Monday, November 7, 2016

Improving Your Mental Health with Healthy Eating and Sleep

It’s not just our thoughts that lead to changes. Just as important is our biology and our lifestyle and, as I've mentioned before, our bodies and minds exist in a tightly linked cycle of activity.

For instance, when you eat this results in an increase in serotonin. Why? Because foods – especially carbs – contain an amino acid called tryptophan. When blood sugar increases, the body responds by releasing insulin which triggers the absorption of glucose from the blood to be used for activity or stored as fat. But tryptophan does not get absorbed and as such, it remains in the bloodstream. This then gets circulated to the brain, where it is converted into serotonin – that’s because tryptophan is a precursor (building block) for serotonin. This is why your mood tends to improve when you’ve eaten. And this then results in the release of ghrelin to signal that you’re getting fuller and to prevent you from over eating.

Later on, that serotonin converts into melatonin – the sleep hormone. This is why everyone falls asleep after Christmas dinner! That melatonin reduces activity in the brain and this then triggers the release of other inhibitory neurotransmitters like GABA.

Did you know that darkness also triggers the release of melatonin?

And meanwhile, the longer you stay awake, the more adenosine (another inhibitory transmitter) builds up in the brain. This is partly what gives us ‘brain fog’ after a long hard day because it is a by-product of the energy process used in brain cells.

What all this means, is that after a long day and big meal, you are sure to start getting sleepy at the end of the day and find it harder to wake up and do something productive. That’s not you being lazy or disinterested, that’s you being at the whim of your biology.

Now let’s say that we want to wake ourselves back up. What do we do? One simple option is to go outside or shine a bright light – sunlight triggers the release of cortisol, which along with nitric oxide will help to wake us up. This is why we should avoid looking at phone screens when we’re getting ready for bed.

Or how about jumping in a cold shower? This stimulates the release of epinephrine, norepinephrine and testosterone – waking you up and making you much more focussed. It’s the adrenaline that causes the hairs to stand up on your body.

Loud noises can create enough shock to wake you up and so too can hunger. When we’re hungry, we have low serotonin in our brains which in turn increases the cortisol – stress hormone – ratio. That’s why we get anxious when we’re hungry and it’s why some people also get ‘hangry’.

There are all kinds of other interactions like this that can have a huge effect too. For instance, as pain is linked with anger, this explains why we’re cranky when we have aches and pains. It also explains why if you keep flicking your dog’s ear, it will eventually turn around and bite you…

Making Use of Your Biology

So what can we take from all this?

For starters, it’s useful to recognize the role of your natural ebbs and flows and your biology. In other words, try not to get too alarmed if you find yourself feeling very stressed or very tired. Likewise, try not to let anger cloud your judgement. Often we will shout at our loved ones when we’re angry or stressed partly because our perception of events has changed and had a negative slant. We might even find ourselves thinking things like ‘all they do is take advantage of me’. Remember: that’s angry you. That may well simply be the result of cortisol, of testosterone or of all three. Try not to put stock in what you’re thinking.

This also means you can ‘fix’ your mental state in all manner of ways.

You can wake yourself up with a cold shower and some blue light (blue light being the term used to describe light with the same wavelength as the sun). If you’re in a bad mood, then you should try to increase serotonin which you can do with food – or more sensibly by increasing vitamin C. Something else that triggers the release of serotonin is exercise! This is what causes what we know as the ‘runners’ high’.

How do you like to wake yourself up or improve your mood?

If you want to perform at your very best, then use this information to try and improve your sleep. This will help you to wake up with your brain feeling far more refreshed and with much less ‘brain fog’ slowing you down and making you groggy.
Another tip is to sync your routine to these natural rhythms. If you’re going to feel tired and content after a meal, then it’s important to make sure that you’ve already done everything you want to do before you sit down to eat. Want to be more productive in the evenings? Shift dinner back half an hour! Likewise, recognize that you’re less likely to be productive straight after you’ve eaten at lunch. Conversely, if you’re going to try and think creatively – do it when you’re relaxed and calm.

Combating Stress

Also useful to know is that you can use your body to calm stress and event eliminate what would otherwise be a panic attack. That’s because our sympathetic nervous system – which controls our fight or flight response (as well as our opposite ‘rest and digest response’) – is tightly linked with breathing and heart rate. When you breathe quickly, it makes you more stressed and increases your heart rate.

Conversely though, if you breathe more deeply and more heavily, this helps to encourage a much calmer response and puts you more in the rest and digest state. Breathing deeply is thus one of the best ways to calm yourself down and one of the best ways to prevent serious anxiety.

How to Upgrade Your Mental Energy

What’s more important of all though, is that you ensure you have the right diet and that you are in good shape. This will transform the performance of your brain by drastically increasing the ability to create neurotransmitters as needed and by increasing the amount of energy your brain receives.

One way to do this is to consider using some form of multivitamin tablet. This should contain vitamins like B12 and B6, which are used to supply the brain with energy as well as to help create a large number of neurotransmitters. Also used in the creation of many neurotransmitters and hormones are vitamin D, vitamin C, magnesium, zinc and more. If you make sure you are getting these in your diet, then you will find it easier to switch from being highly focused to being relaxed and creative and you will find your brain lasts longer before getting tired. Also particularly important is choline, which is a precursor to acetylcholine found in eggs – this can help improve your sensory perception, your alertness and your memory all at the same time! Amino acids found in protein are also critical for a wide range of neurotransmitters.

What is your favorite multivitamin?

Other nutrients that are very important are those that improve the energy and function of the brain. Any vasodilators for instance, such as garlic, will help to get more blood and more oxygen to the brain helping you to stay alert for longer. Creatine is a bodybuilding supplement also found in red meats and this is great for reducing adenosine and also increasing mental energy – studies show that this alone can be enough to boost IQ! Omega 3 fatty acid improves cell membrane permeability, which means that neurons are better able to communicate with one another. Exercising regularly will help you to create more neural connections in your brain, increasing your ability to learn via heightened plasticity (and brain derived neurotrophic factor). This will also increase your body’s energy efficiency and help you to experience less stress.

What supplements do you take?

In short, it is highly important to eat a nutrient dense diet and to train hard if you want to perform at your mental best. Get more nutrients and substance, avoid junk food and ‘empty calories’ (which spike the blood sugar and throw our entire system out of whack), sleep well, and exercise. As you do this, your brain will instantly start to become hardier, more efficient and less groggy on the whole. And your performance and productivity will also grow to reflect that. 
Next week we'll look at using mindfulness and cognitive behavior therapy for improving your mindset.


  1. Oh I know for a fact if I am not practicing healthy habits, my mind will drift off into negative places! This motivates me to keep on KEEPING ON!

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  3. Mindfulness is an everyday challenge that I like to take head on; lol get it :) Great post today