|Dr. Chanel Heermann, MD
Women’s Mental Health Expert
Millions of women in the U.S. are affected by mental illness each year. Depression, anxiety and insomnia impact alarming numbers of women every day. In fact, women are twice as likely to suffer from depression and anxiety disorders compared to men.
With so many lives affected, is there an ideal treatment for women’s mental illness?
The optimal approach isn’t one-size-fits-all. Each woman is a whole unique individual. The diagnosis of a mental illness does not mean a collection of symptoms similar to everyone else with that affliction.
As a psychiatrist, I often approach the exact same diagnosis completely differently based on the patient’s individual needs and preferences. One reason is that mental illness may have a unique underlying cause for each person. A functional medicine approach allows us to uncover the root of the problem to create an individualized, holistic treatment plan.
Functional Medicine: Don’t Treat the Illness, Treat the Person
Your symptoms may be similar to someone you know, but behind the scenes, there may be a completely different underlying cause. Genetics and biochemistry certainly play a part in mental illness. They are not, however, the whole story.
Your habits and personality can also impact your mental well-being. The way you perceive and respond to life events, relationships, your work environment, and many other lifestyle factors, are all unique to you and all can play a role in your mental health.
What Makes Women’s Mental Health Unique?
Women’s mental health and emotional state go above and beyond the biochemistry of female hormones, reproduction, or genetics. While menstruation, fertility, pregnancy and menopause play a role in the way women feel, there are other factors unique to women that are equally important. One specific stressor is the pressure of being a woman in modern culture.
Women in Our Modern World
We are living in an era dominated by social media. People are able to create perfect images of themselves online. This leads to the belief that people should and can hold themselves to those unrealistic, curated standards. What we are seeing on social media isn’t real life. We’re trying to live up to a standard no one is actually achieving. This epidemic of perfectionism is something that many women find themselves battling. And it’s impacting their mental health.
Women are often seen as responsible for the success of the household and their independent life. Tasked with raising children, caring for family members, and working on their careers while trying to keep up a perfect diet and exercise routine, women have too much to worry about.
These stressful expectations mean many women end up either doing too much or doing nothing at all. Neither of these strategies are productive or beneficial. Finding balance between day-to-day demands and self-care is the key. This is a huge struggle for many women.
In addition to life stressors, hormonal imbalances, nutritional deficiencies, and other physical abnormalities also influence women’s mental health. Untangling the complexity of women’s bodies and lives is what makes women’s mental health care so unique.
The Seven Foundations of Health and Happiness
As a woman, what lifestyle factors should you be focusing on to improve your emotional and mental well-being? A good place to start is the seven key foundations of health and happiness. These are based on a combination of ancient practices from across the world and modern scientific research.
Rest encompasses both sleep and relaxation. The average person does not get enough of either. Chronic stress can completely change your physiology, causing hormonal issues, nutritional imbalances, and mental fatigue. Rather than turning first to medications to address these problems, it would be better to treat the source of the problem. The root problem may simply be that you are not getting enough rest.
Identify the stressors that affect you the most and pay attention to how you respond to them. Once you have discovered your primary stressors, explore ways to quiet the mind with meditation, mindfulness, and other mind-body methods. Stress reduction practices allow you to have more control of how life events affect your emotional state.
Then there is sleep. America is suffering from an epidemic of sleeplessness. In our society, being a workaholic is praised. Busyness is seen as a measure of success. Ironically, not resting enough can diminish your productivity. Both your body and mind need sleep. While the amount of sleep needed varies, most people need 7-9 hours.
Exercise is one of the most powerful natural remedies we have for depression and anxiety. If we could get everyone to exercise, we would probably have a lot fewer people needing medication for their mental health.
It is important to note that different people may benefit from completely different exercise routines. For example, some people with anxiety or attention issues may find sitting meditations agitating. They may benefit more from activities like yoga or Tai Chi where you have to concentrate on moving through the different poses. Concentrating on movement helps you to keep your mind from wandering.
Whether you love high-intensity workouts, like interval training or a brisk jog, or if you prefer leisurely walks in nature, all exercise is beneficial. The best exercise for your mental health is the type of movement you love doing. This habit needs to fit into your daily lifestyle and work schedule, and it will only work if it is both enjoyable and sustainable.
If you are able to do some of your exercise outdoors, it will be even more beneficial. Multiple studies have shown that spending time in nature can have a positive effect on our mood, stress levels, and other mental health troubles.
The foods you eat, and the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals they contain, can influence the balance of key neurotransmitters in the body, such as serotonin and dopamine. Maintaining the right balance of these brain-signaling compounds plays a key role in our emotional health.
Eating for mental well-being may require more than just getting all the nutrients you need, though. Finding your own individual balance is critical, since a diet that supports optimal mental function can be different from one person to another.
It’s also important to be aware that too much of even healthy nutrients can be just as bad for you as not having enough. For example, your body may have difficulty eliminating or balancing some micronutrients. In this situation, taking a multivitamin could worsen your problem if your body already has too much of a given nutrient. Or you could be working hard to eat a “healthy” diet, but still not be eating the food that is right for you.
Your body may need a different nutritional plan than one that works well for your family or friends. If you have been experiencing emotional issues for a while, it is possible that the underlying cause may be nutritional imbalances.
The Best Diet for Mental Health
While there is no specific diet that works best for everyone, the anti-inflammatory Mediterranean diet has been shown to be beneficial for mental health.
This diet is based on the traditional diet of the people in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. It’s a style of eating that emphasizes fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy fats from nuts, fish, and olive oil.
