In their ongoing efforts to connect rural Americans across the country with existing mental health resources, Rural Minds recently partnered with the National Grange to present a webinar titled “Mental Health Benefits of Sleep, Nutrition, Exercise and Mindfulness.”

Looking first at the mental health benefits of nutrition and exercise was Dawn Grittmann, PharmD, CPHQ, senior manager of National Education Programs, Research, Support & Education at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). She spoke about one of the programs – “Hearts+Minds” – the tagline of which is “mental health is physical health.”

“Some things we want to convey to people is that small changes lead to big impacts,” Grittmann said. “Understand what you can do for your health and then do it.”

Nutrition can have a huge impact on both your mental and physical health. She brought up the gut-brain axis, defined by the National Institutes of Health as “consisting of bidirectional communication between the central and the enteric nervous system, linking emotional and cognitive centers of the brain with peripheral intestinal functions.”

“There’s a lot of connections between your digestive system and the brain,” Grittmann said. “The digestive system is so essential to how your body functions that scientists sometimes refer to it as the second brain.”

She isn’t exaggerating – about 70% of your immune system is housed in your gut. Immune cells in the gut interact with the microbiome, the diverse array of bacteria and fungi that live in the gastrointestinal tract and are directly influenced by an individual’s diet and lifestyle, according to UCLA Health. The foods we eat affect the diversity and composition of bacteria in the gut, which in turn affect immune cells.

Grittmann noted that nutrition can improve your resistance to illness – and your ability to recover from it. Cardiovascular disorders, obesity and metabolic disorders are all associated with hormonal and inflammatory pathways that are influenced through the gut-brain axis. “What you eat each day can help or harm,” she added.

Some quick tips for what you should aim to eat from UCLA Health include eating plenty of plants; eating good fats (olive oil and avocado); eating wild-caught fish; eating protein at every meal; and using natural spices and herbs when preparing food.

Grittmann also listed some of the best ways to heal the gut via food: obviously, limit junk food intake, and eat more prebiotics (like onions, cabbage, asparagus, peas and sweet corn) and probiotics (fermented foods like sauerkraut, kombucha, pickled vegetables and yogurt).

With exercise, one thing is very clear from research, and that is people with mental health conditions can get a lot of benefits from exercise – not just mood, but physical benefits too, Grittmann said. These benefits include improved brain function and hormonal balance as well as reduced inflammation and insulin resistance, greater stress resilience and improved social skills and support, self-esteem and feelings of capability.

“Current research is very clear: no group benefits more from the impact of exercise than people with mental health conditions,” she said.

For people who are managing mental and physical health conditions, exercise can have immediate results for symptom management. Grittmann said it reduces anxiety and blood pressure and improves sleep, cognitive function and insulin resistance. Regular exercise can lead to maintaining lower blood pressure and improving depression.

Those in agriculture are already very active, and often for long and intense periods. (Haying is not for the faint of heart – literally.) “Farmers need to focus on three key areas to keep themselves primed: cardiovascular fitness, strength and suppleness (another phrase for flexibility and mobility),” explained exercise physiologist Carly Ryan. “Some farmers may feel they do enough in their job to tick all those boxes; however, we find this is not the case. Our bodies need more than just our job to be in peak condition.”

And that includes the brain. Exercise is a tool that can be used to manage symptoms of depression. Grittmann said mood improvement can occur with only 10 to 30 minutes of exercise, regardless of how intense it is.

“Exercise leads to more consistently positive mental health,” she continued. “Researchers found people who exercise three to five times a week have 40% fewer days per month in which they experience poor mental health (such as feeling depressed or stressed). Not only does a little bit of exercise go a long way, consistent exercise can go a long way as well.”

The Hearts+Minds program at simply gives people the research that is available. They can then take that information and work with their care team/provider to find what works best for them.

“We are not here to tell people they have to do this,” Grittmann said. NAMI is just providing another tool in the toolbox of overall health.

by Courtney Llewellyn