12 Ways to Improve Your Mental Fitness

  • Written By:Dr. Uma Naidoo, MD
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Referring to mental health care as mental fitness is a powerful mindset shift.

by Dr. Uma Naidoo, MD. Harvard-trained Nutritional Psychiatrist, professional chef, nutrition specialist and author of “This is Your Brain on Food.”

Spring is a time for rebirth. A time for deep cleaning, for resetting, and, in my case as a nutritional psychiatrist, for boosting your mental fitness. After more than a year confirming the importance of mental and physical health and how intimately connected they are, it seemed only natural to start using a better name for our mental health care. Something a little bit more tangible, more actionable: “fitness.”

Referring to mental health care as mental fitness is a powerful mindset shift, it leaves us in a proactive state and gives you the autonomy and control with the personal power to improve. As you would build up muscle through strength training, your brain is a muscle too! Train for your mental fitness as you would your physical fitness, so this implies a regular workout routine, along with daily habits to train your brain and improve your mental wellbeing.

As with any other muscle, what you practice for your brain also grows stronger. Even if you feel ‘just fine’ or if your anxiety levels are improving with the nicer weather, with mental fitness you should still feel encouraged to keep up with strengthening your emotional muscles. After all, you don’t just stop exercising or jogging after you build up some strength. Right? You continue to improve. It becomes a journey, and part of your lifestyle, a consistent habit. Here are 12 ways to improve your mental fitness:

1. Silence

As the world gets noisier... is silence the new mental health luxury? Studies suggest that periods of silence could encourage the development of brain cells and promote physical and mental health, while noise has the opposite effect. Who's In For Some Intermittent Silence? It’s hard for some of us to join a silence retreat but I encourage you to try what I call Intermittent Silence, 10-minute breaks during the day in silence. My non-negotiable moment of silence? My sun salutation meditation.

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2. Spring Clean Your Kitchen

Clean up your fridge and pantry of highly processed foods, refined carbohydrates, processed ‘vegetable’ oils, added sugars, processed meats 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 fill up your fridge with fresh vegetables and fruits, and your pantry with nuts, seeds, lentils and legumes. These foods bring the desired nutrient fiber to your gut microbes and help them thrive.

3. Trigger Creativity!

We are all creative, it’s not a treat exclusive to painters or singers. We all have that spark. Trigger it by living creatively, cook new vegetables, try other cuisines, use a new spice, hear new music, talk with a stranger (physically distanced, of course), read a different book, paint or sketch (even if you’re very bad at it), bake, play a new game.

4. Try Mindful Eating

In this busy world even if you are working from home, some days I am hopping on a different virtual platform every hour - often missing the zoom link, and reaching out to my team in panic. I’ve had to stop, take a breath, and realize that I had to schedule lunch into my day or else I’d forget to eat. Once I got lunch back(!), I decided to stop, spend at least 15 minutes savoring my food, ignoring the buzzing and beeping of my devices by leaving them at my desk. I had to really work on this to bring back mindful eating as it’s such a cornerstone of self care. Mindful eating was researched in diabetes and found that training in mindful eating and diabetes self-management helped improve dietary intake, modest weight loss, and glycemic control.

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5. For Your Mood, Fiber Is Key!

Make fiber-rich vegetables the protagonists of your meals! Aim for 75-80% of your plate being 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.

6. The Greener, The Better!

Aim for 6-7 cups of leafy greens a day. The greener, the better. The more, the better! Spinach, arugula, romaine, cilantro, parsley, swiss chard and dandelion greens are filled with folate; a key nutrient for our mental health.

7. Spice Up Your Meals!

Include anti-inflammatory spices and herbs into your meals. Take a turn by adding a ¼ teaspoon of turmeric and a pinch for black pepper(to increase absorption twenty fold) to a tea, soup or smoothie.

8. Heal Your Gut! A Healthy Gut Microbiome Is A Healthy Mood

Start adding fermented foods such as miso, kefir, kimchi and sulphur rich vegetables like garlic, onions, leeks, broccoli, collard greens, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower (cruciferous vegetables). Without sulfur our bodies cannot properly detoxify! Sulfur-rich foods support the liver, help build and repair your DNA, increase glutathione (which beats oxidative stress), reduce inflammation, and more.

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Re-framing yourself to the positives always helps your brain health.

9. Embrace Gratefulness

Gratitude has been shown to help an individual’s mental well-being as well as helping with emotional regulation. While a simple step, it has a powerful impact on our mental fitness. Try keeping a gratitude journal or simply think about 2 or 3 things you are grateful for from the prior day when you awaken each morning, even if that was a ‘bad’ day. Reframing yourself to the positives always helps your brain health.

10. Make sleep your priority

You may be aware that getting good sleep is linked with better mental health, but you may not be aware just how important it is to be getting good quantity and quality of sleep every night. First of all, there is a significant connection between your gut and your brain in relation to sleep. Your gut bacteria directly communicate with your brain to determine sleep patterns. When this circadian rhythm is disrupted, your metabolism is disturbed., and this often means weight gain but it also changes levels of hormones such as serotonin. Sleep disruption is shown to shift the type of bacteria in your gut, which is highly linked to your brain health.

Studies have linked sleep disruption with changes in gut bacteria that cause inflammation and insulin sensitivity in just 1 night of shortened 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 for chronic fatigue and other more serious brain conditions.

11. Let 's talk…

Feeling sad, anxious, depressed or angry? Open up! Mental health still has a big stigma; still today most of us don’t feel comfortable opening up about our mental conditions and by keeping them to ourselves, by not sharing them with our loved ones or a professional we make the healing process lonely and more difficult.

12. Move Your Butt!

Movement is key for mental health. Stretching between zoom calls, walking while taking a work telephone call—all helps to keep your blood circulating and your brain alert. Exercise has been linked to improved mood and anxiety and research suggests that individuals increase their physical activity, in order to positively affect their mood state.

Learn more about the gut-brain connection and how to improve your mental fitness with food in my book This is Your Brain on Food: An Indispensable Guide to the Surprising Foods that Fight Depression, Anxiety, PTSD, OCD, ADHD and More, by joining my newsletter or following me on social media.

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