Friday, 18 August 2017

6 Weeks of Summer - the Brain Healthy Diet

You are what you eat.

That's according so some science and a whole population of unqualified theorists. Whilst there is no doubt that diet has a significant impact on physical health, many remain unconvinced as to its ability to improve mental health. And so, I took to researching just how likely it is that food could save our minds from its many troubles...

Whilst noone would claim that food can eradicate all of our many life problems, it most certainly does have an impact on a small few. For example, what we eat affects the body's hormonal balance and hormones have a strong capacity to induce feelings of happiness or depression and anxiety. A well-balanced diet also helps the body to work in good running order, meaning that those niggles of aches, pains and illnesses that quietly bother us are reduced and our ability to enjoy feeling well is increased. Some might even suggest that eating well maintains healthy skin, hair and weight, improving feelings of self-esteem and, as a consequence, happiness. But just how easy is it to save the mind with a brain-healthy diet?

That all depends on how you look at it. To maintain a healthy diet is surprisingly easy when informed by a sound understanding of nutrition and balance. Eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables and cutting out on processed foods (especially those high in saturated fat, salt and sugar) is not too far out of the remit for many people and, as such, eating well is straightforward. On the other hand, there are some very specific foods, including salmon and blueberries, that are recognised as being specifically good for the brain or mood and, unfortunately, many of these foods are well out of my budget. 

This did not prevent me from generally making improvements to my diet, however, and I can say that, of all the changes I have made for this project, this is the one that seemed to show the most notable improvements in my mood. I enjoyed eating more, felt happier and less sluggish after I had eaten and noticed that some old health niggles gently slipped away. On the other hand, the differences to my skin and hair were non-existent. 

The fact is, the brain can not be expected to work properly, including maintaining a healthy mood, if it is not provided with appropriate fuel to do so. Healthy diet is, therefore, an essential part of improving mental well-being and, whilst I would not, necessarily, recommend splashing out on expensive, mind-orientated foods, I would most certainly advise changing the diet to improve the mind.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Mental Health Surprise

Mental Health and its surrounding issues are slowly but surely rising in prominence, with all variations of media turning a keen eye to the discussions provoked by this topic.

Never has there been a better time to speak out and ask for help: campaign groups are fighting for stronger, more inclusive mental health care; people of all generations are making extraordinary efforts to understand the mind's many vulnerabilities and celebrities of all statuses and kinds are stepping out to discuss their problems and make clear that it is okay to not be okay. 

Image sourced from here.

And yet, we still have so, very far to go. Despite understanding that mental illness can affect anyone, that it can exist in any number of forms and that it can be caused by a plethora of reasons, still, people react with surprise when people step out to share their stories.

Just a few weeks ago, Prince Harry discussed with media for the first time how his mental health had been negatively impacted by the untimely death of his mother, Princess Diana. 

'Young boy loses mother in horrific circumstances, has to grieve whilst in the public eye'.

The surprise expressed by some people at the fact that this might, in anyway, cause ill mental health is really quite extraordinary. What is even more sad than this is the scale of extra positivity that the prince's declarations were met with, reaffirming the fact that it should be more difficult for him to express his emotions. 

No matter the exact details of the response, I suspect that very few people respond negatively when any famous person divulges details of their unstable minds. But this is not to say that their responses are positive...

Human beings are not invincible. This applies to every single person on Earth, no matter their wealth, achievements or celebrity status. Whilst society's understanding of mental vulnerability is growing, their ability to perceive weakness in a select few is not and, so long as we continue to act with surprise upon the discovery that anyone we know, or know of, is suffering, the more we promote the idea that it just does not make sense for some people to feel as they do. 

This is not the same as being fooled by those who hide their conditions: sometimes, we are simply surprised to find that somebody who seemed so, visibly, strong is actually broken inside. But, if we are to truly form open discussions about mental health, during which everyone feels safe to discuss how they feel, it is necessary to remove the expectation that anyone might be somehow immune to illness for, truthfully, there is not a single human being who is. 

Friday, 11 August 2017

6 Weeks of Summer - Catching the Zzs

I have never been good at sleeping. I have distinct memories of lying awake all night that begin as early as seven or eight. Over a decade later, the land of bed-byes remains a destination to which I rarely afford a visit. 

And yet, there is no disputing just how crucial sleep is to our health and well-being. Though it may feel, to some, like a waste of time, it is whilst lying there, doing nothing that our bodies carry out their most intricate and efficient repairs. Our heart, lungs and brain are all given a brief, but necessary rest and, because of this, our minds are better equipped to work well the following day. Our thoughts are clearer, our stress hormones reduced and our general sense of positivity improved. 

Getting a good night's sleep, every night is therefore a hugely important way to improve one's mental health. Unfortunately, mental illnesses often go hand-in-hand with sleep deprivation, as the mind constantly distracts itself and the level of stress hormones in the body leave it on permanent high-alert. Worse still, many anti-depressants and other medications can cause sleep deprivation. With all this in mind, just how realistic is sleep as a factor in improving mental health?

