MENTAL HEALTH AWARENESS WEEK: FOCUS ON NUTRITION AND EXERCISE

Welcome to ‘Mental Health Awareness Week: Focus on Nutrition and Exercise’. This week, from 13  - 19 May, 2024, is dedicated to promoting mental well-being through movement.

Let’s try to remove the stigma and encourage open conversations about mental health.

Before diving into the topic, let me share a bit about myself to provide context.

My mental health is generally fine (or so I think), and I'm a blogger focused on nutrition and weight management for women over 50. So, do I have the right to write about mental health issues?

Symbol 'Mental Health Matters

Do I need to be a psychiatrist, psychologist, or researcher to offer advice? Do I have to go through the experience to understand what it is to have mental issues?

If you have been through troubled times and have come out to the other side, does that ‘qualify’ you to give advice? The answer is likely yes.

Going through difficult times and finding tools to cope with life's challenges can foster empathy for others experiencing similar struggles.

Reflecting on mental health within my family, I gained insights through conversations with my sister about our mother.

At a young age, I spent time with my aunt and uncle, indulging in simple pleasures like cornflakes with hot milk and sugar (a treat I wouldn't indulge in today!).

Depressed woman sitting at a table, drinking wine

The reason that I spent time there, was because my mum was severely depressed. As a child, I was blissfully unaware of my mother's difficulties during that time. Looking back, I cherish those memories, though I now better understand the challenges she must have faced.

My mother's bouts of seasonal depression persisted for years, and she once expressed that knowing the "black hole" feeling would pass gave her strength to endure.

Looking back, it feels like a distant memory, and I maintain a positive outlook on life.

Now, as a blogger and middle-aged woman, I delve into topics like nutrition, balanced meals, sugar cravings, and exercise, putting into practice what I preach.

I've realised that food and exercise play crucial roles in maintaining a healthy mind, staying sharp, and improving cognitive abilities.

In this blog, I'll be sharing evidence-based knowledge, highlighting the significance of self-care, nutrition, and exercise for mental health.

Join me on this journey as we empower ourselves and others, celebrating Mental Health Awareness Week and beyond.

Since my usual audience is women over 50, I'll begin by addressing the additional challenges they may face. If this part isn't relevant to you, feel free to skip ahead to the next chapter.

Cup of coffee and a not saying self -care isn't selfish

As a reminder, please consult your doctor before starting any new exercise or nutrition regimen if you're unsure whether it's suitable for you.

UNLOCKING VITALITY:
AGE-RELATED HEALTH HURDLES FOR WOMEN OVER 50

During menopause, women often see their metabolism slow down, which can lead to putting on weight around the middle due to hormonal changes. These hormonal changes can also affect bone density and might contribute to conditions like osteoporosis.

With the naturally slow-down of our metabolism, we also start losing muscle. These hormonal changes can be tough for women over 50, and have an impact on mood, energy levels, and how sharp we feel.

By becoming active and eating well, we can boost metabolism and muscle health, enhancing mental well-being and overall vitality.

Prioritising regular exercise and a balanced diet empowers us to get stronger, feel fitter, and experience greater well-being in this later stage of life. It's about nurturing our bodies and minds with healthy habits!

So, what if we struggle with our mental health later in life? There can be many reasons behind our struggles. Our past experiences, genetics, financial worries, feeling unheard, and unresolved life issues can all contribute to this struggle.

Sometimes, we may find it hard to think clearly and suffer from brain fog, which can be influenced by hormonal changes, chronic stress, poor diet, and other health factors. Mental health struggles are complex.

When mental health challenges are overwhelming, seeking help from a doctor is crucial. This may involve further referrals, prescriptions, and additional support to address and manage these issues.

Mental Health Awareness Week

Remember, reaching out for support is an important step towards improved well-being and vitality at any age.

Although doctors recommend exercise to improve mental health, the motivation to adopt healthier eating habits and incorporate exercise into our routines may be lacking.

We might perceive exercise as something for younger individuals, and changing our cooking habits can seem daunting. Sometimes, our partners might not like changing the meals they're used to.

Change from I can't do it, to I CAN do it.

