Most of us ditch our self-care routine in December; the excess social engagements, holiday temptations, and opportunities to indulge can cause not only our physical health to suffer, but also our mental health. While this month can be challenging with the extra stress and expectation of the holidays, there are a few adjustments we can make in our day-to-day to help manage our well-being. Dr. Melissa Glover gives her top 10 tips to improve mental wellness during the holidays:
Eat your greens
Optimal diet is key to optimal health.Green leafy vegetables like kale, spinach, chard and arugula contain vitamins and minerals such as B-vitamins, magnesium and iron. These nutrients reduce inflammation, boost energy and metabolic function, and improve mood by supporting the formation of neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.
2. Limit sugar and processed foods
We all expect there to be a ton of sugar in pop, candy, and baked goods, but shockingly sugar also hides in places we don’t expect it! Check the labels of your cereal or granola, sauces and condiments, protein bars, and even dairy products like yogurt and you’ll be surprised by the sugar content. The World Health Organization recently lowered the recommendation of daily sugar intake to under 5% of daily energy intake, or ~25g of refined sugars per day.
When we eat sugar our bodies release an excessive amount of insulin to process all the sugar which causes a rapid reduction of blood sugar. This leads to the release of a hormone called cortisol to compensate for it Cortisol is our “fight or flight” hormone, a necessary survival mechanism but it can also cause anxiety and irritability. Blood sugar spikes and crashes also affect our energy levels and lead to that afternoon sluggish feeling. The best way to avoid these blood sugar crashes is to limit refined sugars, and if you are going to have something with sugar or a lot of starch, pair it with fat, fibre, and protein!
3. Support the adrenals.
The adrenal glands produce our stress hormone cortisol, and as previously mentioned cortisol is our “fight or flight” hormone. Cortisol is released from our adrenals when something is considered in our minds to be dangerous, harmful or stressful, or during physiological stressors like illness or inflammation. As you can imagine, there are a lot of things in our day-to-day lives that cause cortisol to be released, and therefore our adrenal glands often need some TLC.
There are lots of natural ways to support the adrenal glands including mitigating our stress where we can, and practicing mindful meditation or breathing exercises. We can also use adaptogenic herbs to support the adrenals. These herbs counteract the adverse effects of cortisol and stress, and support our adrenal glands to do their job more efficiently. Adaptogens enable the body's cells to access more energy and eliminate toxic by-products. Some examples of adaptogenic herbs include ashwaghanda, licorice, rhodiola, ginseng, and reishi mushroom. Check with your naturopathic doctor if adaptogenic herbs are right for you.
4. Be realistic, set goals, and prioritize.
It seems so simple, but it makes a world of a difference. Make a list of tasks you must do, and tackle them in order of importance. Delegate responsibilities where you can and prioritize what you love the most. Sometimes even this can seem overwhelming, so I often coach my patients to break projects into small steps. Be willing to compromise with yourself and with others, but set boundaries and stick to them.
Shallow breathing prevents the body from getting enough oxygen. Many people fail to breathe deeply when they feel tense, which is one reason you might feel exhausted at the end of a stressful day. Breathing deeper, slower, quieter and more regularly helps you force more oxygen into your cells. Increased oxygen in your cells slows your heart rate, lowers blood pressure, improves circulation, and ultimately provides more energy.
6. Get active
Just 30 minutes of exercise at least three times per week allow us to get the cardiovascular benefits that lead to increased vitality. A study by California State University has found that the more steps people take, the more energetic they report feeling. This can be hard to imagine, because a lot of times when people are fatigued the last thing they want to do is exercise, but realistically exercise will be the thing that often energizes them the most. Unfortunately during the busy (and cold) holiday season, this is typically what gets dropped! Try to maintain an exercise routine to keep your mental and physical health in check.
7. Sleep soundly
Sleep hygiene is vital to getting those valuable Zzz’s. The basic aspects of proper sleep hygiene are having a regular schedule and bedtime routine; eliminating all light sources; avoiding stimulants in the afternoon and avoiding snacks high in simple carbohydrates (sugars) before bed.
