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Lessons from Lockdown : 5 body hacks to support your mental health

The Uk lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic officially started on 23rd March 2020, how have you coped? As the re-opening looms it's time to draw some conclusions and review how we managed the situation so that we can learn from this experience and come out of it stronger and perhaps a little wiser. It has been a proving time for many of us, mentally many of us are reporting anxiety and lack of sleep and both the WHO and UN have now warned of a mental health crisis looming. The fall out of the pandemic will be with us for a longer time than the disease itself and this is just the picture for the general public. Front line workers are exhausted and traumatised by the experience and many will need help.

This blog is the results of my own self discovery journey during these past few weeks, as I have myself experienced the roller-coaster of emotions that has come with this unusual and unexpected turn of events and have been dealing with a spot of mental un-easiness myself.

Following on the footsteps of yogis I found that the easiest way to deal with the "downs" is to hack my mind via my body. This fact alone puts me at ease as it reminds me that as long as I intend to feel better mentally, I can simply turn my attention to my body and this in turns re-balances the mind or at least offers some relief.

These are the top 5 physical things I have found most helpful for those days when my mind just was not in the right place.

1) Exercise

at number one is exercise . And I would like to make a distinction here between "activity" and exercise. When I say exercise I mean a form of physical activity (structured or unstructured) which elevates the heart rate considerably : a long brisk walk, a run, playing football or cycling are all good examples and so is gardening, all activities that go beyond the movements we all do just to get on with our daily lives. There are two things I recommend you consider when considering adding a physical activty program to your schedule : 1)take it nice and slow at the beginning to avoid injuries

2) make sure you enjoy the activity/exercise you have picked, that way you will come back to it consistently.

My preferred forms of exercise at the moment are High Intensity Interval Training and cycling, HIIT has given me the chance to build up strenght to improve my yoga practice and cycling is a low impact cardio activity that I enjoy a lot more than running.

SO ...all this in the context of the lockdown : many of us have reduced their activity considerably during this time, good intentions dissipated after the first few weeks and we are now resigned to answer the call of the sofa and dare I say , the wine! Many have decided to use this opportunity to cultivate a new hobby or continue on their journey to physical and mental well-being. Whichever category you would put yourself into worry not, I am not judging , nobody should! I just want you to consider this : how good do you feel after a yoga session or a nice long walk in the country?

That feel-good feeling is not just your body feeling good because it has just been taken for a spin, it is your brain feeling the benefits of the physical activity .

When you start exercising, your brain recognizes this as a moment of stress. As your heart pressure increases, the brain thinks you are in a flight or flight situation and to protect you and your brain from stress, you release a protein called BDNF(Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor). This BDNF protects and repairs neurons (especially those that are tasked to build memories) and it also acts as a reset switch. That’s why we often feel so at ease and things are clear after exercising and eventually happy.At the same time, endorphins, another chemical to fight stress, is released in your brain. Your endorphins main purpose is to minimise the discomfort of exercise and blocking the feelings of pain. You may even experience euphoria because of them.

The statistics are clear , those who choose to move their bodies stand a much better chance to enjoy better mental well-being.

2) Hydration

This for me was a big deal. In my journey of self-discovery I have found out that I need to drink around 3 litres of water a day, often more. I start with a pint of warm water on an empty stomach in the morning and try and remind myself to drink throughout the day.

Here are a few statistics to make you reflect : up to 60% of the human adult body is water (slightly different between men and women).On average the brain and heart are composed of 73% water, the lungs are about 83% water. The skin contains 64% water, muscles and kidneys are 79%, and even the bones are watery: 31% .

In a mental health context you can see from this why it is advisable not to underestimate the role of water intake since the mind resides in the brain but there is also another aspect that you may want to consider when looking at your water intake.

Recent studies have shown that our mental health is linked to our gut's health in a very intimate way. Water is essential for good digestion together of course with good nutrition.

This is so important, especially considering that 95% of our serotonin is produced in the gut ! Serotonin is the happiness hormone so we want to give our gut the best chances to function optimally to boost our mental resilience by simply drinking more water!

Just in case you are wondering : fizzy drinks,tea and coffees as well as wine and beer do not count!

3) Sleep

Earlier on during the lock-down I struggled with lack of sleep. I am normally a very good sleeper, I fall asleep quickly and rarely wake up until the morning but in the first few weeks of the pandemic I was so worried about my family in Italy that I was checking my phone for updates until about 10-11 o'clock at night and as you may know bright lights have the effect to seriously disrupt your circadian rhythm ( the rhythm of your sleep). This definitely had an impact on my mental well-being , waking up in a bad mood and struggling to shake it off.

Lack of sleep can alter your mood significantly. It causes irritability and anger and may lessen your ability to cope with stress. The “walking tired” are more likely to sit and seethe in traffic jams and quarrel with other people. Sleep-deprived people are also less likely than those who sleep well to exercise, eat well and engage in leisure activities because of sleepiness.

