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Do food and exercise matter for mental health and can a weekly diet meal plan really help?

Which type of exercise helps with depression? What foods should I eat to help with depression? Can a simple weekly diet meal plan really help my depression? 

Depression and exercise

Well there’s no easy answer as it can be very individual but the foods we eat can make depression worse, or improve it. Typically people who are depressed won’t really be bothered with  even the simplest of healthy eating plans, and eat what they eat often turning to quick convenient junk and sugary foods. Sweet foods in particular will create a temporary lift but it wears off like lightning leaving behind a lowered mood, and that starts the sweet-food roller coaster. People might put on weight, making themselves feel worse and it all spirals downwards. It’s hard to suggest to someone who’s depressed that they start making themselves healthy food and get out and do some exercise when they may not even have the mental energy to get out of bed for long. People need support and encouragement.

With regards to exercise, generally any reasonably strenuous activity will release ‘happy chemicals’ endorphins, and give at least some temporary relief, but getting up and doing that activity can be hard for people when they feel low.

The benefits of following a weekly diet meal plan with Nuush

We work with people who suffer from depression and anxiety; following a weekly diet meal plan, eating a varied natural diet with easy-to-make meals gives comforting structure and makes it much easier to eat well as we’ve done all the thinking and planning. The food we prescribe is natural and slow-release, which means it doesn’t give blood sugar spikes or create mood highs or lows. Food is a fantastic medicine and can make a huge difference to mood and energy. Some of our weekly diet meal plans come with nutritionist support too, so we can talk to the person and help them to have a happy relationship with eating. We also gently encourage all our clients to be active outdoors, for it’s mind-benefits as well as its fitness ones.

We had a discussion a while back, on fitnaturally’s Facebook page, about depression and whether exercise and being outdoors in nature was of benefit to sufferers. Lots of people shared their thoughts and experiences and other people contacted me to say how useful they found it and though they would have liked to contribute they didn’t feel ready to do so.

I thought it would be useful to record it here; hopefully it will help others

Depression is suffered by males and females, children and adults. It’s hidden much of the time or masked by other behaviours such as drinking, over-exercising., eating too much, not eating enough, drugs and other damaging activities. There is stigma around discussing it, which is tragic as sufferers need support and understanding, but it’s seen as a weakness. The brain is just another organ and it can go wrong just like (moreso even) the rest of them.

Facebook post by Nuush
Lots of talk about depression this morning. Exercise and spending time outside in natural space can be helpful, though sometimes the effects are temporary.  Also, in times of deep depression, people can find it hard to get out of the door.

What’s your experience of this?

Facebook User
Oh, I’ve got so much to say on this issue as a sufferer of episodes of depression.  I certainly find exercise / nature / diet all key to keeping me on an even keel.  When I left hospital after an especially debilitating episode, they told me to try and do the following 4 things every day.

Eat breakfast within 30 mins of getting up.
Get outside for some exercise.
Do something to exercise your brain.
Interact with someone.

I make sure I do these every day.

Oh, and I also have a list of actions that I try and follow when I feel a bit “wobbly”.

Plan A:  Actions that reinforce feeling depressed like staying in bed, under / over eat, don’t wash, avoid people, avoid sunlight, smoke.

Plan B:  Actions that make you feel a bit better like washing your face and brushing your teeth; eating porridge, arrange a meeting with a friend and going for a run.

So, do you allow yourself to follow Plan A?  I mean, consciously give yourself permission to do so?

Facebook User
I try and follow Plan B – even just writing it down makes you think of the behaviours to reinforce / go against it.

It’s really helpful to hear these sort of tangible methods of coping.  I’m sure it will help people reading this who might be suffering from depression – I hope so anyway. It’s great that they gave you those strategies. I wonder what the thinking behind breakfast is – maybe to do with not letting blood sugar get too low.  Looks like a good set of preventative/control measures.  It makes me sad that some of the loveliest people suffer with this.

Facebook User
Yup, I think it is but also to just help you get into a good 3 meal eating routine and out of bed!

Like a framework I suppose.  It’s really interesting and helpful to hear about.

Facebook User
Thank you for sharing that X and for being so open, those are amazing structures. Someone very close finds those things useful and keeping blood sugar regulated very important.  Have seen in MH people fed a big stodgy lunch to knock patients out and keep ‘full’.  Often food becomes a bit of a crutch, especially when other substances may be off limits.  This is such a difficult subject and you’ve said it really well Sally Pinnegar, as have seen others yesterday, who have no experience “poo poo-ing” anti-depressants.  It makes me angry as it’s not as simple as just manning up or giving yourself a lift.  It’s far more chemical and deep rooted than that.  When I couldn’t walk for more than 20mins, getting out for long wasn’t an option but I always went outside.  I had to stare out imagining and engage with people for my own sanity. Hx.

