Improve how you think and feel.

The hard truth is that mental health issues are impacting many of us. 

Words Ben Warren. Illustration Elin Matilda Andersson, Makers MGMT.

More than 600,000 New Zealanders will be diagnosed with a common mental health disorder, such as depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder, at some point in their life. More staggering is the increase in incidence of these conditions with a 56 per cent rise in mood disorders and a 140 per cent rise in anxiety disorders from 2006/07 to 2016/17. Finding and applying strategies for improved mental wellness is vital for many of us.

The research on diet and lifestyle factors influencing our mood is strong and broad, often with effect sizes similar to medications (an effect size is a statistical measure of how many and how much an intervention helps). Here are my top five diet and lifestyle strategies for improving how you feel.

Go for a walk

We know how we feel after exercising and this effect is supported by research showing there’s a dose-dependent response – the more we exercise the better we feel. Other studies have focused on 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise three times a week. The key takeaway is moving more makes us feel better. If you are currently not exercising, set a small and achievable goal like going for a 10-minute walk at lunchtime. This way, you can feel the success of achievement and the chances are within a few weeks you’ll be walking longer.

Eat a whole food diet

There’s been a lot of research supporting quality of diet and how we feel. The general take home is the better we eat, the better we feel. The worse we eat, the worse we feel, with one prominent study stating that diet quality was an independent risk factor for the development of adolescent mental health problems. A great first step in improving diet quality can be done by simply shopping as much as you can around the outside of the supermarket. Fruits and veg, meat and fish, dairy and eggs.

Get some vitamin D

Low vitamin D is associated with seasonal affective disorder (SAD). One study showed 84 per cent of New Zealanders are low in vitamin D. We do make vitamin D from sunshine but we can also get vitamin D from food, with cod liver oil the highest, sardines, pork fat (lard) also good sources, and, of course, there’s supplementation if you are not keen on those foods.

Munch on a multivitamin

There’s a number of specific nutrients the research shows to be supportive of mental health, nutrients such as zinc, selenium, magnesium, B vitamins, vitamin C and iron. Again deficiencies in a number of these are common in New Zealanders. Obviously, a whole food diet is going to help, but due to modern farming and conveniences, it can be difficult to get all the nutrients you need from diet alone. I’d recommend a high-quality multivitamin to top up nutrients.

Eat oily fish

Research shows low levels of omega-3 fatty acids are associated with increased risk of depression. Double blind studies giving omega-3 fatty acids, as found in oily fish, decreased scores for depression. The active ingredients of omega-3 are DHA and EPA and research suggests the therapeutic dose of these is in the 1-3 gram range. This means to get into this range we need to eat at least 100 grams of oily fish like salmon a day. Another option is a high-strength fish oil.

Ben Warren is a nutrition and holistic health expert. bepure.co.nz

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