For many, the COVID-19 pandemic reinforced just how important mental health is for overall wellness. Rather than some intangible aside, it’s a critical element of physical health.
You might even call it fitness.
Referring to mental-health care as mental fitness creates a powerful mindset shift. It puts us in a proactive state and gives us the autonomy to improve it.
And just as we build and preserve muscle with physical training, we can develop and sustain mental fitness by regularly training our brains.
Start with these 12 steps.
1. Clean Your Kitchen
Clear your fridge and pantry of highly processed foods, refined carbohydrates, processed vegetable oils, added sugars, and artificial sweeteners. It’s hard to say no to Doritos and Snickers if you have them at arm’s reach. Aside from being highly addictive, these foods are also detrimental to mood and overall mental health.
Instead, stock your kitchen with meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, and no sugar. These foods provide fiber to your gut microbes and help them thrive.
2. Get Creative
You don’t have to be an artist to be creative.
We all have that spark — trigger it by living creatively.
Try new foods, use a new spice, listen to new music, talk with a stranger, read a different book, paint or sketch — even if you think you’re very bad at it — or play a new game.
3. Try Mindful Eating
We’re all busy.
Some days, I hop on a different virtual platform every hour. I had to stop, take a breath, and schedule lunch into my day or else I’d forget to eat.
Once I got lunch back, I decided to spend at least 15 minutes savoring my food, ignoring the buzzing and beeping of my devices, and with good reason: Mindful eating has been found to improve dietary intake and promote modest weight loss and glycemic control in adults with Type 2 diabetes.
4. Boost Your Mood With Fiber
Make fiber-rich vegetables the protagonists of your meals. Aim to fill a large portion of your plate with colorful, polyphenol-rich vegetables such as leafy greens, radishes, cucumbers, eggplant, zucchini, mushrooms, tomatoes.
The more abundant and varied your diet, the better the biodiversity of your microbiome and the health of your gut.
5. Green Is Good
Aim for 6-7 cups of leafy greens a day. The greener, the better — and the more, the better!
Spinach, arugula, romaine lettuce, cilantro, parsley, swiss chard, and dandelion greens are filled with folate, a key nutrient for mental health.
Folate is an important B vitamin that helps maintain the function of neurotransmitters and keeps our brains functioning optimally. It’s especially important for pregnant women, who often benefit from supplementing with folic acid to support the development of the baby’s brain and nervous system.
6. Spice Things Up
Season your meals with anti-inflammatory spices and herbs containing curcumin, a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent that promotes healthy brain function and resists degenerative processes.
Incorporating turmeric into your diet can also help relieve fatigue, anxiety, and symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression, as well as improve cognitive function.
Make sure you include a pinch of black pepper when cooking with turmeric, as it increases the body’s ability to absorb curcumin by almost 2,000%!
7. Heal Your Gut
Eat fermented foods such as miso, kefir, kimchi, and sulphur-rich vegetables like garlic, onions, leeks, broccoli, collard greens, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower.
Sulfur-rich foods support the liver, help build and repair DNA, increase the antioxidant glutathione, reduce inflammation, and more.
8. Embrace Gratefulness
Gratitude has been shown to improve mental well-being and help with emotional regulation.
It might seem simple, but expressing gratitude has a powerful impact on mental fitness. Try keeping a gratitude journal or simply think about two or three things you are grateful for from the prior day when you wake up each morning — even if it was a bad day.
9. Prioritize Sleep
Quality sleep is inextricably linked to better mental health — and both quality and quantity are important.
During sleep, the gut and brain communicate, regulating sleep patterns, hormone release, and metabolism. Disruptions to the circadian rhythm damage metabolism — leading to weight gain — and interfere with the release of hormones such as serotonin.
Studies have linked sleep disruption to changes in gut bacteria that cause inflammation and insulin sensitivity, even in just one night of reduced sleep.
Sleep is also restorative, meaning it’s the time when your brain cells clean out junk that builds up during the day. If this doesn’t happen, you’re setting yourself up for chronic fatigue and other more serious brain conditions.
10. Let’s Talk
Feeling sad, anxious, depressed, or angry? Open up!
Mental health is still stigmatized in our society, and many people don’t feel comfortable opening up about mental conditions. But by keeping them to ourselves instead of sharing them with loved ones or a professional, we make the healing process lonely and more difficult.
If you’re reading this article, you probably already know the importance of regular exercise for physical fitness. But it’s also key for mental fitness.
Stretching between work calls or even taking a walk during one helps to keep the blood circulating and the brain alert.
Exercise has been linked to improved mood and reduced anxiety, and research suggests as individuals increase their physical activity, their mood improves.
12. Embrace Silence
As the world gets noisier, one can’t help but wonder: Is silence now a luxury?
Studies suggest periods of silence could encourage brain-cell development and promote physical and mental health, while noise has the opposite effect.
Try what I call “intermittent silence,” or 10-minute breaks during the day spent in silence.
I know this list may seem like a lot. But just as we don’t do every exercise in every workout, you don’t need to tackle this entire list every day.
Instead, commit to a constantly varied mental-health training program based on these foundations — and watch your mindset and mood improve.
About the author: Dr. Uma Naidoo, M.D. is a Harvard-trained nutritional psychiatrist, professional chef, nutrition specialist and author of the national bestseller: “This is Your Brain on Food.”