*This article was written by Natalia, HEAL's Operations & Engagement Manager. Natalia leads many of the workplace wellness programs at HEAL and coaches clients 1:1.
Over the last few years, thanks in no small part to the pandemic, I have really reflected on the impact that my diet, exercise, and movement in general have had on my mental health. As a holistic nutritionist that leads workplace wellness programs for North American companies, you would think that health and wellness came easy to me but it definitely wasn’t always the case.
I grew up playing competitive sports and fitness was definitely part of my younger life but when I went to University, like many people, my physical activity dropped off significantly and I did not eat well at all. Coupled with the stress of school and a lack of sleep, my anxiety levels skyrocketed and I struggled with both my mental and physical health throughout my early twenties.
It was only thanks to learning about nutrition and changing my diet, which subsequently gave me the energy and motivation to get moving again, that my mental health improved. It wasn’t always easy, but as I experienced these benefits I was more motivated to continue to make healthier choices. During the pandemic, daily walks or short workouts from home felt like my lifeline to keeping my mental health on track. While I have also been fortunate to have benefitted from tools like therapy and mindfulness, maintaining a healthy lifestyle has undoubtedly been one of the best preventative tools at my disposal for supporting my mental health.
On a larger scale, and now as the Engagement and Operations Manager for HEAL, I’ve seen the dramatic impact that small lifestyle habits like getting outside, moving your body, and balancing your plate, can make for our Wellness Challenge participants as well. As one participant put it:
I was going through a serious bout of depression before the start of this challenge. I re-joined because I knew that being held accountable would help me get back into a routine. It had been weeks since I exercised (or even left my house, sadly). I went from 6-7 days of exercise a week for months, to nothing. And this challenge really helped me get back into the swing of things.
It may seem obvious that the food you eat has an impact on how you feel mentally, emotionally, and physically, but many people don’t think about it. For example, specific nutrients are associated with better mental health. Vitamin D deficiency (experienced by at least 10 percent of Canadians) may be associated with an increased risk or severity of depression. This can be identified through a simple blood test usually covered by benefit plans. Omega 3’s (which play a key role in brain development and signaling) may be effective supplements in the treatment of anxiety and depression (1, 2). In general, anti-inflammatory dietary patterns that emphasize the consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, whole grains, and healthy fats like seafood and olives, and that limit the consumption of highly processed and fried foods and sugar, have been associated with a reduction in depression and anxiety (1, 2).
There is also a growing body of evidence linking gut health to mental health. The human GI tract contains trillions of bacteria and hundreds of different species. These bacteria play an important role in our health and influence everything from inflammation, immunity, digestion, to mental health and more. Researchers have identified how specific strains of bacteria have been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression and stress. Many of the brain chemicals that influence our mood, learning and memory, like serotonin for example, are actually created in the gut by these bacteria.
Most people are unaware of how to support their gut health or where to look if they are experiencing issues. This is where education comes in. For many people, gut health can be significantly improved by getting enough fiber every day through a variety of different plant foods. Fiber not only supports the overall health of the gut and feeds these bacteria, but researchers have even identified specific types of prebiotic fiber that reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the body. Constantly elevated cortisol can lead to burnout.
In our corporate wellness challenges, we help participants implement these types of dietary changes through education, resources and guidance to achieve them like meal plans, recipes and workouts, and rewards to motivate behaviour change. The great news is that the dietary and lifestyle practices that support mental health also support chronic health conditions like heart disease, high cholesterol, and diabetes. When employees feel happier and calmer, they’re in turn more likely to make healthier food choices.
By that same token, when people exercise or move their body more regularly, they will likely experience better mental health. Regular aerobic exercise decreases tension and stress, and improves mood and self-esteem. It also helps the body learn to better cope with stress over time. Research that looked at 15 prospective studies found that those who got the equivalent of 2.5 hours of brisk walking per week were 25 percent less likely to develop depression compared to those who didn’t exercise at all. What stands out in this research is that the greatest benefits were achieved when participants went from no physical activity to at least some. Even restorative practices like yoga help people cope with stress and are associated with smaller right amygdala volume which is the part of the brain associated with negative emotions like fear and sadness.
While regular physical activity is undoubtedly important over the long-term, even a single bout of exercise reduces stress, boosts mood and improves sleep. The anti-anxiety effects of aerobic activity can be felt after just 5 minutes, and just a 10 minute walk has been found to have the same anxiolytic and antidepressant benefits as a 45 minute workout. We love highlighting the mental health benefits of exercise to our wellness challenge and lunch & learn participants because they are felt so quickly and can serve as a powerful motivational tool to develop the habit.
This is not to say that dietary and lifestyle modifications alone are enough to treat mental health conditions, but for many people they can serve as an empowering preventative tool and can make therapeutic interventions more effective. Whenever we are customizing a wellness program for companies, we aim to cover a variety of different topics from a range of perspectives, so that employees can get the full picture of health. It’s also why our wellness challenge always touches on a combination of nutrition, movement and mindset habits.
Over the past few years, many companies have been amping up their mental health support for employees. This is with good reason: employees who are psychologically healthy and feel their company cares about their health and wellbeing are consistently more engaged and motivated at work. Mental health issues also account for 30-40% of short-term disability claims and they’ve been on the rise since the start of the pandemic. Benefits coverage for mental health counseling, your workplace culture, wellness offerings, and more, all play a role in supporting your team’s mental health. Work is where we spend most of our time and companies are often the primary means by which individuals access both physical and mental health services.
I encourage companies to consider the full spectrum of factors when aiming to tackle the current mental health crisis. If you’re looking to better support your teams with their mental health, wellness programs that help teams with their nutrition and movement can also make a difference.