When you ask your friends (or they ask you) how they are, the answer more often than not at least includes – ‘busy’.
While we don’t subscribe to the whole being busy for the sake of being busy or wearing it as a point of pride, we do recognise that life is hectic. And, it seems to be getting more and more demanding. Especially as women, we juggle ambition, expectations, career, family, friends and our health and wellbeing.
We caught up with psychologist Sarah Tottle to learn more about the impacts on food and fitness on mood, and to get her key health tips for ‘modern women’.
It seems that everywhere you turn, modern women are feeling the pressure. Expectations can be seemingly insurmountable – to be it all and to have it all. Take the rise of the mumpreneur, she’s rushing around, running several businesses. All the while forfeiting sleep so she can spend some quality time with her little ones too. Corporate women are working longer hours. The traditional working day doesn’t often finish until late into the evening as we find it ever more difficult to switch off. We’re a 24-hour world, after all.
Often this extrinsic pressure comes at the expense of our personal wellness. There can be a lot of guilt for simply taking time out for ourselves. Take our phones, we have them next to us – and if you’re anything like me – beeping on our wrists through our smart watches.
We rarely, if ever, have time to ourselves. We are a generation that feels the need to show up (FOMO anyone?). So, we often don’t get the time to just ‘be’ or to prioritise our health and wellbeing.
Exercise and Food; Their Impact on Mood
In trials evaluating the effectiveness of exercise on psychological wellbeing, exercise has been shown to have the same impact as anti-depressants. Exercise switched the ‘game on’ mode of our brain. It is linked to enhanced positive emotions, self-efficacy, and productivity. The brain releases endorphins and your level of protein called Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF) also become more concentrated. BDNF release chemicals that promote brain health and muscle tissue and activate the production of new neurons in the hippocampus, alleviating depression and anxiety. Micronutrients such as magnesium have also been shown to have an impact on stress levels, and there have been a number of studies on the use of herbal L 5-hydroxytryptophan (5 HTP) in increasing serotonin levels. The amino acid, tryptophan, has also been linked to comparable results, hence, the term ‘a banana a day keeps the psychiatrist away!’.
Without adequate nutrition, we’re prone to depression and anxiety and simply cannot perform at our best. Lack of magnesium and B vitamins, for instance, can leave us feeling anxious and worried. Food, therefore, plays a pivotal role in mood and mental wellbeing. Without it, we can be prone to the classic case of hanger, turning from little miss nice to the incredible hulk.
We are what we eat. If you’ve ever demolished a greasy hamburger after a night out, you will have noticed that lethargic feeling that comes upon you. Food can make you feel lazy. It can increase feelings of tiredness.
Foods rich in the vitamins and minerals calcium, chromium, folic acid, iron, magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B16, vitamin B12, vitamin D, and Zinc are known for their happiness-boosting qualities. We should aim to eat more of these, especially if we begin to feel low!
Food is fuel
Without it we cannot survive. If we eat a restricted diet, our emotional health suffers. It’s important to eat as wide a variety of nutritional goods as possible for optimal wellbeing. What you eat directly impacts the structure and the function of the brain. When your brain gets premium fuel, it functions optimally. Processed or refined foods effect our moods negatively, meaning we feel sluggish and incapable of performing our tasks optimally. Refined sugars in excess can be harmful to the brain, causing the body to be fired up, followed by crashing down. They can also worsen symptoms of mood disorders, such as depression.
Neurotransmitters are the vehicles used to transport information between neurons and other cells. Serotonin and dopamine are the two most important neurotransmitters responsible for mood regulation. Since our good mood regulators (i.e. the two neurotransmitters mentioned earlier) come from amino acids, one might think that it is good to eat lots of protein. However, this is not entirely true. Eating too much protein in one go is not the way forward. The various types of amino acids compete with each other meaning that the brain finds it confusing to process this.
There are several tips to optimising brain functioning for positive wellbeing
- Frequent meals: Eat lighter and more frequent meals to avoid too much processing. Overeating means the body uses precious energy processing the food.
- Complex Carbs: Wholegrains, oats, brown rice and so forth provide the body with energy to help it function optimally.
- Protein: Include moderate amounts of protein at every meal (including snacks). These include, meat, poultry, eggs, beans, dairy, nuts, and so forth.
- Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables – the more colourful the better.
The medical field did not value the link between food and mood for many years. It is only recently, ironically, that they have been enlightened to this notion. It goes without saying that food would impact our wellbeing. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates sleep and appetite, mediates mood, and inhibits pain, is produced in the gastrointestinal tract. The digestive system doesn’t just process and digest food, but it also helps guide our emotions.
The production of neurotransmitters like serotonin are influenced by the billions of ‘good’ bacteria that make up the intestinal microbiome, and these are essential for your health. They protect the lining of the intestines, provide a barrier against toxins and ‘bad’ bacteria, and they reduce and limit inflammation. They also improve how well you absorb nutrients from food and activate the neural pathways between the gut and brain. The nerves in your gut actually communicate directly with your brain. Because of this, upping your gut friendly bacteria is vital to optimal wellbeing.
Good bacteria are found in probiotics such as natural yoghurt, kombucha, and sauerkraut, for instance. Fermented diets are said to act as natural probiotics. Those that eat a traditional Mediterranean or Japanese diet are said to have less chance of developing depression. The risk of depression is 25-35% lower.
It is important to start paying attention to how eating different foods makes you feel. Listen to your body. How does it feel after you have eaten those foods? How does it feel the next day? Try eating a clean diet, low in processed foods, for a couple of weeks.
Mental Illness and Diet
Recent studies have found a link between an unhealthy diet and mental ill health. Bad diets are therefore a risk factor in depression and anxiety. Emotional dysregulation in children is also a problem for children with bad diets. As mentioned previously, the research found that those that eat a high fibre, nutritionally varied diet, are happier and fight depression better than those that do not have a good diet.
You may well be asking how can an already busy and over committed women apply all of this information? It does seem mind-boggling, but it’s totally within your grasp. It’s simply about being mindful and making simple, incremental changes. Start with a ten minute walk daily and build on that. Choose your favourite Lorna Jane outfit to add sparkle to your workout, and pre-pack a lunch and snacks so you’re not tempted by unhealthy options when on the go.
It all comes down to education (knowing what is actually good for you and why), preparation (meal prep and booking exercise in like you would a meeting) and making small changes that you can build on. It’s overwhelming to look at all of this and even consider how to apply it to your day to day life. Just break it down into small changes that you can build on.
Put simply; Move daily, Nourish your body with fresh, whole foods and Believe in yourself. The rest will follow.
She is an advocate for organisational wellbeing and encourages individuals to choose active, wholesome lifestyles. She blogs at www.sarahtottle.com and her PhD research focuses on stress management in the workplace.