Do These 4 Simple Things to Feel Happier and Healthier in 2021
Updated: Feb 1
The new year is in full swing and many of us are hoping 2021 will wipe the the slate clean of last year's challenges. However, much like a teenager who's recovering from a break-up, we're heartbroken and feeling very hesitant to plan BIG for the year ahead. Toppled by the fact that here in Canada winter has only just begun and our time indoors seems to be endless, our motivation to stay positive has taken a huge hit!
There are a many things we can do (or stop doing) in 2021 to boost our morale and help us feel more balanced. These tasks don't require a huge effort or grand gesture, but are small and doable, and when completed on daily basis can create a HUGE shift for your mental health, helping you feel happier, and dare I say, excited for the year ahead.
Try one, or all of the suggestions below for one month, on your own or as a family challenge and watch your mood and motivation improve dramatically.
1. Cut your Phone Usage by Half
How much time do you spend on your phone or device daily? How about your partner, or your children? In the times we are living, we may feel it is a necessity, but do the costs outweigh the benefits? A 2017 study found that adults who spent more than 6 hours watching TV or using computers (your phone is a computer) were at higher risk for depression and women were more affected then men (1). Children who had 7 hours of screen exposure were twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety and depression (2). Personally, I have seen more and more children in my private practice who are brought in for anxiety, anger, nervous twitches and low self-esteem, and all have in common excessive screen time and screen exposure starting at a young age (under the age of 2 years). It is important we set an example for the next generation through action. Do you panic when you cannot find your phone? Are you able to leave a room without taking your phone with you? If you can't go one hour without touching your smart phone it could be a wake-up call. Our devices are not a bodily appendage, yet it may seem so to a child who observes a parent clinging to their phone for dear life. Even the appendix is removed when it becomes toxic.
It may help to know that smart phones and screens are addictive. Just like other addictive substances you may feel better weaning-off from excessive usage that quitting cold turkey. For example, access the feature on your phone that allows you to view the hours spend daily on your device and cut that by half. Or delete a frequently used APP like Facebook or Instagram for one month- as these social application show even greater risk for depression in a adults and children. Keep in mind this will be difficult for 1-2 weeks, but given that excessive smart phone usage actually shrinks our brains comparable to that of alcoholism (3,4), I encourage you to accept the challenge and know that you are doing something beneficial and necessary if you are looking to improve your mood and health.
2. Have a Green Smoothie Every Day
Feeling down and depressed? Consider the types of foods you are eating. A diet high in sugar, refined carbohydrates, and trans fats can increase free-radicals leading to oxidative stress and inflammation, both of which have been linked to depression (5) Antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, selenium, and carotenoids, such as beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein, and zeaxanthin work as scavenger molecules, neutralizing free-radicals and fighting inflammation. Therefore, by increasing our antioxidant intake we can improve both our physical and mental health. The challenge however, is that certain water-soluble antioxidants such as vitamin C, are destroyed in the cooking process, so the more raw sources of these foods you can consume, the better. A smoothie is an easily digestible way to increase your nutrient intake, without destroying antioxidants in the process. Foods such as citrus fruits, strawberries, kiwi, papaya, broccoli and kale are excellent sources of vitamin C and make for a delicious smoothie.
Another compelling reason to have a smoothie daily is that it can help increase hydration. Dehydration can cause tiredness and fatigue as well as lack of positive emotion, calmness and overall satisfaction (6). If you have difficulty consuming approximately 2L of water each day, a smoothie can increase your water intake without much effort. A typical serving size for the smoothies in my E-Book: Smoothies that Heal, is 500ml- by adding one smoothie a day you're just one quarter closer to your hydration goal!
3. Eliminate Refined Sugar
As mentioned above, sugar (in the form of sugary treats, soda and high-sugar juices, refined carbohydrates such as breads, croissants and bakes goods) cause oxidative stress leading to inflammation and damage to all organs of the body including the brain. In the UK, sugar intake is double and in the US, triple the recommended daily allowance of 5% caloric intake. In a 2000 calorie diet, for example, that would translate to 100 calories a day. To put it in perspective, 1 gram of sugar takes approximately 4 calories of energy to burn. One cup of apple slices are 11 grams of sugar = 44 cal. A pop tart is 14 grams of sugar= 56 cal. A cup of orange juice is 21 grams of sugar= 84 cal. You can see that it does not take very much to reach our daily added sugar requirements especially if we are consuming a SAD (Standard American Diet) of soda, white bread sandwiches and packaged snacks.
A diet high in sugar can lead to metabolic diseases such as diabetes and PCOS, but there are also links to common mental disorders such as depression. A 5-year study found that participants with a diet high in sugary drinks/food had more mental disorders, regardless of life circumstances (7). Major depression is predicted to become the leading disability of high income countries, by 2030. High sugar, low nutrient diets are linked to poor neuronal plasticity- which is the brain's ability to grow and make strong connections affecting memory and learning . This is emphasized even more so in children, where the brain is still developing (8). Eliminating sugar for the entire family will improve mood, lower inflammation and support a growing and developing brain. Start small by removing all packaged foods from the pantry that contain added sugar (read the ingredients). You may also access my E-Book on Naturally Sweetened Desserts, for nutritious, low-sugar desserts to make at home.
