How to improve mental health: 5 proven ways
Expert tips, articles, and podcasts about how to improve mental health, all in one place.
At Heights, we talk a lot about brain health. It’s kind of our thing. But among all that discussion, it’s important to not forget about mental health. Brain health is about optimising the efficiency and performance of your brain, mental health considers your mind, how happy you are, and how you think.
In this article, we've gathered some tips on how to improve mental health from leading experts.
How to improve mental health
Every week, the Heights team invites the world's leading scientists and experts on brain health, wellness, and psychology onto our Braincare podcast. In a recent episode, we chatted with neuropsychologist Nawal Mustafa, M.A. about how to improve mental health.
You might recognise Mustafa from her popular Instagram account @thebraincoach, where the Canadian-Pakistani scientist raises awareness about the importance of mental health to her nearly 600,000 followers. Here are some of Nawal's good mental health tips.
What are 5 ways to improve mental health?
1. Seek social connection
Social isolation is a worldwide epidemic and a recent study published in the International Psychogeriatrics shows that our loneliness problem was considerably exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yet social connection is a core psychological need for us as a species, and lack of it is associated with deteriorating mental health. “Connection is very, very important… and research shows it helps with our mental wellness,” says Mustafa.
She admits that it’s been tough for people to stay connected with others during the pandemic, but she encourages everyone to get creative:
If you live in an area where there are still restrictions on events and gatherings, you can still go beyond phone calls and try virtual game nights or remotely watching a movie or TV show together
Send an old-fashioned written letter or postcard.
Fire off a text, even if it’s a simple, “I’m thinking of you right now.”
2. Get more sleep
Just one night of poor sleep can sabotage your mental health and lead to moodiness and irritability, warns the NHS, and several nights of short sleep can cause long-term mood disorders.
Mustafa agrees. “Sleep is important for a number of reasons, especially when it comes to our brain function,” she explains. “It allows our nerve cells to communicate with each other. It [also] plays a… housekeeping role for us, so it removes toxins in our brain and allows us to… recuperate overnight.”
Both the NHS and Mustafa suggest striving for approximately eight hours of shut-eye a night is one way how to improve mental health. If you have trouble sleeping, try:
Keeping your room cool and dark.
Lowering the temperature.
Running a sound machine or a fan, or wearing earplugs.
Keeping bright lights, including the light from your smartphone, out of the bedroom in the evening.
3. Eat a healthy diet
At Heights, we’ve seen the significant impact that nutrition has on the brain.
“Our brain functions best when it gets nutrient-dense foods, so eating high-quality foods that contain a lot of vitamins, minerals, [and] antioxidants… nourish the brain… and protect from oxidative stress,” says Mustafa.
Mustafa recommends the Mediterranean diet for optimal braincare (or the MIND Diet), but a study at Heights found that many of our everyday diets don’t meet the nutritional needs of our brains.
4. Move your body
“Another thing that helps improve mental wellness is exercise,” says Mustafa. For example, one study found that regular physical activity had significant antidepressant effects on the brain.
“Exercise is something that stimulates the brain’s plasticity,” says Mustafa. “It allows us to grow new connections between cells. It's really important for the cortical areas of our brain. Also, it boosts your mood.”
The mental health-enhancing effects of exercise happen quickly. In fact, the American Psychological Association reports that many people feel happier and more balanced within just five minutes of working out.
5. Get more sunshine
“[Sunshine exposure is] definitely also very helpful in our mental well-being,” explains Mustafa. “Sunlight triggers the release of serotonin in the brain. And this is a hormone that's associated with boosting mood and helping a person feel calm and focused. Without enough sun exposure, serotonin levels can dip. And if that happens, you might notice a significant change in your mood.”
Sunlight also carries additional mental health benefits. For example, your body converts the sun’s ultraviolet rays into vitamin D, and higher vitamin D levels are associated with mental well-being. The sun also helps regulate your sleep-wake cycle, potentially enhancing your sleep quality and sleep duration over time (boosting your mental health even further).
How can I improve mental health naturally?
To summarise, Mustafa recommends that we:
Invest in our social connections and relationships
Get more sleep
Eat a healthy diet
Enjoy the sunshine
Discover more mental health tips
As well as Mustafa, we've spoken to many other experts about mental health and mental illness. Listen to the podcasts and read the blog posts below for diverse perspectives and more ideas on how to improve mental health.
Living with mental health disorders, with Stephen Fry
There are few people as well-respected in the UK as Stephen Fry. The author, actor, and public intellectual has been honest (brutally so at times) about living with bipolar disorder. He even won an Emmy for his documentary series, Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive. Oh, and he also takes the Smart Supplement.
This episode covers what it’s like to live with a long-term mental disorder, some coping mechanisms, and the best way to help loved ones who are suffering with their mental health.
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How to end mental illness, with Dr Daniel Amen
Every year, one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem. The economic cost of that is estimated at £105 billion, while the human cost is incalculable. So putting an end to mental illness seems like a worthwhile pursuit.
The world-renowned psychologist and author Dr Daniel Amen has spent his life advocating the use of brain imaging to study mental illness. His pioneering study in the field has helped develop our understanding of the crossover between physiology and psychology.
On this episode, Dr Daniel shares the personal story that accelerated his investigation into mental health and brain imaging.
The best diet for mental health, with Dr Drew Ramsey
Food—we all eat it. On average, more than 700kg a year. That’s not a long way off a whole Fiat 500. So what we eat matters. When you think of it like that, how can it not?
Dr Drew Ramsey, psychiatrist, speaker, and author, knows the importance of a good diet when it comes to mental health. Food isn’t just about fuel, nor just about pleasure, but also about mental wellbeing. We spoke to Drew on the Braincare podcast about his new book, Eat to Beat Depression and Anxiety, and his ideas about the best foods for mental health.
Exercise and the brain, with Dr Kelly McGonigal
It’s often said that the reason exercise is so good for your mind is the release of endorphins. But that’s only one aspect. We got Dr Kelly McGonigal, health psychologist, Stanford lecturer, and serial best-selling author, on the Braincare podcast to explain exactly what is going on in your brain while you exercise.
Step away from the screen, with Damian Bradfield
These days, overstimulation is almost a given. We spend about 9 hours a day looking at screens, often with multiple devices on the go at once. Who hasn’t been guilty of browsing Twitter while on a computer, with the TV on in the background?
In this episode, Damian Bradfield, CCO of WeTransfer and one of the ‘most influential voices in tech today’, according to Forbes, shares his practical tips for looking after your mental health when you’re online.
To sum up: How to improve mental health
There’s no shortage of ways to look after your mental health, and not all of them will be right for everyone. At Heights, we want to put everyone in the best position possible to look after themselves and to look after their brains. That’s why we’re here. To help you feel better, every day.