Eat more vegetables, do more exercise, cut down on stress, go to bed earlier — you know the drill. Most of us probably have a fair idea of what we need to do to feel better but hands up if you fully understand why?
Before we get into why our habits improve our health and what steps do we need to take, it’s important to note that what we eat, how we move, our mental health and our sleep are all inextricably linked. Each pillar affects the other and to improve our health, we need to look at that 360° view.
1. Choose feel-better food
What we eat is more than just fuel, it has the power to influence our mood, affect our sleep and impact our activity levels. One of the reasons that plant-based eating is so beneficial to health is that including a wide variety of healthy wholefoods means that your diet is naturally high in fibre. Studies have consistently shown that a high-fibre diet is associated with reduced risk of a number of chronic conditions, including type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
But why does fibre benefit our health? As well as potentially reducing inflammation, improving satiety and balancing blood sugar, a high-fibre diet is a great way to grow, nurture and support the diversity of the microbiota that co-exist within us in the gut microbiome. The effect that this microbial community has on our mood is a hot topic in the world of scientific research and, while still early days, there’s emerging evidence to show a constant communication between the microbiome, gut and brain, with gut health playing a role in several mood disorders including depression and anxiety. There’s also some evidence that positively changing your diet may alter your microbiome and improve your mental health and mood.
2. Manage blood sugar
In a world where being busy is often seen as a badge of honour, the external pressures of modern life can easily cause us to burn out. The good news is that the way we manage our diet can help us to better cope with the curve-balls that life throws our way. Balancing blood sugar levels is fundamental to a healthy diet, but how does it work?
When we eat food that’s high in simple sugars — hello white bread, biscuits, soft drinks — our blood sugar levels rapidly spike. When blood sugar rises, our body releases the hormone insulin which regulates blood sugar by signalling to cells to absorb it for energy or storage. The higher the spike, the greater the crash, leaving you feeling tired, down in the dumps and having sugar cravings — afternoon energy slump sound familiar? So to keep blood sugar and energy levels on an even keel, swap the simple carbs for complex ones (such as wholegrains), which are higher in fibre and take longer to digest. This means that energy is released more slowly, keeping levels steady throughout the day.
Another way to stabilise blood sugar, energy and mood is to always combine complex carbs with good-quality protein and healthy fats. This takes longer to digest and ensures a steady release of energy, avoiding the highs and lows of the blood sugar rollercoaster.
3. Reduce stress
Our feelings can also impact our physical health and daily life. When faced with stress, our body triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response of the sympathetic nervous system — a reaction that unfortunately hasn’t evolved since our caveman days to fit with the stresses of modern life. This activates the release of the stress hormone adrenaline, which prepares the body for danger: energy is sent to muscles, heart rate increases and the body becomes alert. At the same time, functions such as digestion and the immune system are reduced and compromised (ever notice that feeling of nausea before you make a presentation or have a big meeting?).
Chronic stress and anxiety also make it more difficult to get good quality sleep as the body releases large amounts of the stress hormone cortisol, which impacts mood, energy levels and makes you less able to cope with stress. A nutrient-dense diet is important during stressful periods, because the nutrients needed to support these processes may become depleted over time.
There can also be strong emotional associations between certain foods and the feeling of comfort, where reaching for a highly processed sugary treat whenever we feel stressed or upset can easily become a habit. As well as potentially impacting our gut microbiome, a diet of high-sugar foods has a negative effect on blood sugar balance and may leave you feeling low in energy, mood and less likely to want to stay active.
Just as the body has a response to stress, there’s also an opposing mode for restoring balance. The parasympathetic nervous system allows the body to restore and repair through the ‘rest and digest’ response — this is essential for good digestion. Scientific research has shown that techniques such as mindfulness may be effective in engaging this parasympathetic nervous system. The gut microbiome’s ability to potentially control our body and brain’s response to stress also means that having a calmer mindset may lead to a less stressed gut and vice versa.
4. Get active
For many, exercise provides a means of dealing with stress and is a source of mindfulness. The positive effects of regular physical movement on mood, cognition and wellbeing has been well documented, along with the important role it plays in reducing the risk of conditions such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some types of cancer. The relationship between exercise and sleep has also been widely researched and experts believe that they have a bidirectional connection, whereby exercise may positively influence sleep quality and vice versa.
The World Health Organisation recommends 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week (for those asking, that’s 30 minutes, five times per week). But that doesn’t necessarily mean pushing yourself in a gruelling spin class, studies have found that daily walking exercise may improve sleep quality and yoga is recognised as an effective way to manage stress.
Exercise has also been linked with an increased number of beneficial gut bacteria and a more diverse microbiome, which is essential for health. A nutrient-dense diet will provide energy to fuel your body during exercise, reduce your risk of injury and help you to recover afterwards.
5. Prioritise sleep
Sleep can influence so many aspects of our health — sleep quality has been shown to be significantly more important than sleep length when it comes to mental health and wellbeing. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that most adults aim for 7 to 9 hours sleep per night, although this depends on individual circumstances.
So how does lack of sleep affect the other pillars of health? If you’re feeling tired after a sleepless night, you’re less likely to exercise the next day. Sleep is also vital for regulating mood; low mood may trigger emotional eating, when we crave the high-sugar foods that set off the pleasure response in our brains (and kick-off that blood sugar rollercoaster again).
Lack of sleep may reduce levels of the hormone leptin, which controls satiety, meaning that you can potentially end up overeating without realising it. On the flip-side, insufficient sleep may increase the hormone ghrelin, signalling that you’re hungry when in fact you’re not. The quality of your diet can also impact the quality of your sleep, as sufficient vitamins and minerals are needed to effectively restore and repair during our sleep cycles.
The stress hormone cortisol also regulates the circadian rhythm (or sleep-wake cycle). It peaks early in the morning to give us ‘get-up-and-go’ and gradually decreases throughout the day, reaching its lowest at night. During this process, another hormone, melatonin, is released in response to darkness, which helps with the timings of this cycle and the onset of sleep. Research has shown that lack of sleep is linked to higher levels of cortisol, particularly in the evening (when it should be at its lowest), as well as alterations in the sympathetic nervous system meaning that less sleep results in more stress.
Ultimately all the key pillars of health are intricately connected, and we need to consider a holistic approach when embarking on our wellness journey. Remember, start slowly, there’s no need to change all your habits in a day and there’s no one-size-fits all either. Healthy looks and feels different for everyone, so it’s important to take time to find a way that works specifically for you.