We will give ourselves plenty of reasons why it is not possible to start exercising. However, self-care is essential to nourish body and mind and lighten our daily struggles, enabling us to enjoy life more fully.

Now, let's explore how exercise and nutrition can contribute to our well-being, with 'movement' being the theme during this Mental Health Awareness Week.

By understanding the benefits of exercise and healthy eating, we can take steps toward feeling better, even when facing challenges.

EXERCISE AND MENTAL HEALTH:
WHY IT MATTERS AND WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

Exercise is essential for both physical and mental well-being. In this part, we'll delve into why exercise is crucial for mental health and provide valuable insights to help you understand its impact.

Moving More for Mental Health

Mental Health Awareness Week

Research shows that exercise is beneficial for individuals coping with mental health challenges. Regular exercise can reduce feelings of depression, alleviate physical pain, and help manage body weight.

Engaging in resistance exercises, such as strength training or weight training, can assist older adults in managing anxiety and depression while enhancing self-esteem and overall well-being.

Staying active can also lower the risk of depression. Combining aerobic activities like walking or swimming with resistance exercises like lifting weights can effectively address anxiety-related issues and positively impact depression.

To Highlight the Extensive Benefits of Exercise:

Boost Your Mood and Energy - Endorphins

When you exercise, your body releases chemicals like endorphins and serotonin, making you feel happier and less anxious and boosting your energy levels. This can help improve your mood and reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Endorphins are often referred to as "feel-good" hormones. The release of endorphins is a natural mood boost and can reduce symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression in moderation.

So, although this can positively impact your overall well-being, there is a more important factor playing a role when exercising. And this factor is the BDN factor.

Increased BDNF, or Brain-derived neurotrophic factor. BDNF is a protein that is influenced by physical exercise. When you exercise, your brain produces more BDNF, which helps reduce feelings of depression and anxiety.

Increased BDNF levels contribute to improved mood and overall mental well-being, both during and after physical activity.

Reduced Inflammation

Chronic mental health conditions are associated with heightened inflammation levels in their bodies. The result of exercising regularly is that this reduces inflammation.

Intensive exercise releases certain inflammatory markers known as cytokines. By releasing this, the body responds by regulating these cytokines better. Exercise promotes overall therefore immune system regulation and improves tissue function.

Increased Cognitive Flexibility

Exercise has been shown to enhance cognitive flexibility, which is the ability to switch between different tasks or thought processes. This can be particularly beneficial for individuals with conditions like depression or anxiety that may impact cognitive function.

Improved Memory and Learning

Regular exercise has been linked to better memory retention and learning ability. This can be helpful for individuals experiencing cognitive difficulties associated with mental illness.

Woman sitting at table and doing a crossword puzzle

Enhanced Social Connection

By doing exercises - e.g. brisk walking - when you are outside, you are likely to say hello to a few people you meet on the way. Being outside in the light (or rain), and having social contact will have a positive influence on your well-being.

Reduces stress by Getting Fitter

Physical activity helps lower levels of stress hormones like cortisol. Regular exercise can lead to better stress management and a more relaxed state of mind.

Sleeping Better

Exercise can improve sleep quality and duration, which is essential for overall mental health. Better sleep can enhance mood, cognitive function, and emotional resilience.

Improved Self-esteem and Confidence

Reaching fitness goals and becoming physically stronger can make you feel better about yourself and more confident. This positive way of seeing yourself can lead to better mental health overall.

Healthy Distraction and Coping Mechanism

Engaging in exercise can serve as a healthy distraction from negative thoughts or stressors. It can also be a constructive way to cope with difficult emotions and manage daily challenges.

During 'Mental Health Awareness Week' we aim to recognise the positive impact of exercise on mental well-being.

This understanding helps us find the motivation to exercise regularly.

NUTRITION AND ITS INFLUENCE ON MENTAL HEALTH

Nutrition is a key factor in mental health, often underestimated. When we're not feeling our best, the idea of cooking a healthy meal might feel overwhelming.

However, understanding the importance of nutrition for our well-being can inspire us to prioritise healthy eating, even when it's challenging.

