How do you feel? We hear this question so often, in so many different contexts, and our answer is invariably the same: “Good.” Or perhaps, “Fine.”
Yet, during any given day, how often do we stop to sincerely consider this question.
How do I feel? How do I feel right now?
Learning to improve your health is often about learning to answer this question with pinpoint accuracy. Is this possible? I believe so. Over the coming days and weeks, I urge you to ask yourself this question and to answer honestly with self-compassion.
Today, I will discuss how to answer this question. I will also offer specific tools for optimizing the answer, whatever it may be.
The Gut-Brain Axis
When asking yourself this question in the context of mood, specifically, the first thing you’ll likely note is that your mood is never merely about your feelings (your emotions). The answer is usually equal parts body and mind.
The condition of your gut, for example, inevitably informs the condition of your mind. For many years, in fact, I have focused on this connection as a simple yet powerful guide to improving my own mood.
This communication network, known as the gut-brain axis, is becoming the subject of more and more research, including studies examining the connection between gut health and psychiatric, mood, and stress-related disorders.
As Azab notes, the gut manufactures over 90 percent of our serotonin, and “scientists have found that gut bacteria produce many other neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine, acetylcholine, and GABA, which are critical for mood, anxiety, concentration, reward, and motivation.”
Of course, this is obvious to anyone who has ever experienced butterflies in the stomach or enjoyed the comfort of a home-cooked meal prepared with love.
About that home-cooked meal: Research has also shown that a balanced diet with a variety of plant foods is the best way to improve gut health by diversifying the microbiome.
The American Gut Project, for example, found that “those who consumed more than 30 different types of plants each week had much more diverse microbiomes than those who consumed only 10 or fewer types of plants weekly.”
Beyond your diet, you might also try a probiotic which has been clinically researched, like Just Thrive.
Try a mineral supplement to “support the integrity of tight junctions in the gut lining”: ION* Gut Health.
Try quality “probiotic” foods, like raw fermented vegetables or inner-ēco Coconut Kefir.
The gut-brain connection proves a simple, yet profound, point about mood: to improve your mood, you have multiple options, both physical and mental.
Of course, no intervention is merely physical or mental. This dichotomy does not exist. As an extremely active person, however, I see the value in viewing mood-improvement as an equation: I may not always feel equipped to engage in an explicitly “mental” activity, like meditation, but I can engage in “physical” activity, like exercise, to improve my state of mind.
A recent study published in JAMA Psychiatry “saw a 26% decrease in odds for becoming depressed for each major increase in objectively measured physical activity.”
Such physical activity does not need to be fanatical: “This increase in physical activity is what you might see on your activity tracker if you replaced 15 minutes of sitting with 15 minutes of running, or one hour of sitting with one hour of moderate activity like brisk walking.”
Just gently moving throughout the day, the study authors note, can make a difference: “any kind of movement can add up to keep depression at bay.”
My tip? Why not take a walk in the early morning sunshine–and improve your mood and your circadian rhythms?
Watch this clip with Satchin Panda, a sleep researcher at the Salk Institute: “How exposure to light in the evening affects mood and the circadian clock.”
The tips above, like most tips for improving mood, focus on balance. And finding a balance between mind and body is often the best way to improve your mood.
In itself, the notion of finding balance may seem esoteric, the sort of mumbo-jumbo you hear repeated in any number of “natural” health publications.
However, balance can be quantified in a precise way. One recent determinant is heart rate variability (HRV), a measure of the variation between two heartbeats.
Whether you measure your HRV or not, learning about the diagnostic tool can offer profound insights into your health.
As Marcelo Campos recently noted on the Harvard Health Blog:
“This variation is controlled by a primitive part of the nervous system called the autonomic nervous system (ANS). It works regardless of our desire and regulates, among other things, our heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and digestion. The ANS is subdivided into two large components, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the fight-or-flight mechanism and the relaxation response.”
Read: Heart Rate Variability: A New Way to Track Well-Being
Recently, many of us have been living in a state of near-total fight-or-flight. As Campos notes:
“If we have persistent instigators such as stress, poor sleep, unhealthy diet, dysfunctional relationships, isolation or solitude, and lack of exercise, this balance may be disrupted, and your fight-or-flight response can shift into overdrive.”
To halt this cycle, we have many, many options. First, we can try to change our habits.
Of course, changing a habit is hard. As Jerome Groopman notes in a New Yorker article about habits: “A large majority of us lack the self-control required to succeed in life.”
However, we can “hack” our habits by “finding ways to take will-power out of the equation.”
Groopman quotes a researcher who suggests creating friction–essentially making our bad habits more inconvenient. However, Groopman’s article also describes another effective approach to changing habits: replace one habit with another and include rewards for the change.
Recently, instead of consuming media, for example, I try to read about wellness, denim, or JAWS. I try to talk to my children and my wife. Instead of listening or watching the news, I listen to music. I sing. I don’t mean to sound trite, but I believe this is a good response to the current situation: Just sing.
Singing (or humming) stimulates the vagus nerve, which may increase HRV.
Why not replace a stressful stimulus with an enjoyable, and altogether more human act?
“There is a way we could identify more patients who have Covid pneumonia sooner and treat them more effectively — and it would not require waiting for a coronavirus test at a hospital or doctor’s office. It requires detecting silent hypoxia early through a common medical device that can be purchased without a prescription at most pharmacies: a pulse oximeter.
Pulse oximetry is no more complicated than using a thermometer. These small devices turn on with one button and are placed on a fingertip. In a few seconds, two numbers are displayed: oxygen saturation and pulse rate. Pulse oximeters are extremely reliable in detecting oxygenation problems and elevated heart rates.”
In-Stock Pulse Oximeter: Philips Pulse Oximeter