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Mental health … the hard conversation

Why is it so hard to talk about mental illness? Despite being so common, mental illness continues to be met with such widespread stigma. Many adults and youth don’t talk about it because they are afraid of being judged, alienated and thought as “a crazy person.”

According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, over 7 million Canadian live with a mental illness. The truth is, mental illness affects all of us; it affects the parents of a child suffering from depression or the colleagues and family of a father who is over stressed.

So why is it important to speak up, build awareness and end the stigma around mental illness? Because talking about it is a step forward towards change.

Are you affected or know someone affected by mental illness? Do you think its important to help build awareness?

Tackling Depression Through Exercise

This article was submitted by Eve Pearce.

There have been many studies conducted into the effects of exercise on people suffering from depression and other mental health conditions. The majority of these studies have concluded that exercise generally has a beneficial effect and can alleviate some of the symptoms of depression.

Exercise can be as effective as medication

One such study was conducted by researchers at Duke University in North Carolina. The study focused on depression in 156 elderly patients, and found that 30 minutes of moderate exercise, such as a jog or brisk walk, three times a week worked just as well in relieving the symptoms of major depression as treatment with anti-depressant drugs.

While we don’t know why exercise confers such a benefit, this study shows that exercise should be considered as a credible form of treatment for these patients,” commented lead researcher, Duke psychologist James Blumenthal in an interview. “Almost one-third of depressed patients in general do not respond to medications, and for others, the medications can cause unwanted side effects. Exercise should be considered a viable option.

Although the research was based on patients in middle-aged and elderly age groups, researchers believe that a similar study with younger patients would result in similar findings.
As well as improving mental health and well being, exercise has also been used successfully to help control addiction to medication, drugs or alcohol, and can be beneficial as part of a regime to assist recovering addicts manage their withdrawal from these substances. Some researchers suggest that this may be because regular exercise can provide structure and purpose to an addicts’ routine to replace the void left by no longer taking the addictive substance. Exercise also helps to regulate the body clock, and allows recovering addicts to recover natural sleep rhythms which can be disrupted during addiction. Another theory put forward by experts is that exercise stimulates the release of dopamine in the body, triggering feelings of pleasure and allowing the addict to feel a natural, safer ‘high’ in place of the artificial high previously experienced through use of the addictive substance.

Exercise can also prevent depression returning

Duke University researchers didn’t give a definitive reason why exercise proved to be so effective in treating the symptoms of depression, but Blumenthal suggested that it might be because exercise involves patients actively taking steps to improve their health, rather than just passively taking medication.
“Patients who exercised may have felt a greater sense of mastery over their condition and gained a greater sense of accomplishment. They felt more self-confident and had better self-esteem because they were able to do it themselves, and attributed their improvement to their ability to exercise,” he explained.
A six month follow-up study by Blumenthal found that not only can exercise relieve the symptoms of depression, continued exercise can help prevent the symptoms returning.
“The important conclusion is that the effectiveness of exercise seems to persist over time, and that patients who respond well to exercise and maintain their exercise have a much smaller risk of relapsing,” he stated.

Why is exercise so effective?

Many other reasons have been put forward to explain why exercise can improve mental health. These include:

Feel good chemicals – exercise is known to stimulate the release of feel good chemicals in the body, such as endorphins, adrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine. These chemicals work to lift your mood and generally make you feel more positive.

Boosting self-confidence – a benefit of exercise is that it increases physical fitness and usually aids weight-loss. People who take regular exercise generally feel more attractive, which leads to higher self-esteem and self-confidence.

Improved brain function – A study by researchers at King’s College London found that people who have undertaken regular, intensive exercise during their lifetime show better brain function at the age of 50 than those who have not exercised regularly. The study also suggests that even smaller amounts of exercise can be sufficient to improve brain functionality.

Diet and depression

Many studies have also found a link between diet and mental health. The Science Daily reported on a recent study into the effect of eating fast food, such as burgers and hot-dogs, and commercial baked goods. The study found that people eating fast food had a 51% greater risk of developing depression that people who rarely or never ate this food. Similar results were found for consumers of the baked goods.

A further study by University College London suggested a link between depression and eating too much processed food. On a more positive note, the same study found that a diet rich in whole foods, such as fresh fruit, vegetables and fish can help reduce the risk of developing depression.

