Lifestyle factors that are damaging to mental health

by Graham Simpson

Mental health issues have for a long time now been a silent scourge on the global population. So much so that it has led many experts in the field to label the problem an and mental health

And indeed it is no small issue. In the United Kingdom, for example, statistics show that one in four people will experience a mental health problem in any given year. And on a global level, some 450 million people are currently living with some form of mental illness.

As for the situation here in the UAE, according to the German Neuroscience Centre in Dubai, the issue of mental health has been identified as “one of the top five crucial health issues” facing the country.

Clearly then we are not talking about a small minority here. When we discuss mental health, we are dealing with one of the leading causes of ill-health worldwide.

While genetic factors are certainly at play, and serious forms of mental illness such as manic-depression and schizophrenia are very difficult or impossible to treat without medication, it is important to note that a great number of the cases that contribute to the overall statistics are caused in large part by lifestyle factors.

But so as not to dramatise the challenges of “today’s day and age”, perhaps it is fair to say that life has always been a challenge for us humans. Emotionally we are a fragile species and always have been, yet we are rarely addressing this factor in general health discussions with friends, colleagues, and even our trusted medical professionals who we visit for our annual checkups or to get treated for this or that physical condition throughout the year.

We talk about the usual suspects, such as blood pressure, cholesterol levels, our weight, and so on. But why is our mental health and general emotional wellbeing not at the forefront of these discussions?

The fact is that there are many things in our control when it comes to our emotional and psychological health and wellbeing. Factors such as diet, sleep, stress levels, social interactions and relationship management, and much more, all have a significant bearing on our mental health. And so while treating any mental health issue is of course to be taken seriously and we want to always ensure the best possible care by the right qualified professional, we must do more to raise awareness of what we can do on a daily basis to protect our overall health in this respect.

Let’s have a look now at five key areas you should be aware of.

When it comes to our health, we talk about the usual suspects, such as blood pressure, cholesterol levels, our weight, and so on. But why is our mental health and general emotional wellbeing not at the forefront of these discussions?

1. Nutrition

Not only does poor diet link incredibly closely with short-term mental wellness such as mood swings, there is quite a long list of evidence linking it to serious mental health conditions such as depression and even schizophrenia.

For example, A recent study by the American Journal of Psychiatry compared a diet of fruits, vegetables, lean meats and fish to one of processed foods and grains, and found that those in the former group had a one-third lower risk of suffering from depression. A separate study by the British Journal of Nutrition found that those who consume healthy sources of fat such as omega-3, from tuna, salmon, walnuts, flaxseed and the like, have a 25% lower risk of depression than those with a low fat intake.

When calling out the culprits, sugar also deserves a special mention. A 2015 study by the American Society for Nutrition found that foods with high glycemic loads (think high in added sugar or grains in general) were associated with much higher rates of depression. This is hardly surprising, as not only does sugar suppress the activity of a vital hormone called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) – low levels of which are associated with both depression and schizophrenia – but it also kicks off a host of other chemical reactions which wreak havoc in the brain.

2. Keeping the microbiome in balance

I often tell my clients we are just 10% human, because while we have 10 trillion human cells in our body, we actually have over 100 trillion bugs in our body. Over 200,000 species of bugs in fact inhabit our gut, and together they have a major effect on a variety of factors contributing to our wellbeing, including our brain health. The main effect has to do with a condition known as leaky gut, which leads to many autoimmune diseases and has a direct effect on our mental wellbeing. The trick for keeping healthy in this respect is to stick to that healthy diet (Paleo all the way) and to get proper sleep (see point 3 below).

3. Sleep

High up on my list of factors contributing to overall health is sleep, and it is a particularly important topic for us in the UAE, where studies show that 65% of residents are not getting enough.

Evidence suggest that the impact of poor sleep runs much deeper than just a temporary bout of feeling low, and that a consistently poor sleeping pattern can actually result in a sort of “rewiring” of the brain.

Researchers at the University of California, in collaboration with Harvard Medical School, came to this conclusion after studying a test group of students – some with healthy sleep patterns and others with poor sleep patterns. Showing both the well-rested and the sleep-deprived a series of increasingly disturbing photographs, the researchers monitored brain activity in responses to the images.

In the UAE, studies show that 65% of residents are not getting enough sleep.

Describing the findings as “profound”, the study revealed that those who lacked sleep showed 60% more activity in the amygdala region of the brain – the part which decodes emotion. Even more concerning, the researchers found that the “well rested” brains were communicating normally, with the amygdala talking to the medial prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain which helps to contextualise emotions and experiences.

Furthermore, the sleep-deprived brains seemed to have been “rewired” to have a stronger tendency to trigger the body’s fight or flight response. It’s a rewiring that, the researchers concluded, could over time potentially result is serious psychological disorders including anxiety and depression.

