Mental Health

Dr. Melissa Glover's 10 tips to improve mental wellness during the holidays

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:

Dr. Melissa Glover Naturopath
  1. 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.


5. Breathe

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.




How to practice self-care during the holiday season

Amanda Erickson RMT

Our Western world and busy lives tell us that our productivity is a measure of our success. We are conditioned to believe we must show up, persevere, and keep going; no matter what.  

However, when we observe nature at this time of year, everything slows down. Squirrels have stashed their treasures, the birds fly south, and creatures hibernate until the warmth of spring returns.  Yet here we are running around like there’s never enough time in the day.

I have been experimenting with what it means to listen to my nervous system. I  crave the slow days and evenings at home.  Like nature, this time of year has me turning inwards. I want to curl up beside a fireplace with a pile of knitting and endless pots of tea, all while my brain says, “Go! Holidays are around the corner. Prepare! Do more!”

The looming holiday season is full of events, to-do’s, and social commitments. Often it can feel overwhelming. Tune into yourself and listen to what aligns you as you navigate times of busyness.

Here are a few tips to get started:

1.     Manage your schedule

Physically scheduling in my self-care time is a great help and a huge start to the process. Treating your body to a massage or acupuncture is a great way to turn down the heightened nervous system at this time of year, and to let that unneeded shoulder tension dissipate. Take a new yoga class, or get a session with a kinesiologist, physiotherapist, or other health professional to get the support you need.

 

2.     Get outside

 Take a walk in nature, even if it's just stepping outside your office or front door for a stroll around the block. Notice the beautiful details of nature; take it all in, and relish in the present moment.

 

3.     Slow down

Take five deep, nourishing breaths. Try this before you leave the house for work, or before you head out to tackle that list of to-do’s. Try a few minutes of meditation of savasana (corpse pose) to slow the mind.

 

4.     Cultivate gratitude

Write down five things you are grateful for in this moment. Focussing on what you’re grateful for helps give you perspective and realize all that you currently have.

 

From my experience, when we tune into self we can use our time more efficiently. The above options have proven to me that when we prioritize turning towards alignment of heart, mind, and body, the to-do list becomes checked off, and the time to accomplish it is all there.  Taking just a few extra moments to turn inwards with ourselves gives us more time in return.

What causes mood disorders in young people?

As we grow older, many of us have the tendency to idealize our child- and young-adulthood as a carefree, exploratory time, with few responsibilities or consequences.

Naturopathic Medicine, Naturopathic Doctor, Marita Schauch

Whether that view of our youth is true or not, North American statistics are showing a new trend towards the opposite: a study released by Statistics Canada on January 17 showed that over 11% of Canadians age 15-24 have experienced an MDE (major depressive episode) at some point in their lives. They are the demographic with the highest incidence of mental health disorders in North America.

The number appears to rising, as well: a study done in the US showed a 37% increase in mental health issues in young people between 2005 and 2014. Scarier still? Suicide is the second cause of death for kids in this age bracket.

...a study done in the US showed a 37% increase in mental health issues in young people between 2005 and 2014.

So what’s causing poor mental health in our young adults? And, more importantly, what can we do to help?

The diet

Naturopathy, Dr. Marita Schauch

The inflammatory response in the body and brain is largely due to the dysregulation of stress hormones, infections, environmental toxins and a diet rich in trans fats and sugar.

Canadian researchers found that a protein known to be a marker of inflammation was up to 1/3 higher in the brains of depressed patients compared to healthy ones.  Those with the most severe forms of depression also had the most inflammation.

Naturopathy, Naturopathic Doctor, Dr. Marita Schauch

The current SAD (standard American diet) is FULL of hidden sugars, allergens, and food stripped of its nutrients due to over-farming… all things that cause massive amounts of inflammation in the body!

Parents have less control over what their kids eat between the ages of 15-24, so there’s a good chance inflammatory foods are being consumed on a regular basis by this at-risk age group - much to their mental health’s detriment.

Healthy gut, healthy brain

Naturopathy, Dr. Marita Schauch

On the subject of what we’re eating, our gut, or gastrointestinal (GI) system, is intimately connected to our brain. Just as emotional situations can cause feelings in our stomach (think about feeling butterflies, or feeling nauseous when we’re nervous), what’s going on in the gut can cause an emotional response.

In fact, did you know that 85% of our “happy hormones”, like serotonin and dopamine, are produced in our gut? Also, 80% of the immune system’s tissues are located in our gut.

Naturopathy, Naturopathic Medicine, Dr. Marita Schauch

The gut is as much of an epicentre in the body as the brain!

This is why it’s vitally important that we sustain a healthy gut flora. When we eat too many sugars, or allergens like wheat, dairy, corn and/or soy, our gut loses its ability to perform optimally.

Never mind just feeling sluggish or low-energy because we’re not digesting our food properly - if our GI system isn’t healthy, it won’t produce enough of the hormones we need to moderate our mood, either.


Screens & Social Media

If you’ve read my blog or visited me at my clinic, you’ll know that I advocate screen-free time strongly, particularly when mental health issues are involved.

Even for adults, who have (mostly) fully-formed opinions of themselves and the world, being exposed to a constant influx of information can have negative impacts on health, and self-worth.

Naturopathy, Counselling, Dr. Marita Schauch

For teens and young adults, too much screen time and exposure to social media can be like poison. As the brain develops it requires real-life social interaction and engagement, not 2D moderated interaction. Additionally, happiness studies have shown that a sense of community is crucial to living a happy, fulfilling life.

The isolation of staring at a screen all day, combined with the social pressure and downright bullying that happens on various social media platforms, make technology a bit of a lethal combo for a young person with a mood disorder - or on the verge of developing one.

How to help

If you suspect your child is struggling with their mental health, I highly recommend visiting a professional - be it an MD, and ND, or a counsellor - who can make suggestions for your unique situation.

That being said, there are some supplements & lifestyle changes you can implement right now.

Certain vitamin and mineral deficiencies and underlying hormone imbalances can lead to changes in our brain chemicals and lead to mood disorders.  The following are important to have checked by your MD or ND:  Vitamin D, Vitamin B12, iron, thyroid, adrenals, and blood sugars.

Supplements

Naturopathy, Dr. Marita Schauch

5-HTP may help to increase serotonin synthesis as depression and anxiety have been linked to serotonin imbalances in the brain.

Passionflower is known as a “calming” herb for anxiety or nervousness, insomnia, generalized anxiety disorder, and ADHD.

PharmaGABA is the most inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain.  Low levels of GABA have been linked to anxiety, depression, and insomnia.

Probiotics will restore imbalances in the microbiota in the gut that can negatively affect brain function.

B vitamins, especially B12, B6, B5 and folic acid are often low in people with anxiety and depression.

Omega-3 fatty acids decrease the inflammatory response in the body, which seems to be an underlying cause in depression and anxiety.

Lifestyle

Naturopathy, Dr. Marita Schauch

Encourage your kids to get outside, see their friends in person, engage with their family, read, write (on paper!), play sports - anything that breaks up the lonely monotony that comes with “smart” technology. “Phone free” zones and times of day can be really effective, as can strict boundaries - your kids may not like the feeling of being without their technology at first, but the benefits far outweigh the bad moods!

More than anything, if you suspect your teen/young adult is suffering, a little love & compassion can go a long way. It’s hard enough to be a teenager, but nowadays kids and young adults are contending with a world  - and a level of mental health - we’ve never seen before. Try to be patient with them, and give them the support they need.