Image sourced from here.

At the beginning of this project, I took a full frontal dive into the ocean of theories and ideas about just how to get the best night's sleep. Most research agreed on five key factors. In order to get high quality sleep, one must:

- reduce screen time
- control lighting, temperature and noise close to bed time
- establish a routine
- clear the mind before bed
- Control the day to make for a better night.

Some of these factors were easier than others to control. In order to sleep well, it is necessary to have a cool, dark and quiet environment. Sleeping with the window open and wearing loose clothing most certainly helps me to prevent regular intervals of waking up due to being too warm. When I go to bed, I also turn all lights off and just use a small set of fairy-lights to allow me to see what I am doing. This means that my brain is not kept wide awake by a mini-sun in my room and is allowed to gently slow down. Certainly, both of these steps have helped me to feel more tired as I approach going to bed. 

Reducing screen time - especially close to bed - was a little more difficult to implement as the majority of my work takes place on a computer and, with working a full-time job in the daytime, I often have to work until late at night. This means that, sadly, I was unable to implement the change to any great effect. It is worth noting, however, that on nights where I put my computer away early, falling asleep has happened noticeably quicker. For those that can, this is definitely a worthy change to make. 

Establishing a bedtime routine is, again, largely dependant on the lifestyle of the individual and how far they are able to follow the same structures each day. The idea is not merely to ensure that going to bed happens at the same time every night, but that a night-time routine is established so that the brain knows, when the routine begins, that it can start preparing to sleep. My night time routine was not as elaborate as it may have been, but went as follows:

I stopped working about half an hour before bed, going to my room, turning the light off and putting the fairy lights on. I then tidy, prepare any things I need for morning and get out the things that I always have beside my bed. I then go and brush my teeth.

When I come back to my room, I work on the 'clearing the mind' steps, stretching and doing basic breathing exercises to lower my heart rate. After this, I turn the fairy lights off and get into bed. Unfortunately, I am not able to say that any of this reduces the length of time I lie in bed just waiting to sleep. What I can say, however, is that it has helped me to relax whilst in bed and, even, be less achy and groggy when I wake in the morning. 

All of these changes had varying effects on my ability to sleep, though the overall quality of my sleep did show marginal improvement. The big question, however, is how has this affected my health?

Whilst I cannot claim that my life has been radically improved by an hour's extra kip, the start of my days has become noticeably easier, with me being able to wake up quickly and think clearly from a much earlier time. I am also a little more alert during the day, meaning that some activities are less frustrating. As such, though I am not convinced by the scale of its impact, I am certain that sleep has the ability to improve the mind.

For tips on how to get a better night's sleep, click here.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

The Deserved

Treat: 'an event or item that is out of the ordinary and gives great pleasure'

Everyone likes a treat and many of us choose to treat ourselves on a weekly or, even, daily basis, be this in the form of a cake with lunch or a two-week trip to somewhere exotic. For many of us, it is these little pieces of delight that make life that little bit brighter.

And, in most cases, treats are, therefore, a good thing. They take an otherwise adequate life and give them the occasional sparkle. But, for a select few, a treat is not just a nice added extra, it is everything other than bad: every possible event, item and opportunity that isn't dreadful is somehow an honour to behold. To some, a treat is anything that makes us smile.

Image sourced from here.

This is perhaps unsurprising. Certainly, there are large numbers of people for whom happiness does feel a little out of the ordinary and many more whose treats are so few and far between that even a 30-second laugh seems like an enormous deal. 

A problem occurs when people begin to view happiness, in its entirety, as something that they are privileged to have because - whilst, relatively speaking, we are incredibly privileged to be able to call ourselves happy -, the second we stop viewing comfort and pleasure as things that we are entitled to, we simultaneously reduce our efforts to achieve either ideal. 

People who expect to enjoy life, more often than not, do. Why wouldn't they? Entitlement is typically accompanied by a drive to obtain whatever one feels that they are owed and an at least mildly inflated sense of self-worth. Such people are far more likely to book the holiday that they can only just afford or buy the latte instead of the ordinary tea because they value their own enjoyment and truly believe that they are worthy of happiness.

Conversely, individuals who are lacking in self-esteem and view money, weight or any other entity as being of higher importance than their contentment are less likely to respect their own value and more likely to refrain from treat-searching, or refer to things that make them happy as a 'treat' when they do. This can easily progress into labelling occasional good days or single hours of happiness as treats as though we are somehow privileged to not hate life. 

I am not, for a single second, suggesting that the human lifespan should be spent devouring luxury food and relaxing in monthly 5* holidays but, just sometimes, people would do well to understand that they are entitled to a good day everyday and should feel robbed when they don't have one, rather than lucky when they do. 

Every single person is deserving of happiness and should not consider themselves to have been 'treated' should they find it. After all, if not happiness, what, exactly, is life for?