4. Technology

People are no doubt waking up to this one. The fact is that technology is taking its toll on our mental health. In one of the biggest studies of its kind – published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine – researchers from Chiba University in Japan found that those who use computers for longer than five hours a day report more feelings of depression, anxiety and sleep disorders.

Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Manchester, England, also raised concerns about excessive use of technology, highlighting the fact that the more we rely on machines, the less human interaction we have on a daily basis – which can be hugely damaging to our mental wellbeing.

And perhaps the most damning evidence against the over-use of technology in our daily lives comes from researchers at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, whose report turned up a long wrap sheet of potentially damaging findings. Their 2012 study found heavy cell phone and computer users to be more likely to suffer from sleep disorders and depressive symptoms. What’s more, those of us who are constantly accessible via technology are at a much higher risk of mental health issues overall.

Ultimately, while technology has clearly enriched our lives, it has damaged them too, and the fact that we can now be reached any time, and from anywhere, is placing an increasing strain on our mental wellbeing. Discipline is needed here to keep off the devices whenever necessary, and to literally shut them off and stop taking them with us everywhere we go.

5. Spirituality

One of the most common symptoms I hear from people struggling with mental wellbeing are feelings of pointlessness, having no direction or sense of purpose, or feeling an emptiness like something is missing from their lives.

When we compare this to the definitions of spirituality from a report titled “The Impact of Spirituality on Mental Health” by, it is no coincidence that the same themes crop up – “a sense of purpose, a sense of ‘connectedness’  to self, others, nature, ‘God’ or Other, a quest for wholeness, a search for hope or harmony.” The same report quotes several findings that point to lower rates of mental health conditions in those who consider themselves to be spiritual.

So while the topic of religion can become a rather complex and personal one, we should address quite openly the concept of “spirituality” – whatever that might mean to you – and stress its importance in the quest for emotional wellbeing.

For further reading on this subject, I will point you to one of my favourite resources, which is a book called “One Mind” by my good friend Dr. Larry Dossey.

I want to also mention here the practice of meditation, which takes place in so many different forms. There is plenty of scientific evidence to back up the benefits. For example, studies show that meditation numbs the link between the medial prefrontal cortex and our body’s reaction to outside stimuli, which in turn leads to a decrease in both stress and anxiety levels. And long term is where we see the real value: The consistent practice of meditation over the long-term has shown to cause the brain to form new, healthy connections between the lateral prefrontal cortex and the bodily sensation centres of the brain, which results in us taking a more logical and calm approach to stressful situations.

We should address quite openly the concept of “spirituality” – whatever that might mean to you – and stress its importance in the quest for emotional wellbeing.

It’s over a lifetime, and it takes awareness

I don’t in any way want to trivialise a subject of this nature and make even the slightest suggestion that serious mental illness can be overcome simply by adhering to certain lifestyle factors. That is not the case, and as I mentioned at the outset, the right level of care from a qualified professional, when needed, is a must.

But what I want for all of us to do here is bring the topic of mental health and wellness to the forefront – just as we do with our physical health – and not view it as something that is in any way an embarrassment or something unusual. While we can and do talk openly about issues such as our weight, our cardiovascular health, any sort of condition such as diabetes or an immune deficiency, how often do you hear people talk about how they are dealing with their mental wellbeing and any specific concerns they may be facing there?

Just keep the following in mind: Your psychological wellbeing needs just as much attention as your physical wellbeing – and this is required over a lifetime. It is indeed half of the equation when it comes to your overall health. And with the proper level of discipline – which starts with the proper level of awareness – we could be doing a lot more for ourselves in this respect.

Graham-150x150About Dr. Simpson

Graham Simpson, M.D. is the Chief Medical Officer of West-Martin Longevity. He is also the Founder & Medical Director of the innovative Intelligent Health Center, Dubai, UAE.

Dr. Simpson graduated from the University of Witwatersrand Medical School in Johannesburg, South Africa and is Board Certified in Internal Medicine, Emergency Medicine, and Age Management Medicine (A4M). He is a founding member of the American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA) and is a licensed homeopath. Dr. Simpson has also taught as an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Nevada, Reno.

He is the author of WellMan (Live Longer by Controlling Inflammation); co-author of Spa Medicine with Dr. Stephen Sinatra; and the forthcoming Reversing CardioMetabolic Disease.

Dr. Simpson was the Founder of PrimalMD; the Founder of the Eternity Medicine Institute; Paleo4me; and the Inflamaging Physician Network. He is a Consultant to Cenegenics, Inc

He has practiced I.N.T.E.G.R.A.L. Health for many years and remains committed to delivering Proactive Health to physicians and clients around the world.

Sign up for our Video Newsletter & Informative Reports