4. Hydrotherapy at Home
Hydrotherapy- or water therapy takes it roots from ancient Greece and dates back to 1200 BC. At the time baths were used for cleansing and hygienic reasons but for Hippocrates (460–370 BC) the father of Medicine, bathing was considered more than a simple hygienic measure; it was healthy and beneficial for most diseases. Hippocrates speculated that all diseases were caused by an imbalance of bodily fluids. To regain the balance a change of habits and environment was advised, which included bathing, perspiration, walking, and massages. The Romans, influenced by the Greeks, also build their own baths. These spas or thermal waters served not only for the recuperation of wounded soldiers but also as rest and recreation centers for healthy soldiers. Fast forward to today, thermal baths and spas are regarded as a place to go when you are looking for relaxation and even a bit of pampering. However for many reasons, spending the day at a spa may not be realistic but there are ways you can enjoy the healing effects of water in your own home to lower anxiety, prevent mild to moderate depression and increasing your overall energy.
Taking mineral baths containing sea salt, calcium or magnesium (or natural springs if you have access), at home 1-3 times a week can significantly reduce stress. One study found that those who underwent mineral bathing had a decrease in stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol is one of the main hormones involved in chronic long-term stress and has effects on both our sugar balance and sex hormone function. What was also interesting is that those individuals who had very high levels of stress (determined by a salivary test of cortisol before the bath) showed the most improvement or reduction in cortisol levels afterwards. The more stressed they were, the better they felt after their bath (9)!
Hot-cold showers are another excellent way to improve mood and ease depressive symptoms. They help increase focus, energy and improve immune function -you can read more about that here. It may seem daunting at first, but ending a shower on the "cold rinse", can feel exhilarating and powerful. To do: Take your typical hot shower. When you are ready to step out, start easing yourself into the cool than cold side of the faucet (or if you are like me, you may prefer to jump right into it). Do this for about 5 mins playing around with cool and warm- back and forth if needed until you are ready. Then switch to cold and let the water pour over you for about 2-3 mins. When complete, jump out of the shower and wrap yourself up in a warm towel.
Cold temperatures and the shock created by the hot to cold exposure activates the sympathetic nervous system to release a neurotransmitter called noradrenaline which plays a key role in cognition and motivation. Cold exposure also releases endorphins into the blood which increases good-mood feelings and reduces pain perception (10). Since pain can have detrimental effects on our mood, cold showers can be a drug-free, non-addictive method to treat conditions such as arthritis, fibromyalgia and past injuries. If you feel hesitant because you hate the cold, keep in mind so do I! But I have grown to love my daily cold shower routine because the benefits have proven to far outweigh the two minutes of discomfort.
Just starting one of the suggestions above will have positive effects on your mental health and overall well-being. Some tips may feel challenging, but in essence they are simple and doable. You will feel motivated and optimistic for the year ahead once you discover the power small changes such as these can make.
(2) Jean M. Twenge, W. Keith Campbell, Associations between screen time and lower psychological well-being among children and adolescents: Evidence from a population-based study, Preventive Medicine Reports, Volume 12, 2018, Pages 271-283.
(3) Juliane Horvath, Christina Mundinger, Mike M. Schmitgen, Nadine D. Wolf, Fabio Sambataro, Dusan Hirjak, Katharina M. Kubera, Julian Koenig, Robert Christian Wolf, and functional correlates of smartphone addiction, Addictive Behaviors, Volume 105, 2020.
(4) Bjork JM, Grant SJ, Hommer DW. Cross-sectional volumetric analysis of brain atrophy in alcohol dependence: effects of drinking history and comorbid substance use disorder. Am J Psychiatry. 2003 Nov;160(11):2038-45. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.160.11.2038. PMID: 14594753.
(5) Michel Lucas, Patricia Chocano-Bedoya, Mathias B. Shulze, Fariba Mirzaei, Éilis J. O’Reilly, Olivia I. Okereke, Frank B. Hu, Walter C. Willett, Alberto Ascherio, Inflammatory dietary pattern and risk of depression among women, Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, Volume 36, 2014, Pages 46-53.
(7) Knüppel, Anika et al. “Sugar intake from sweet food and beverages, common mental disorder and depression: prospective findings from the Whitehall II study.” Scientific reports vol. 7,1 6287. 27 Jul. 2017, doi:10.1038/s41598-017-05649-7
(8) O'Neil, Adrienne et al. “Relationship between diet and mental health in children and adolescents: a systematic review.” American journal of public health vol. 104,10 (2014): e31-42. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2014.302110