Mental health: keeping your grey matter in the pink

By Graham Anderson, principal officer of Profmed Medical Scheme

July is Mental Illness Awareness Month. We have a fairly good idea of what we should be doing to look after our physical health, but when it comes to mental wellbeing, many of us have no idea where to begin. The good news is that some of the things that you need to do to assist healthy brain function are the same things that will keep you physically fit and healthy.

Diet for a healthy brain

A good diet goes a long way to maintaining good mental function. To keep your brain fighting fit, you need to manage your body weight and keep your diet free of foods that are high in cholesterol. Studies by the Alzheimer’s Association have shown that adults who were obese in middle age were twice as likely to develop dementia in later life, and that those who also had high cholesterol and blood pressure were more than six times as likely to develop dementia [source: The Alzheimer’s Association].

According to the association, you should avoid foods with saturated fat and cholesterol – although HDL or “good” cholesterol may protect brain cells. Instead, use mono and polyunsaturated fats like olive oil, and grill or bake your food instead of frying. Increase your intake of protective foods like dark skinned fruit and vegetables, cold water fish and nuts. This will reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke, and increase the natural protection of your brain cells.

Other foods that are good for your brain are cherries, berries, apples, curry, eggs, sardines, oysters and cocoa.

Exercising and resting your brain cells

In the same way as our muscles deplete if we don’t use them, our brain cells need practice to function at optimum levels. Obviously, people who work in demanding and challenging environments are working their brains the whole time, but even they need to stimulate their synapses when they’re not under pressure.

Working with maths games or word puzzles are great ways to keep the brain ticking over. Reading a good book or the daily news is another way to keep the brain cells buzzing. Although television might be a good way of staying current or having a bit of hard-earned downtime, spending endless hours in front of the box does very little to stimulate brain activity.

On a more advanced level, learning a musical instrument or a new language are excellent brain exercises.

Brains love company

One of the things that keeps your brain working and supports your mental health is to ensure that you have a positive social life. This doesn’t mean that you have to party ‘til dawn with a wide circle of friends every night, but you should interact socially with people in different settings. The University of Michigan found that individuals who experienced less cognitive decline as they aged were those who were involved in a wider range of relationships where they had to speak and listen to others on a range of topics.

If you do find that you’re isolated, sign up for a class, join in some kind of community activity or get involved in volunteer work. Make interacting with people a priority to keep your brain fit.

Avoid stress

One of the biggest killers in modern times is stress – it can lead to heart problems, infertility, diabetes and a variety of other ailments and complications – yet other than acknowledging its existence, we do very little to alter our lifestyles and improve our stress levels.

Many simple steps like learning to delegate, to say “no” or to create a to-do list can help to balance the demands on your time and reduce stress. But if your stress levels are getting out of hand, more drastic measures may need to be taken – like seeing a therapist or life coach, or speaking to the HR department at work. Remember that short-term stress can be motivating, but if you can’t remember the last time you felt relaxed, something needs to change.

Sleep, wonderful sleep

A study conducted by the US National Mental Health Association and the Better Sleep Council found that people who got seven or more hours of sleep a night were more likely to rate their general mood as excellent than those getting an average of only six hours. Although there is a seemingly obvious link between mood and sleep, people often don’t seek help or make changes when their sleep pattern alters.

Making sure you get enough sleep really is as simple as going to bed seven to eight hours before you have to get up. If you find that you are suffering from sleep disturbances, it’s important to find help. Sometimes the solution is even as simple as skipping that late afternoon cup of coffee – even if you’ve been drinking it for years without problems.

Get help

If you find that you’re not coping mentally with life, there’s no shame in seeking help. We know far more about the brain today than ever before, and we’re learning more every day. There are many issues that can be addressed or arrested with lifestyle changes or medication before they become truly problematic. If you are having issues that feel like the start of a mental problem, see your family doctor who can recommend a therapist or neurologist depending on what you need.

Therapists can help with a range of problems, from addiction to eating disorders to the fallout after a traumatic event, so don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it.