I think the blood sugar thing stands to reason – though I must admit, I hadn’t made the link between it and depression before, as the brains runs off sugar so if sugar gets low the brain “goes into one”.It seems much more deep-rooted than just “manning-up”.  Like I said earlier, it seems debilitating and people who haven’t suffered from it will have a hard time understanding that, so it’s not their fault really I suppose.

It’s funny, when posting about eating disorders or depression there are never many replies because both things are sort of stigmatised.  It’s a shame because if more people spoke about it (though I know it’s not easy), they would realise how many other people are suffering and it might be helpful.

Being outside in nature can help with perspective I think, at least give people the change to get away from everyday things and have some breathing space.  Very restorative.  Then again, I’ve heard people say it gives them too much time to think, so makes it worse.

Exercise released happy chemicals, so is a temporary help; not sure it lasts but if you keep going it at least helps a bit, perhaps.  But the motivation could be an issue.

Facebook User
Sleep and exercise are essential for me to keep my natural tiggerish state.

Facebook User
It’s a many labyrinthine subject, this… and there are never two cases the same.  It’s purely subjective because it’s from the mind, which is totally individual.  Makes it very hard to label, diagnose and crucially treat / help.  If you are an outdoors type anyway, then the feeling you know you have from being out there will always be a relief and have a soothing effect.  The trouble is, to actually process the need to and then action the actual deed of getting out there, is greyed and blurred to the point of maybe not realising.  I’ve sometimes referred to the Faithless lyrics to describe my feelings once I’m out there (regardless whether it’s remembering tough times or whilst in a good place, but still associating: “This is my church; this is where I heal my hurt”.  That’s about as close an analogy I can find for my own experience of healing.  ONCE I was able to get over the ‘need’ obstacle.

Facebook User
It’s a combo of everything, I think.  A balance is upset by a perfect storm of internal and external influence and then it becomes a battle, if you will, of control over the emotions.  As for not nice………hmmm.  There can be some dark, hopeless feeling but to be honest, if you’re able to take control as I did and come thru completely, the whole thing is a mechanism for a happier way of being.  I feel lucky to have experienced my own  personal journey and am thankful for it.  I bizarrely to maybe, look back with fondness.

Facebook User
All the stresses from the outside world can’t get to you. I’d do the school run then come home.

I couldn’t even listen to music for a while as it was too distracting and as for reading a book, forget it.

How did you come out of it, is it just time? I hope you don’t mind me asking.

Facebook User
I turned to training for Wimbleball 70.3..running club twice a week, swimming three times a week, running and cycling in the day.  I did well then the fun in exercise became a chore.  If I missed a swim session I’d feel guilty then just get fed up.  All the sessions were in the evening when I wanted to spend time with the boys.  In the end I stopped altogether.

Hmm yeh, that’s the other side of exercise, it needs to be balanced, it can easily turn into an unhealthy obsession/distraction.

Facebook User
My “black dog” helps me cos he makes me feel less alone.

Facebook User
I developed anxiety depression after my brother died in 2000.  I was on a cocktail of anti-depressants and tranquillisers.  I was desperate to get out of the fog.  I had always been a bit of a runner but nothing serious.  I decided in amoment in 2005 to run the GNR.  Whilst training I ran my first 10k, the BUPA Sheffield 10k.  To start I had to get on a busy tram and then stand in a packed ‘pen’ before I could even start to run –  something which was very, very, VERY scary for me.  (Red traffic lights and check out queues would send me into a meltdown).  I finished that race and I was over the bloody moon and never looked back.  Running saved me.  Thank dog for running.

I’m not surprised you did; I think losing a sibling must wrench you apart, the thought of it is awful (and for your parents – terrible).  It’s so amazing hearing how running can take the place of drugs, for some people – not all.  Something that simple – though not simple to someone suffering from depression, who doesn’t feel happy  mixing with lots of people.

Facebook User
I agree everyone is different, but ultimately, there are strategies and techniques you can use to help lessen the triggers of your depression and / or try and make you feel a bit better or lessen the impact and try and get help before you go right down the black hole.  A lot of it is being aware of what makes you feel better; for some that’s exercise or the outdoors.  As it’s so important to treat yourself with compassion.

Facebook User
I always do exercise or go outside house.

Facebook User
Considering how hard it is to get an ADHD diagnosis never mind the associated (‘controlled’, as in Class A) drugs, I can confirm that the ADHD one is total BS (as are the others of course).

Facebook User
Having suffered both depression and an eating disorder, the experience of people telling me that I was ‘just having a bad day’ or ‘pull yourself together’ had an extremely negative effect in that I felt even worse because clearly, I was seen as someone who was weak and worthless, adding to my despair.  All I wanted to do was hide away and the thought of even opening the door some day’s was too much.  It’s a catch 22 situation – exercise and fresh air I’m sure help, but just getting brave enough to get there is often a seemingly impossible and scary task.