Some ways to optimize your bedroom for sleep are to:
Keep it cool. A drop of body temperature stimulates sleep.
Keep it comfortable. If you wake up with more back or neck pain than you went to bed with it is probably time to buy a new mattress or pillow.
Keep it quiet. If your room is noisy use ear plugs, white noise, a fan or soft music.
Keep it dark. Melatonin, the main hormone for stimulating sleep, requires darkness. Use thick curtains, blinds, or eye masks to ensure maximum darkness.
Keep it work-free. Your bedroom is for sleeping and sex only. Watching television, working on a computer and reading can over stimulate the mind and negatively affect sleep.
Keep it free from distractions. Turn your phone on do not disturb (better yet, keep it out of the room), and turn your clock away from view.
Create bedroom “Zen.” Try removing clutter, homework, calendars etc., if you can, think about painting the room to earthy tones or making it your relaxing place, use calming lavender or peppermint essential oils in a diffuser.
Avoid using a loud alarm clock. Waking up suddenly to the blaring wail of an alarm clock can be a shock to your body; you’ll also find you’ll feel groggier when you are roused in the middle of a sleep cycle, if you get enough sleep on a regular basis, an alarm clock will not be necessary, if you do use an alarm, you should wake just before it goes off
Try a sunrise alarm, which is an alarm clock with natural light built in that simulates a sunrise,
Try an alarm that gradually gets louder, or soothing classical music
8. Get enough vitamin D
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble compound that’s important as much for brain development as it is for bone development. Data suggests Vitamin D deficiency is linked to increased depressive symptoms. To naturally get enough vitamin D we require 15 minutes a day of sunlight on the skin between 10am and 3pm during summer when the UV index is at its highest. That being said, sunscreen is still advised to ward off harmful UV rays, and unfortunately reduces your ability to produce vitamin D by 90%. Aside from sunlight, vitamin D can also be found in oily fish, UVB-exposed mushrooms and fortified milk.
9. Incorporate healthy fats (omega-3s, essential fatty acids)
Polyunsaturated fats (omega-3 fatty acids) have a vital role in maintaining proper neuronal structure and function, as well as in modulating critical aspects of the inflammatory pathway in the body. Omega 3 fatty acids are one of nature’s best anti-inflammatories. Omega-3 fats can be found in nuts, seeds and oysters, although the highest amounts exist in oily fish such as sardines, salmon (especially King salmon), anchovies and mackerel.
MCT (medium chain triglyceride) oil is another source of essential fatty acids that is rich in antioxidants. MCTs are digested easily and sent to your liver where they can quickly positively affect your metabolism by being burned as fuel, as ketones. A 2004 study found that the MCTs in coconut oil helped improve memory problems in older adults (The Journal of Neurobiology of Aging), and also can make you feel more clear-headed, energetic and positive. MCT oil helps not only feed your brain cells, but also improves your digestive health via the gut-brain connection.
10. Take probiotics
Research shows a connection between the bacteria in our guts and brain health, which may affect mental health, mood and energy (Trends Neurosci, 2013). Likely because over 80% of our serotonin is produced in the gut by these bacteria and serotonin is our happy, calm, focussed and relaxed neurotransmitter. Peripheral serotonin is produced in the digestive tract by enterochromaffin (EC) cells and by types of immune cells and neurons.
When the composition of the gut flora is compromised it can result in inflammatory responses that can negatively affect the nervous system and brain function. A balanced microflora environment is supported by a diet rich in the foods that nourish beneficial bacteria and reduce harmful microbial species. Beneficial microflora can be supported by eating fermented foods such as tempeh, sauerkraut, kefir and yoghurt, and by pectin-rich foods such as fruit skin or supplementing with a multi-strain probiotic.
You don’t need to completely change your lifestyle to employ these tips. Do what you can, and start small. Even a few changes can lead you to be more mindful of your mental wellness.