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The Truth About Improving Your Mental Health

Updated: Dec 15, 2023

On Wednesday night, the BBC ran another in it’s ‘The Truth About …’ series. This time, all about improving your mental health … one I was naturally intrigued by being such a passion area of mine..


So, what were the highlights:


There were some key insights that came from the programme …


LISTENING TO YOUR HEARTBEAT CAN REDUCE ANXIETY AND STRESS


Sounds crazy, and does require a bit of practice, but what the programme showed is that if, when we are anxious or stressed, we count how many beats our heart beats in 30 seconds and work to actively reduce that number it can allow us to feel calmer!


How it works is that when you tune into your heart and count it’s beats it sends a signal to the brain that you are in control. You start by counting how many beats your heart beats in 30 seconds when you are calm, and then when you feel anxious or stressed and our heart rate naturally increases as part of the fight and flight response, you tap back into that heartbeat and start counting with a view to lowering the beats per minute.


One way to practice is to count the beats when you are calm, then do some star jumps/run around for about a minute so that you increase your heart rate. Then when you stop exercising, focus on the heart and lowering with the power of your thoughts.


TAKE-OUT: MINDFULNESS ALSO WORKS ON A SIMILAR BASIS – I FIND WWW.MINDFUL.ORG HAS LOTS OF USEFUL RESOURCES AND MINDFUL EXERCISES TO TRY.


PROBIOTICS


I’m always happy when I see a mainstream programme start talking about nutrition or the microbiome! They looked at psychobiotics: live bacteria (or probiotics) that when ingested may offer mental health benefits.


The ran a test in the programme with volunteers struggling with different mental health issues such as anxiety, ruminating and low mood. Half of the group got a placebo and the other a probiotic (they used Bio-Kult which is a firm favourite in my practice). Neither group knew which one they got.

“There are more microbes in the gut then there are stars in the Milky Way”

The results were:

  1. Those who got the placebo saw a 20% improvement in mood

  2. Those who received the probiotic saw an improvement by as much as 50%

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TAKE OUT: PROBIOTICS CAN BE BENEFICIAL TO THOSE STRUGGLING WITH POOR MENTAL HEALTH, BUT ALSO LOOK TO ADDING MORE PROBIOTIC FOODS TO YOUR DIET TOO SUCH AS LIVE YOGHURT, KEFIR, SAUERKRAUT, TEMPEH (FERMENTED SOY), KIMCHI, MISO, KOMBUCHA, PICKLES, TRADITIONAL BUTTERMILK AND CHEESE. YES CHEESE1 SPECIFICALLY CHEDDAR, COTTAGE, MOZZARELLA, PARMESAN, FETA AND GOUDA


EXERCISE


I think it’s well-known now that exercise can help improve mental health, as it releases brain chemicals (endorphins) but also improves blood flow to the brain. IN the programme though, they demonstrated how exercising while concentrating on a task actually increased that blood low to the brain and was therefore of more benefit


TAKE-OUT: NEXT TIME YOU GO FOR A WALK OR RUN, TRY LISTENING TO PODCAST AT THE SAME TIME!


SOCIAL MEDIA


I think the long-held assumption for most of us is that social media is bad for our mental health, but actually it may not be! The run a test to monitor two groups of students who engaged with social media passively (i.e. they could only look and read, not comments, likes or posting themselves) or actively (i.e. commenting, posting pictures, engaging with others).

The results showed that passive social media engagement was most harmful for mental health! One study from US has even demonstrated a 33% increased risk of developing depressive symptoms through passive use, compared to a 15% decreased risk if actively consuming.


The other side of it is that spending 3 hours or more on social media can make your mental health worse by up to 80%


TAKE-OUT: IF YOU ARE USING SOCIAL MEDIA, BE ACTIVE THROUGH COMMENTS, POSTS AND LIKES, BUT DO NOT USE IT FOR MORE THAN 3 HOURS A DAY. (P.S. IF YOU DO USE SOCIAL MEDIA FOR MORE THAN 3 HOURS A DAY, THINK ABOUT ALL THAT TIME YOU COULD BE DOING SOMETHING ELSE?!!

SLEEP


When we don’t get enough sleep, our brain are less able to process emotional challenges. In the programme they looked at something called Electrical Beats Stimulation (EBS) which looks at different brainwaves:

  1. Alpha waves – these are slow and related to feelings of relaxation so we want to generate more of them before we fall asleep

  2. High beta waves – these are fast and related to being alert and awake. Naturally, you do’t want more of these before bed!


The programme showed how just one cup of coffee increased the high beta waves by over 100%. Stress, anxiety, and racing thoughts also lead to high beta waves.


They then used EBS to increase the alpha waves and there was a dramatic difference, which is why this technique is being used to help those with insomnia (although it’s not available on the NHS yet)


TAKE-OUT: OTHER WAYS TO INCREASE THE AMOUNT OF ALPHA WAVES INCLUDES MEDITATION, RELAXATION TECHNIQUES AND CALMING MUSIC. AND DON’T DRINK CAFFEINE BEFORE BED!

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