Yes, that’s like pouring hot oil on a burn.  I think people don’t know how to talk to someone with those things, a bit like cancer – it seems taboo; so they say all the wrong things.  Or simply don’t understand and so are dismissive.

Hadn’t thought of the brave element, like facing the world and perhaps feeling very vulnerable.  Also, maybe a risk of breaking down when someone speaks to you or asks how you are – perhaps?

Facebook User
And yes, you are right, people are afraid to talk about it – like it’s taboo. The Black Dog is a fantastic way of helping others I find.  I’ve got both books too – one for sufferers, one for supporters.

Black Dog – best 5 mins you’ll spend today.

It enabled me to reach out to my child and we talk about the Black Dog as a symbol. i.e. the other day they said “the Black Dogs curled up on my lap today Mom”

Facebook User
Came four years too late for me, but retrospectively I identified a lot and when you are struggling to reach out to someone, you are desperate to help it’s a difficult conversation opener.

Facebook User
Exercise, mostly outdoors, helped me during my episodes.  It helped me feel like I was able to achieve something.  But, along with my  depression came a need to control and exercise became part of this.  It meant that if I didn’t exercise every day, or if I wasn’t running faster or longer or lifting heavier weights, that I was failing all over again.  Exercising with other (in my case cross-fit) has helped more than exercising alone.

I was thinking earlier that that is perhaps the reason why so many people do so much exercise – which links with the discussion we had on here last week, about Ironman and endurance events and not being able to give them up.  I think I said then that there are more damaging forms of self-help, such as alcohol and drugs.  At least exercise has positive effects – though of course, it can lead to burn out and endocrine problems.

Facebook User
Definitely, there is a feeling that if I am not pushing to do ultras and an ironman that I am failing.  Particularly if other people ask me i.e. after I completed my first spring triathlon, another ultra-runner asked if I would be doing an Ironman.  My feeling was then that it was expected of me and if I didn’t I was a failure.  In the end, I burnt out trying to train for it, destroying support networks along the way with my single minded approach and the failure brought another relapse.

Facebook User
For me, it was just time and having a goal.  So, one week for example my goal was to go and sit in the park, or to read a newspaper.  It was about me taking time out to actually enjoy doing things for me again.

Facebook User
Exercise, particularly outside is where I turn.  Yes at times, it’s even difficult to get that first step, but I tell myself that if I can just get that kit on I know I will feel better afterwards and I always do.

Great to hear that you’re able to look ahead at how you’ll feel afterwards.  I think getting kit on is a stumbling block even for people without depression, so it must be very hard indeed.

Facebook User
But comforting.

Facebook User
If someone had come over to ‘make’ me go out that would’ve been too much.  You need to want to do it.  Sometimes you just can’t physically bring yourself to do things, kind of a self-preservation.

I just wanted to lock the doors and make everyone and everything go away, apart from X & the boys. I still find it difficult to answer the phone and door even though I’m in a happy place.

Facebook User
I think it can help greatly if you can do it in the earlier stages or when coming out…when in the deep stages of depression…it really is too much effort to do anything or believe anything can help.

Facebook User
Think that’s the main problem.  U can’t realise the benefits of exercise if u don’t have the motivation to do said exercise – can be a catch 22.

Facebook User
I think some GP’s ‘prescribe’ exercise for depression, which is great.  Once they can prescribe some motivation to go with it, it’ll be sorted!

Facebook User
Being outside in nature for me is escaping the visible confines of  my home to deal with invisible confines that depression creates… to the point I feel claustrophobic with the huge weight bearing down on me.  I’m not embarrassed to share that I’ve cried running and swimming – so on those particularly extra difficult black dog days the strength it took to get the kit on was dragged from somewhere.  The much craved happy chemicals were not released fully, but by getting out there and completing a training session gabe me a feeling of achievement.

Facebook User
I woke up one day and kicked myself out of it, with the help of my loved ones. I was always outside.

Facebook User
Nature always helps me, even if it’s just a gentle walk.

Facebook User
I suffered in silence for a while quite badly with depression brought on by a number of ‘things’. My marriage broke down, I was made redundant twice in the space of 6 months and then sadly, my mum passed away very suddenly. It was affecting my work due to lack of concentration and paranoia. I became a recluse not wanting to go out (was quite happy to stay in bed all day). There was a moment when I wanted to end it all but that didn’t last because I couldn’t do that to my son – he needed me!

It all came to head about 6 months after losing my mum and with help of my friends and family I went through a period of counselling and anti-depressants. I didn’t want to become dependent on the drugs and finally stopped taking them a year after starting them. That same year, 2008, I entered the GRN and also ran in the Great Yorkshire 10k. Before suffering with depression, I’d always exercised every day – circuit training and running and I tried to carry on but I wasn’t eating properly and lost a lot of weight so I stopped! Big mistake! I’m gradually getting back into exercise and I do make sure I have a couple of early nights each week as in my experience tiredness can trigger depression.

Thanks again to everyone who took part.

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