This type of diet works by controlling inflammation and balancing blood sugar. Numerous studies have shown that a Mediterranean diet is linked to a reduced risk of both mental and physical health problems.
Supplements to support mental health
Supplements should be individualized to your personal biochemistry. We can use simple blood or urine tests to identify common imbalances that can cause mental health symptoms. However, you still shouldn’t focus your hopes on “magic pills” to resolve all of your emotional symptoms. Nutritional improvement should always start with implementing good eating habits. Supplements should only be used as a complement to the diet.
The one supplement I do generally recommend for most people with mental illness is fish oil, as many are lacking omega-3s, which can lead to inflammation. Depression and anxiety are often linked to inflammation, which is why an anti-inflammatory supplement like fish oil is a good option. If you are on certain medications or have clotting disorders, however, you should talk to your doctor first before taking fish oil.
Eating Habits and Your Mental Health
A discussion of diet and mental health would not be complete without covering how we eat, as well as how it plays into our emotional health:
Eating quickly without paying much attention to the food we eat deprives us of the pleasure of food. Stopping to enjoy the pleasure in food is an amazing way to manage stress.
We often get used to eating while we are in a hurry, perhaps while multitasking. This is not enjoyable in the slightest. Also, not paying attention to our food can lead to poor digestion. If we are not tuned into our body’s signals, it is hard for us to tell when we have had enough, so we may also end up overeating.
Caffeine & Your Mental Health
Many people find themselves in a caffeine-driven roller coaster every single day. You start drinking coffee to compensate for your lack of sleep and eventually end up completely dependent on caffeine in order to function.
Initially, you likely drink coffee or energy drinks to get more energy and better focus. Due to its long half-life, even if you quit coffee by noon, you still have caffeine in your bloodstream when it is time to go to bed. This means that you don’t sleep very well. The next day comes and you need a little more caffeine to get going. And then you sleep even worse the next night, and so on. This vicious cycle continues to evolve as your sleep becomes worse and worse over time.
Caffeine is the most commonly abused substance in the world. We need to be more careful with it than we are, especially people who have concerns about their mental health. It can cause anxiety and disrupt sleep. You might think it is helping you get through your day, but it also triggers mental-health symptoms.
4: Your Self and Identity
The way we perceive ourselves in the world can bring us joy, but it can also bring us down.
I often discuss gratitude work in this context, as it can help people feel more positive about themselves and more connected to what really matters to them. To do this, acknowledge and appreciate your blessings on a regular basis. Keep in mind that this can be little things that bring you joy. If you practice focusing on the things you are grateful for daily, that can help to shift your perspective to one that will support your mental well-being.
In positive psychology research, gratitude practice is consistently associated with greater happiness. The purpose of positive psychology is to support people in achieving peak function, rather than just helping them to achieve the minimum of not being miserable. This can be accomplished with relatively easy changes in how we view ourselves and how we interact with others.
Support is critical to our well-being as humans. We are social beings who thrive on close family and community ties. Research has found a strong link between loneliness and our overall state of health and well-being. People get sick more often when they feel lonely. Sadly, up to 40% of Americans report feeling lonely. Social interactions we all have can also play a key role in our mental health.
This is another area where social media can be both a blessing and a curse. You can use it as a way to connect to people you already know on a deeper level, which can actually improve your social support system. However, using it superficially to maintain a wide net of casual connections has been shown to actually increase loneliness. You should be very careful about relying on the internet as the main basis for your social relationships.
Our sense of self-worth is often tied up in how we contribute to society. A large part of that is reflected in the work we do. Even when people are choosing not to or are unable to work, such as retired people, stay-at-home parents, or disabled people, they still need to feel that their contribution is essential in order to achieve happiness.
Even children have a desire to be needed. We so often see a child’s presence as being extra work for us. But, think about how it would improve their self-worth if they were instead responsible for small tasks where they can be a functional part of the family unit.
Finding meaning and accomplishment in your daily work is part of creating a fulfilling life. Just like a child who is able to complete a valuable task, adults also need to feel valued and that their contribution matters. This is easier said than done sometimes, but making an effort to find meaning in your work can positively contribute to your mental health.
Beyond the importance of work are questions of spirituality, and the purpose of one’s life. During the times when we face challenges, when we feel depressed or anxious, having a reason to get up in the morning can have a profound effect on our mental health.
For some people it can be a religious or spiritual practice; for others, it’s their kids, volunteer work, or taking good care of their pets. Finding meaning and purpose in everyday tasks can improve all parts of your life. Put energy into finding what helps you to get out of bed each morning and explore this path.
Medication in Mental Health Care
When taking an integrative and functional approach to mental health, we focus on finding the root cause of mental illness, and tailor the treatment to the individual, often using natural or alternative approaches.
It is important to keep in mind that, while people don’t get sick because they have a Prozac deficiency, sometimes medications can be very helpful to support people in recovering from mental illness. Remember that the end goal is to live a meaningful, happy life. There is no prize for getting through life without medication. There are cases, even after you have addressed nutrition, rest, and other fundamental lifestyle improvements, that conventional prescription drugs are still needed to restore a person’s mental health. As a part of a holistic approach to mental health, I consider all treatment options, so my patients achieve the results that matter most to them.
I believe mental health should be approached from a holistic, individualized perspective. One size does not fit all, especially regarding what makes us thrive. Diet, exercise, stress management, and even medication should be considered as key aspects of a well-rounded treatment plan. If you are seeking treatment for your mental health, I recommend working with a practitioner who approaches your emotional well-being from a functional perspective.
Dr. Heermann is board certified in Integrative Medicine and Psychiatry, and is the author of The 7 Foundations of Health and Happiness: Building a Bridge to Balance.
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