“The deleterious effect of a processed food diet on depression is a novel finding,” researchers concluded. “Our research suggests that healthy eating policies will generate additional benefits to health and well-being, and that improving people’s diet should be considered as a potential target for preventing depressive disorders.”

Nutrition And Mental Health: The Critical Link

This article was submitted by Eve Pearce.

There are many roads to improved mental health, and many of them are ones we walk ourselves: reintroducing favourite hobbies into our lives, socializing with people who understand our struggles, exercising regularly, and more. One potentially critical factor that is often overlooked is the influence of diet on our mental health. While there is still research that needs to be done, exciting studies are beginning to show us the role nutrition can play in everything from ADHD, to depression, to dementia. It seems clear that changing how and what we eat can be another step towards physical and mental health.

Researching The Link

Scientists face many hurdles when studying the link between nutrition and mental health. Both well-being and diet are self-reported during research, which increases the chances for error, but the main concern is just how much of a given nutrient is in each item of food. Nutrients are what actually affect us, but everything from growing conditions to preparation can change the amount in each apple, peach or pear.

Despite these difficulties, researchers have published papers which begin to shed light on the mind-diet connection. For instance, two separate papers indicate that people who eat a “Mediterranean Diet” – one that’s high in fruits, vegetables, fish, whole grains, and olive oil – are up to 30 percent less likely to suffer from depression. The cause of this correlation is not yet known, but the current theory is that the effect comes from a combination of vital nutrients, including omega-3 fatty acids. In comparison, studies show that children raised on the “Western Diet” (plenty of red meat, sweeteners, refined grains, and saturated fats) suffer behaviourally in comparison to those raised on healthier diets, with higher rates of both aggression and depression.

The research keeps adding up to the same answer: instead of our diet reflecting our mood, our mood may in fact be a reflection of our diet. Josh Gitalis, a Toronto-based clinical nutritionist, recently spoke to the Canadian Mental Health Association about this connection. He cited studies in which a 5-HTP supplement out-performed SSRI medication, and one in which multi-vitamins appeared to influence IQ in children; these studies need to be replicated, but they are at the forefront of nutritional research. “Too often, people resort to using medications to alter brain chemistry when there’s so many fundamental factors that haven’t been addressed,” according to Gitalis.

Putting Research To Work

As exciting as these studies may be, many people may wonder whether this is “news they can use”. Whether or not 5-HTP turns out to work wonders, it’s unwise to blaze a new trail and trust our mental health to unregulated supplements. However, there are plenty of small, daily changes which can be made to take advantage of nutrition’s effect on the body. To begin with, focus on dietary habits which have an immediate effect. Blood sugar spikes and crashes can aggravate anxiety and depression, for example, so eating regularly and avoiding snacks of refined foods (like sugar and white bread) can make a difference to your daily mood. Over-consumption of (or addiction to) caffeine can also be a problem, since it has been linked to anxiety, mood swings, and physical ailments like headaches. Some people may find that cutting out these foods altogether is the best course for them, but in order to avoid “falling off the wagon”, most doctors and dietitians advise making changes slowly. Adding to your habits – like drinking water regularly to combat dehydration – is generally easier than cutting back on others, but both factors are important.

In the long term, the “Mediterranean Diet” research indicates that a well-rounded diet is far more important than focusing on a handful of “super foods”. For optimum mental and physical health, a range of unprocessed fruits, vegetables and grains should be paired with healthy fats, meat, and fish. One of the upsides of this kind of diet is that it promotes a healthy weight, which is helpful given that levels of obesity are higher among those who struggle with mental illness. However, dieting can result in shame and depression, so a goal of “eating healthier” rather than “losing weight” can be more effective. Myths associated with weight loss and healthy diets should also be untangled before embarking on this project; many are accepted as gospel truth in popular culture, but can be counterproductive when used as dietary rules. Eggs, for example, are unfairly demonized. “Eggs are packed with iron, zinc and phosphorus, as well as Vitamins B2, B12, A and E,” according to Licensed Prescriptions. Another misconception is that vegetables should be eaten without fats, when in actuality many contain fat-soluble nutrients which are absorbed more readily with a drizzle of olive oil.

New research is being published regularly to back up the nutrition-mental wellness connection, and for some people a change in diet may be what brings them closer to a healthier mind and life. All major dietary changes should be discussed with your doctor before putting them into action, particularly if you’re taking medication or need nutritional advice. Just remember that big changes come from small ones, and take that first step.