As summer approaches, being outside and active is a great way to improve your physical health. But did you know that being outside in the sunshine can also improve your mental health?
Studies have shown that our brain creates more serotonin - a natural mood-enhancing chemical - on sunny days than on darker days, according to WebMD. And vitamin D, which we absorb naturally from sunlight, helps our bodies with neuromuscular and immune function and in the reduction of inflammation.
The month of May is recognized nationally as Mental Health Month, a time to raise awareness of the importance of mental health to overall health.
This year's theme for Mental Health Month is "Mind Your Health," focusing on how your mind and body work together for a healthier you.
On its website -www.mentalhealthamerica.net - the organization Mental Health America has identified some key areas for improving overall mental health and well-being:
Social Support: Getting and staying connected.
Healthy Diet: Eating with mental health in mind.
Supplements: Weighing benefits and risks.
Stress: Coping with everyday problems.
Rest, relaxation and exercise.
Alcohol Use and Abuse: What you should know.
Finding Help: When to get it and where to go.
Let's take a closer look at a few of these key areas, and some simple things you can do that may help improve your mood and your health.
Being socially connected is important, and research has shown that social support may help minimize the effects of stress on depression, anxiety and other health problems.
Many of us participate in social media, and while social media should not replace face-to-face interaction, it can help you stay connected to supportive, positive people.
A healthy diet, while important to your physical health, is also important to your mental health. Your brain needs the proper fuel to function properly, so focus on a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, fish and unsaturated fats.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a well-balanced eating plan can help you feel energized and alert, in addition to helping to keep your weight under control. Plus, the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability (NCHPAD) reports that poor nutrition, or the lack of a variety of healthy foods in your diet, can contribute to depression by limiting the availability of specific nutrients that help improve brain function.
Always remember that if you are considering supplements to help bolster your diet, it's important to talk with your health care provider first to ensure that you understand the benefits and risks.
Stress has a major effect on our mental health and well-being. While some stress can be a good thing and can help motivate us to get things done, too much stress can have a negative effect. The key to successfully managing stress is recognizing and accepting good stress while minimizing bad stress.
The first step in that process is identifying your stress triggers, or what is creating your stress - both good and bad. Once you identify your stress triggers, you can start thinking about ways to better manage them so that they don't overwhelm you and create bigger problems.
Rest, relaxation and exercise
Another key to managing stress is making sure you get enough rest, relaxation and exercise. According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleep helps restore your body's energy, helps repair muscle tissue, and triggers the release of hormones that help regulate growth and appetite. Taking time to relax during the day may also help decrease blood pressure and improve your mood.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), getting the appropriate amount of exercise benefits nearly all aspects of a person's health. This includes weight control, mental health, mood, longevity, and the strength of your bones and muscles.
At Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania, our Blue Health Solutions health and wellness program is offered at no extra cost to our members and customers. With Blue Health Solutions, members have access to Health Coaches who can help develop a personalized nutrition, exercise or stress management program. We also incorporate depression screenings into our phone calls with members through our Disease Management and Case Management programs.
Many employers also offer wellness and Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) that can provide additional help with exercise, diet and managing stress.
We're often told about the good things we should be doing for our bodies. This Mental Health Month, take some time to consider ways to also improve your mental health and well-being. Your body - and your mind - will thank you!
Daelene Long is Senior Director of Clinical Operations for Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania.