Feb 16, 2022
How your body’s chemistry boosts your mental health
“Socializing, nutrition and exercise are all important to maintain your mental health,” experts often say. But why? How do those basic factors affect your brain’s chemistry?
Coverage talked to Dr. Greg Harris, psychiatrist and senior medical director for behavioral health at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, about what we can do to fend off stress, depression, and anxiety, and how food and certain behaviors affect our brains.
You may have heard the term “runner’s high,” which is backed by science – it refers to the endorphins released when the body is active. Endorphins are chemicals in the body that trigger happy feelings and relieve stress. According to research, they produce a similar feeling of euphoria caused by drugs like opioids.
“Exercise gets the blood flowing and can lift your mood,” Harris said. “You don’t have to run, necessarily, to achieve that – just walking will get your blood circulating,”
It doesn’t need to include workout equipment, or even be labeled as “exercise.” Dancing, for example, can release endorphins the same way as a run can.
The restrictions of the pandemic have made human connection more difficult. But, Harris said, it’s crucial to maintain and renew those ties with friends, family, and chosen family.
Research shows that socializing releases oxytocin, a hormone involved in trust, sexual arousal, and mother-child bonding. It has been found to reduce stress and increase pain threshold.
“I think technology is really helpful maintaining relationships, but also trying to figure out the right amount of real-life contact with the right people,” Harris said. “Socializing face to face in groups of fully vaccinated people is great, and when that’s not possible, phone calls and video calls are also key.”
Any doctor will tell you that a healthy diet can help prevent conditions like cancer and heart disease. But why is it good for our mental health too?
As it turns out, about 95% of serotonin – a key hormone in mood stabilization – is produced in the intestinal tract, which makes it extra important to maintain gut health with a nutritious diet high in vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, and fish and seafood.
Eating foods high in tryptophan also is helpful – the amino acid is converted to serotonin in the body. Tryptophan is mostly found in high-protein foods, like meat, fish, and poultry.
“There’s no specific diet that I recommend, but eating a well-balanced diet full of fruits and vegetables will help manage your stress,” Harris said.
Though it’s common for many adults to have a beer or glass of wine after a stressful day, drinking alcohol can be detrimental to psychological well-being in the long run, Harris said.
“Limiting alcohol use is a big one for maintaining mental health,” he said. “It impacts your mood, and people are drinking more now in the pandemic. But alcohol is a depressant, and it can worsen depressive symptoms.”
At first, alcohol provides a serotonin dump, leading to happy feelings in the short-term. But afterward, excess alcohol can make those levels crash. It can also disrupt sleep, Harris said, which often raises stress levels.
Amid stress, it is more important than ever to practice self-care, Harris said.
“It's crucial to prioritize your own wellness, but It's hard to do that. The tendency is to worry about your job, your family, and neglect your own needs,” Harris said.
It’s important to remember that doing things to maintain your mental health is not selfish. Doing that can also then help the people around you – the healthier and happier you are, the happier people around you will be.
Are you a Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts member who is looking for a therapist? Call 1-888-389-7764 or use our Find a Doctor & Estimate Costs tool to find licensed therapists – including psychologists, licensed mental health counselors, or marriage and family therapists.
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PHOTO OF DR. GREG HARRIS BY MIKE GRIMMETT