Improving Your Mental Health with Lifestyle Medicine

Recording: Improving Your Mental Health Using the Six Pillars of Lifestyle Medicine by Abigail McCleery, Lifestyle Medicine Practitioner

Hi! I’m Abigail McCleery, Colleague Lifestyle Medicine and Wellness Coordinator at St. Joe’s. Thank you for joining me today for our discussion on Lifestyle Medicine and Mental Health!

You may have noticed that this is an audio only file, and we’ve done that intentionally so that you can listen at your convenience, maybe while you’re taking a walk, cleaning up around the house, or doing some meal prep and not feel like you’re missing anything by not having your screen in front of you.  We also intentionally have kept this discussion on the shorter side, but hope it piques your interest and provides some concrete and actionable recommendations that are relevant and achievable on your journey to whole health.

So, when we think about mental health through a Lifestyle Medicine lens, there are many angles we can take.  To start, I thought it might be helpful to define lifestyle medicine so we’re all on the same page about the framework we are working within.

What is Lifestyle Medicine?

Lifestyle Medicine is the use of evidence-based lifestyle therapeutic interventions in 6 areas to prevent, treat, and often even reverse chronic disease.  The 6 pillars of lifestyle medicine are: including a whole-food plant predominant eating pattern, attaining restorative sleep, engaging in regular physical activity, avoiding risky substances, implementing effective stress management techniques, and forming and maintaining positive social connections.

Because these pillars are all interconnected to support whole health, including mental health, I had some trouble deciding where to focus this discussion.  Then I had a thought:  what if I challenged myself to provide a bit of evidence for each pillar and how it relates to cultivating happiness, as well as an actionable recommendation, think of it as a happiness prescription, in each area that you can incorporate in 10 minutes or less into your day?  It’s these small choices that we make daily that have far more impact on our long-term health than activities we only do occasionally. I hope this format is effective in providing evidence-based recommendations in each pillar that you can successfully implement. 

Happiness and You

First things first, what is happiness?  A good working definition of happiness is having a sense of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with the feeling that life is good, worthwhile and meaningful.  Yet happiness isn’t something we can simply acquire, rather it’s a product of leveraging our strengths, noticing and promoting goodness in the world, and pursuing a life full of meaning and purpose.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that we will never experience negative emotions.  The key is for us to recognize they are a part of each of our lives, and be willing to acknowledge, experience and learn from them.  So, what factors influence happiness?  Researchers have found that happiness seems to be made up of 3 components:  genetic set point, life circumstances, and intentional activity.  Surprisingly, life circumstances only account for 10%. That means an astonishing 40% of whether a person is happy or not is up to you.  So, let’s explore what the evidence shows we can do in each pillar of Lifestyle Medicine to actively cultivate happiness. 

As a dietitian, my mind goes to food first, so let’s start there:

Pillar 1 – Eat Smarter

Food feeds your mood.  In fact, studies show that including 8 servings of fruits and vegetables daily is the best dose for mental health improvements.  All of the micronutrients and fiber you get from those colorful fruits and veggies help feed healthy gut bacteria and studies have shown improved positive affect the following day.  So, your happiness prescription for food is to include lots of different colorful plant foods in your diet daily to help improve your mood.  To double down on this happiness prescription, try sharing a healthy meal with those you care about.  Please reach out if you’d like some recipe ideas to get you started!

Pillar 2 – Manage Stress Better

Now let’s look at the stress management pillar.  Studies show that focusing on the positive can actually change our brain.  But having a positive attitude is not necessarily automatic, it requires a commitment to create and maintain positivity. But research shows it pays off; Something as simple as smiling releases the feel-good hormones endorphins and serotonin that are conducive to well-being, and those who do not smile live 7 years less.  Another way to shift our brain to focusing on the positive is by cultivating gratitude.  Not only does gratitude enhance positive emotions, it also helps people deal with adversity, build strong connections and relationships, and even improve our physical health. Knowing this, our happiness prescription for stress management is taking the time to write down 3 good things that happen each day and think about why they happened, and your involvement in making them happen.  When we do this for just 90 days, we actually see neurochemical changes in our brains.

Pillar 3 – Connect with Others

The third pillar we are going to discuss is social connectedness.  Research shows that the single most important predictor of human happiness and long life is having strong social connections.  Social connections and relationships affect our physical, mental and emotional health.  As the pandemic took hold and we needed to stay away from friends and family to stay physically healthy, it became more and more evident for many of us just how important those strong positive social connections are.  Although it can be challenging to stay connected to those we care about in a world of social distancing, research shows that health related measures like blood pressure and heart rate improve even with short, positive social interactions. So, let’s try something as simple as chatting with the person in line next to us or smiling as we pass each other in the hallway – these positive micro interactions scattered throughout our day can have a big impact.

Also, just a note about technology and mental health, while technology can improve social connectedness in some cases, research finds that those who use social media the most are at a higher risk for depression, so I encourage you to be mindful of how you use technology to support social connections in your life.

Pillar 4 – Avoid Risky Substances

Now let’s talk about avoiding risky substances.  We know that reducing the intake of items like alcohol, vaping and smoking improve our physical health, but they can also have an impact on our mental health and happiness.  When we are not using substances, we are more able to be present in the moment and notice the positive things around us.  Let’s aim to be aware of when we might be using these substances to alter our reality instead of working to identify positive strategies to cope with life’s daily stressors.

Pillar 5 – Move More

Speaking of positive stress management strategies, let’s talk about physical activity. Consistent regular exercise benefits us both mentally and physically.  In fact, studies show that being active for as little as 10 minutes per day can positively impact our mood.  A good way to remember that is motion creates emotion.  Moving our bodies, especially in nature, can do wonders for our whole health.  So, our happiness prescription for physical activity is to find 30 minutes a day to be outside moving in nature – walk with friends, ride a bike, garden or play with the children and pets in your life.

Pillar 6 – Sleep More Soundly

The last pillar we are going to touch on is one of my favorites, and that’s sleep.  Getting a good night’s sleep is one of the most important things we can do for our overall health and well-being.  Sleep deprivation leads the brain exhausted, and chronic sleep deprivation is strongly correlated with behavioral health issues, such as depression, anxiety and substance use.  To set ourselves up for a restorative night of sleep takes preparation, so let’s strive to set and stick to a sleep routine that allows for 7-8 hours of sleep per night in a cool, dark place and try to disconnect from screens two hours before bedtime.

References for Lifestyle Medicine and Mental Health Audio Recording

Blanchflower, D.G., Oswald, A.J. & Stewart-Brown, S. Is Psychological Well-Being Linked to the Consumption of Fruit and Vegetables?. Soc Indic Res 114, 785–801 (2013).

John S. Y. Chan, Guanmin Liu, Danxia Liang, Kanfeng Deng, Jiamin Wu & Jin H. Yan (2019) Special Issue – Therapeutic Benefits of Physical Activity for Mood: A Systematic Review on the Effects of Exercise Intensity, Duration, and Modality, The Journal of Psychology, 153:1, 102125, DOI: 10.1080/00223980.2018.1470487

Frates, Beth, Bonnet, Jonathon, Joseph, Richard, Peterson, James.  Lifestyle Medicine Handbook – An Introduction to the Power of Healthy Habits.  Healthy Learning.  2019.

Morton, Darren.  “From Health to Happiness”.  IHA Quadruple Aim Workgroup.  April 27, 2021.

Ready to take the next step?

Our Lifestyle Medicine team is here to support you on your journey to better health. Connect with one of our Board-Certified Lifestyle Medicine Specialists today.

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