evidence: Several studies have found that this regimen can build your resilience, protect your brain against the damaging effects of stress, and actually has the same effects on mood and brain as antidepressant medications. As a physical stressor, exercise also raises the threshold required to activate the stress response. This means when you do cardio, you can tolerate more stress in your life and reduce burnout.
2. Maintain consistent sleep patterns: Sleep hygiene is critical for maintaining and managing daily hormone shifts. Take simple precautions to minimize dysregulation due to poor sleep quantity and/or quality. Dim the lights ahead of sleep time, reduce caffeine later in the day, and, as best you can, get at least 7-8 hours.
The Evidence: This is one of the most critical modifications in the treatment of bipolarity, where sleep dysregulation frequently precipitates a relapse. In healthy folks, poor sleep is widely attributed to impaired memory, reduced focus, and poor emotion regulation.
3. Eat a low fat, complex carbohydrate diet with lean proteins and fish: Researchers have identified how certain nutrients interact with the body when under stress, and can promote, or decrease stress resilience.
• Carb up! A diet rich in complex carbohydrates can increase brain tryptophan levels, which is the precursor to serotonin. Serotonin is a primary neurotransmitter in the brain associated with mood. Under increased stress, serotonin neurons are more activated and thus in need of more serotonin.
• Reduce Simple Sugar: It is tempting to reach for simple sugar snacks because glucose is the brains main source of fuel and can boost memory in the short term. But, beware! Increased blood sugar changes under stress are linked to increases in stress hormones. Thus, a diet high in simple or refined sugars increases base-line circulating cortisol, which has been linked to actual brain cell death and depression. Fruits and vegetables on the other hand are a source of complex carbohydrates as well as neuro-protective antioxidants.
• Lean Proteins: Load up on fish and turkey. Fish oils and other foods containing high amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids contribute to a protective layer around brain cells, called mylenation. Mylenation is like insulation around brain cells, which improves the clarity between brain cells. Think of this as reducing the static in your brain! There has been ample evidence that Omega-3 fatty acids are helpful in managing mood. Turkey is also a great choice. It increases the amino acid L-Tryptophan, which is an essential building block for serotonin, and may protect the stress sensitive brain.
4. Minimize mood altering substances: The desire to feel other than how we do can lead to over consumption of alcohol or other substances. In turn however, the biological pathways create a rebound effect.
The Evidence: When we turn to opiate or benzodiazepine like medications, the receptors in our brain are less capable of receiving the natural inhibitory neural transmission needed to activate a sense of calm. This leads to rebound irritability or anxiety. The reverse is true for stimulants. After a bout of stimulant use, which amps up our happy neurotransmitter (dopamine), puppies and sunsets no longer bring us the same joy. We are more prone to poor mood and depression.
5. Meditate, Meditate, Meditate! In today's world of endless distractions, we are in increasing need of some intentional practice of mind discipline. Naturally, finding the time to establish this act of essential self care is new to most of us. The trick to getting a new habit in place is to link it to something you already do. You can tag your practice time to the end of your work outs. If those are also lagging, I have linked my practice to my morning coffee or tea; no meditation, no caffeine!
The Evidence: Formal mindfulness meditation involves the practice of observing your experiences as the emerge, non judgmentally, and returning attention to the breath when the mind wanders away. The good news is, the research suggests that you only need brief exposure to these practices to gain the brain health benefits. This type of practice is linked to a number of brain health and mood improvements. Continuous practice has been linked to everything from increased physical and emotional pain resilience to increases in bio markers of immunity.
At the end of the day, just as we must maintain all the things we cherish in our lives, we must work to maintain our mind-body vehicles. Take care of your vehicle, and it will take you a lot further, in a much more comfortable ride!