Here, we explore the benefits of nutritious food and offer tips to help you incorporate healthy meals into your routine.

Foods and Medication


Food Medicine Interaction

It's important to be aware that certain foods can interact with prescribed medications.

For instance, grapefruit can negatively affect medication because it contains compounds that interfere with enzymes in the intestine responsible for metabolizing many medications. 


This interference can increase medication levels in the bloodstream, raising the risk of side effects or toxicity.



In addition to grapefruit, several other foods can potentially interact with prescribed medications, affecting their effectiveness or safety. Some common examples include: 

  • Leafy greens: Foods high in vitamin K, like spinach, kale, and broccoli, can interfere with blood-thinning medications such as warfarin (Coumadin).
  • Dairy products: Calcium-rich foods like milk, cheese, and yoghurt can interfere with certain antibiotics.
  • High-fibre foods: Fibre-rich foods like whole grains, beans, and fruits can affect the absorption of certain medications used to treat thyroid conditions, diabetes, or heart disease.
  • Tyramine-containing foods: Tyramine-rich foods like aged cheeses and cured meats can interact with certain antidepressants.
  • Alcohol: Alcohol consumption can interact with various medications, altering their effects.

Always discuss any dietary plans with your doctor, especially if you are taking prescription medications. The healthcare provider should be able to advise what is safe to use.

What is the Correlation Between Healthy Foods and Mental Health?

Nutrition has a big impact on brain health and emotional balance. The foods we eat affect our gut health, which is key for overall well-being. Our gut affects things like bloating, immune function, mood, and inflammation.

Stress negatively impacts gut health. A healthier gut can lead to better immune function and mood. It's like a cycle - if you reduce stress, you improve gut health, leading to better mood and less inflammation.

Eating the right foods supports these principles too. Healthy foods promote a healthier gut, less inflammation, better immune function, and improved mood.

A healthy gut is crucial for nutrient absorption and overall gut health, supporting digestion and preventing issues like inflammation and infections.

Gut health also affects brain function. The bacteria in our gut produce important substances like serotonin, which impacts how we feel, sleep, and eat. 

Inflammation can affect how well antidepressant medications work by impacting neuroplasticity, the brain's ability to adapt to treatments. It is important to know that inflammation can worsen depressive symptoms and disrupt normal brain function.

By working towards a healthy gut, you're promoting better nutrient absorption, improved mood, enhanced immune function (beneficial for heart health), reduced bloating, and clearer thinking.

This effort also leads to improved sleep and reduced food cravings, ultimately contributing to better mental outcomes.

When Are Foods Deemed Healthy? 

Foods are deemed healthy when they are low in added sugars, rich in whole grains, and abundant in vegetables. They should provide a balanced combination of proteins, carbohydrates, and healthy fats. 

What Happens If Your Diet Consists Mainly of Processed Foods?

  • Increased inflammation, which can lead to more infections and skin irritations.
  • Reduced absorption of nutrients from food.
  • Weight gain due to high-calorie intake and low nutrient density.
  • Increased risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.
  • More frequent sugar cravings due to rapid spikes and drops in blood sugar levels.
  • Feelings of lethargy and low energy due to lack of essential nutrients and poor dietary quality.
  • Digestive issues such as bloating, constipation, or diarrhoea due to low fibre intake.

And just a reminder: If you have food intolerances or sensitivities, it's important to avoid those foods to support your health.

BOOSTING MENTAL HEALTH:
PHYSICAL ACTIVITY AND NUTRITION TIPS FOR WELLNESS

When you're feeling depressed, anxious, or struggling with mental health issues, the idea of exercising or cooking healthy meals may seem overwhelming.  

It's especially challenging if you're stuck at home or finding it hard to get out of bed. How can you change this when you're in a tough spot?

Tips to Overcome Exercise Hurdles

During Mental Health Awareness Week, we highlight the importance of incorporating exercise into your daily routine. Each person's fitness journey is unique, and there's no one-size-fits-all approach. However, so here are some helpful tips to guide you as you start integrating exercise into your life.

Understand the Benefits: Recognize why exercise is important for your well-being.