Missing out on sleep can really mess with your mood chemistry and although sometimes it is inevitable due to life's stresses here are some suggestions to help you settle into a good slumber

- ideally stop eating before 7 pm and try to eat a low gi meal ( rich in protein and fibre) to avoid sugar spikes in your blood

- avoid alcohol (you may feel sleepy to start with but alcohol is a stimulant) if you have a drink , stop 4 hours before bed and drink water to dilute it

- stop all screen contact 1 hour before bedtime

- stick to a bedtime routine

Yesterday I definitely had a "low mood" day ... no reason at all, just woke up like that so I made a conscious decision to go to bed before 10 pm. I woke up this morning feeling refreshed and ready for the day! It makes such a big difference.

Just to put together point 2 and 3 , here is an interesting article on the link between gut health and sleep quality, more and more studies reveal that so many chemical processes are linked to our gut health and that many of the things we think are purely mental are actually linked to a physiological factors. Very interesting! From a yogic perspective this makes total sense!

4) Fasting

Ever considered fasting ? No, me neither until I tried it a couple of years back and was blown away by the effects on my body and my mind.

In my head I still hear my mum shouting at me in the morning to get up and get my breakfast before it was too late as you cannot function on an empty stomach, so I was a sceptic.

But then I read a few articles and spoke to some experts on the benefits of this ancient practice. If you think about it many cultures have the concept of fasting as a way to reset everything !

If done well fasting can be a great secret weapon to boost your mood and clear your mind of fog.

I am not a qualified expert, I can only tell you what works for me but I would encourage you to document yourself and give it a go in a controlled environment.

Let's talk about yesterday again, I must have been emitting some sort of negative vibes because everyone in the house kept asking me if I was ok , and to be honest no I was not ok yesterday so last night I also stopped eating at 7pm ( I use an app called Zero to track my fasts if you are interested in trying) with the intention to train fasted in the morning ( which I did with a few of you at 8am)

I then waited until I reached 14 hours fasting to have breakfast which included some healthy fats (salmon and egg). Today I feel like a different person and this morning I felt super energised!

So what is so good about fasting?

Here are just a few of the benefits :

- improves blood sugar levels

-fights inflammation

-autophagy ( helps the body get rid of damaged cells)

-improves focus

-assists the body with detoxification

-assist the body with regeneration

-improves cardiovascular health

-it's been shown to improve brain health (in Alzheimer's patients)

Here is a great video for you to review to find out more, if you are considering fasting please make sure you talk to your doctor especially if you have on-going health issues or if you are taking medications.

5) Supplements

The last area I wanted to to bring to your attention is the area of supplements.

Many doctors suggest that taking vitamins and minerals is a waste of money as we get all we need from the food we eat. This is only partly true, only a few of us eat the recommended 5 a day regularly, the fruit and veg we eat today is nutritionally inferior to the ones grown in the past because of soil depletion and the intensive farming practices we have today, our body cannot fully utilise the minerals and vitamins we find in nature and finally very few of us know of any deficiency in our body.

So let me tell you my story ... a couple of years ago I was feeling fatigued and mentally drained and as part of my refocus on my health I ordered an at home blood test to check my metrics, one of the things they checked was my iron and vitamin d levels. My iron was rather low but nothing new there as I do not consume much meat and very little red meat but my vitamin d levels were very low.

A quick check on the internet and this is what came back :

"Here are 8 signs and symptoms of vitamin D deficiency. Fatigue and Tiredness. Bone and Back Pain. Depression. Impaired Wound Healing. Bone Loss. Hair Loss. Muscle Pain "

The doctor who reviewed my tests recommended I take a vitamin d supplement especially during the Winter months as we need the sun to be able to produce it in our bodies, so I did and felt so much better!

I then looked into Vitamin C and found out that for decades V C has been used to fight infections very successfully and without the help of vaccines and antibiotics so I looked into it a little bit more and found out that because of an error in our genes, humans and a few other mammals are unable to produce vitamin c in their body and so we have to assume it in large quantities. I also learnt that there are many different versions of this vitamin but only certain types can be absorbed optimally!

Since then I have researched extensively what supplements I should be considering as I do a lot of physical activity and the body does get worn out . I currently take vitamin C and D and magnesium malate as well as some herbal remedies to support hormonal function. Most days I feel great and get up early (at the moment far too early because of the light! ) and I feel ready to go!

I am not suggesting that you must take supplements I am just suggesting that the body is such a sophisticated "chemical plant" that if you are experiencing mental fatigue or other symptoms like depression and anxiety you may want to consider the possibility that this may be related to a physical need of the body rather than the mind and perhaps a broad spectrum, good quality supplement could indeed be of help. Please if you are considering taking supplements do a lot of research first and buy good quality supplements from a reputable source. If you have on-going medical issues, you are pregnant or you are taking medications please consult your doctor before taking any supplement.

So in conclusion before blaming the mind, think about your body and what you can do to underpin your mental health through the health of your physical body.

The yogis knew very well that if we look after the body well , the mind will more easily follow and constructed a beautiful, comprehensive system of practices to do just that and so did the Romans :

Mens sana in corpore sano ( a healthy mind in a healthy body) was a very common saying.

We seem to have lost that wisdom now and prefer to deffer all to dry science which treats everything as a separate incident rather than a holistic view of the person.

We are so lucky to have access to so much information now that it would be a crime to abdicate our responsibility for our own mental and physical health to others when we have so much in our hands.

Take charge, take one step at a time and make your well-being your interest and priority .

Be well everyone !

Love and light



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