Magazine Advice 5 ways to improve your mental health By Ian Howley @ianhowleyPhoto © www.flickr.com/danielbentley How important is it to look after your mental health? Very, actually. All too often gay men spend far more time working on our abs than our mental health. The way you value yourself, what you think about yourself and how happy you are as a person have a knock-on effect on all aspects of your life. As gay men, we are more likely to drink more alcohol, smoke more, do more drugs (and for longer) than straight people. We are also more likely to suffer from poor self-esteem and depression, and five times more likely to think about suicide or even try it. It’s impossible for us to give you the magic answer into how to stop feeling depressed or how to prevent it but we do know some tips that you can bring into your every day life that can help improve your mental health and self-esteem. 1 - EAT HEALTHIER Have you ever read those self help books that tell you that you should swap chocolate for an apple? That’s not real shit. Hello people, we are humans and we crave sweet and savoury stuff. Eating healthier does not mean binning the Pringles for a salad, it’s about getting the balance right. There are certain foods that DO help improve your mood. They are: Chocolate – Yes... chocolate! There’s some science behind the theory that chocolate makes us happy: eating dark chocolate (1.4 ounces of it, to be exact) every day for two weeks reduced stress hormones, including cortisol, in people who were highly stressed, a study done at the Nestlé Research Centre in Switzerland (who are not bias at all *wink wink*). Experts believe it could be thanks to the antioxidants in chocolate. When you do indulge, be sure to account for the 235 calories that 1.4 ounces of chocolate delivers, or you may be stressed to see extra pounds creeping on. Carbs – Despite persistent myths to the contrary, carbs don’t make you fat and they can boost your mood. In a new study in the Archives of Internal Medicine, people who for a year followed a very-low-carbohydrate diet – which allowed only 20 to 40 grams of carbs daily, about the amount in just half cup of rice plus one piece of bread – experienced more depression, anxiety and anger than those assigned to a low-fat, high-carb diet that focused on low-fat dairy, whole grains, fruit and beans. Researchers suspect that carbs promote the production of serotonin, a feel-good brain chemical. Also, the challenge of following such a restrictive low-carb diet for a full year may have negatively impacted their mood. Fish – Eating oily, fatty fish (salmon, tuna, sardines, rainbow trout) and mussels will give you omega-3s – a key mood-boosting nutrient and one our bodies don’t produce. Omega-3s alter brain chemicals linked with mood – specifically dopamine and serotonin. Low levels of serotonin are linked with depression, aggression and suicidal tendencies, while dopamine is a ‘reward’ chemical that the brain releases in response to pleasurable experiences, such as eating or having sex. Coconut – When you’re stressed, the scent of coconut may blunt your natural ‘fight or flight’ response, slowing your heart rate. People who breathed in coconut fragrance in a small pilot study at Columbia University saw their blood pressure recover more quickly after a challenging task. The researchers speculate that inhaling a pleasant scent enhances alertness while soothing our response to stress. Tea – OK, it’s not food but drinking caffeinated black, green or oolong tea may elicit a more alert state of mind, says a study in the Journal of Nutrition. Researchers think theanine – an amino acid present in these tea varieties – may work with caffeine to improve attention and focus. To reap the benefits, the study’s results suggest drinking five to six cups of tea daily, although this may interfear with sleep. Talking of which... 2 - SLEEP This should be an obvious one, but a recent study shows that most of us are not getting enough sleep. You need about seven to eight hours of sleep a night, but most of us get about five to six. So go to bed an hour earlier if you can. Those extra minutes can help improve your health. 3 - ALCOHOL AND DRUGS Here we go. Betty buzz-kill is on her way to ruin your weekend. No. We’d never do that. It’s up to you how much alcohol and/or drugs you take. However alcohol is a major depressant as is the come down from certain drugs. If you’re feeling low the last thing you should be doing is drinking yourself silly or taking too many drugs. 4 - EXERCISE No, you don’t need to become a gym bunny to have a healthy mind, but it’s proven that moderate exercise can do wonders for your mental health and self-esteem. If you are feeling low, put your shoes on, turn on your music and go for a 20 minute brisk walk. It’s been proven that 20 minutes of walking can change your mood. And if you are up for it, turn that walk into a jog. Sweat the badness away. 5 - TELL SOMEONE This is the most important one. The biggest thing you can do to improve your mental health is talk to someone about how you are feeling. A friend, family member or counsellor if needed. You don’t need to feel the way you do and there are lots of people willing to listen. So do your mind a favour and talk. SUPPORT: If you just need someone to talk to, you can call Samaritans on 08457 909090 or LGBT Switchboard on 0300 330 0630. Are you depressed? It’s totally normal to get down and have days when you feel really rubbish, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have depression. Depression is when these negative feelings won’t go away and affect your day to day life. People with depression can feel hopelessly sad. Sometimes it is even possible to be depressed without having the usual ‘miserable’ feelings. There are lots of different signs which may point to clinical depression – the main ones are listed below. Most depressed people only suffer from a few of these feelings and bear in mind, depression is different in everyone. Signs of depression You may have noticed a change in the way you’re responding or feeling about things. The following points are indications that it could be depression: Persistent sadness, lasting two weeks or more. Loss of interest in your favourite things. Finding no fun or enjoyment in life. Loss of self-confidence. Feeling guilty, bad, unlikeable, or not good enough. Feeling empty inside. Feeling useless or unable to cope with life. Feeling bored all the time. Increased feelings of anxiety. Inability to see a future for yourself. Thinking everything is pointless. Thinking life is not worth living. Thoughts of death or suicide. Wanting to go to sleep and never wake up again. Especially low mood in the mornings. Feeling more irritable, frustrated, or aggressive than usual. Trouble concentrating on things, poor memory. Other signs may include: Loss of energy, feeling tired all the time. Changed sleep pattern – difficulty getting to sleep, bad nightmares, waking in the night, waking up too early, or sleeping much more than usual. Spending less time socialising with friends or family. Loss of sexual desire. Changed eating pattern – loss of appetite, weight loss or comfort eating. Getting lower grades than usual at school, college, or university. Not going to school/college/work, or becoming disruptive. Becoming a hypochondriac, worrying lots about illness. More headaches, backaches or stomach aches than you normally get. Turning to alcohol or drugs to try to make yourself feel better. If you recognise some of these symptoms, or if you’re having feelings you can’t cope with, the best thing to do is contact your GP. If you’re worried about this, you could take a friend or family member with you for support. If you just need someone to talk to, you can call Samaritans on 08457 909090 or LGBT Switchboard on 0300 330 0630. For more information, visit www.nhs.uk/depression. THIS ARTICLE WAS TAKEN FROM ISSUE #149.