Cultivate Healthy Habits: Commit to building a long-lasting routine for overall wellness.

Schedule Regular Activity: Establish a consistent exercise routine. Start by moving daily, whether with a neighbour or a short walk around the block.

Start Slowly: Begin with gentle activities like walking, stretching, or chair exercises. Gradually increase intensity and duration as you become more comfortable.

AI Generated image of a woman and colour everywhere

Exercise at Home: Use YouTube for short exercises. Begin with 5-minute routines and gradually increase to 20 minutes over time, preferably in the morning. 

Social Support: Exercise with a friend, family member, or group to stay motivated. Consider joining community fitness classes or clubs.

Find Enjoyable Activities: Choose exercises you enjoy, like dancing, swimming, gardening, or yoga, to increase motivation and enjoyment.

Celebrate Small Wins: Acknowledge and celebrate your efforts and achievements along the way. Every step counts toward your goals!

Tips to Make Changes in Your Nutrition Choices

If you're looking to incorporate more nutrient-rich meals into your daily routine, here are practical tips to help you get started:

  • Tip 1: Reduce Processed Foods
    Avoid cakes, biscuits, sugary drinks, and ready-made meals. Opt for whole, unprocessed foods.
  • Tip 2: Understand the Benefits
    Know why good nutrition matters for long-lasting well-being.
  • Tip 3: Preparation is Key - Plan your Meals for the Week
    Keep a notebook in the kitchen.
Graphic Motion - woman from unhealthy to healthy with food and exercise
  • Tip 4: Adjust Your Shopping List
    Buy more whole foods like fruits, vegetables, and fibrous options such as broccoli, spinach, lentils, and brown rice.
    Incorporate lean meats, fish, nuts, and fermented foods for variety and health benefits.
    Opt for frozen fruits and vegetables for convenience and nutrition.
  • Tip 5: Simplify Meals
    Just keep it easy when you prepare your meals. Check out these simple healthy diet options, by clicking here
    Focus on simple recipes with fewer ingredients.
Woman eating a cracker with a healthy topping
  • Tip 6: Stay Hydrated
    Keep a water bottle handy to sip throughout the day for hydration.
  • Tip 7: Use Convenience Foods Wisely
    Choose healthy convenience items like pre-cut vegetables or canned beans.
  • Tip 8: Seek Support
    Enlist family or friends to assist with meal preparation or shopping.
  • Tip 9: Choose a Balanced Breakfast
    Swap sugary cereals for scrambled eggs, porridge, or Greek yoghurt with berries and flaxseed.
  • Tip 10: Eat Colourfully and Diversely
    Aim for colourful, diverse meals to support gut health and overall well-being.
  • Tip 11: Practice Mindful Eating
    Pay attention to hunger cues and enjoy your meals mindfully.
  • Tip 12: Reduce Alcohol Intake
    Limit alcohol consumption for better health.

Making small changes like these can lead to significant improvements in your nutrition and overall well-being over time.

FINDING SUPPORT FOR MENTAL HEALTH NEEDS

In times of need, finding support for mental health is crucial. Whether you're seeking guidance, counselling, or resources, knowing where to turn can make a significant difference. 

Let's explore some reliable sources that offer help and support for mental health challenges.

WRAP-UP:
HOW EXERCISE AND NUTRITION SUPPORT MENTAL HEALTH

As Mental Health Awareness Week unfolds, let's harness the power of exercise and nutrition to nurture our mental and physical well-being.

The profound influence of exercise and nutrition on our overall well-being is surprising - more than I initially imagined. It's that little extra effort we put in to care for ourselves.

Keep it simple; start small, and improvements will follow naturally. Begin by incorporating exercise and beneficial foods into your life to work towards a healthier you. 

To those facing difficult times, may you find the strength to endure. Remember, the 'black hole' feeling can pass, offering hope and resilience.


We welcome your thoughts and comments at the bottom of this page!

Birgit is a compassionate guide specializing in supporting senior women through life's transitions. Alongside her dedication to this cause, she finds joy in teaching piano, nurturing her garden, cherishing family moments, and enjoying walks. These activities fuel her creativity and bring depth and richness to her life.


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