5 Ways Being Healthy Makes You Happy

Making healthy choices may help improve your mental health. Here’s how

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Don’t worry, be happy

There are myriad reasons to make healthy lifestyle choices; improved appearance, disease prevention and increased longevity are just a few. But when was the last time you considered how your healthy lifestyle could affect the way you feel?

It’s about time you did, because your physical and mental health may be fundamentally connected. “Good nutrition in all its forms-from food and sleep to exercise and daylight-will help our mind-body system thrive profoundly,” writes therapist Nick Baylis in his book The Rough Guide to Happiness (Rough Guides Ltd.).

Here are five ways making healthy lifestyle choices can improve your mood and your overall well-being.

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1. Eat more whole foods

“Nutrition actually influences the structure and the functioning of our brain cells,” says Alan Logan, a naturopathic doctor and author of The Brain Diet (Cumberland House). “We now know that the foods that you eat directly influence communication within the brain.” The key to improving your mood with food is to cut back on processed snacks in favour of whole foods.

A study published in a 2009 issue of the journal Archives of General Psychiatry found that people who ate a Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil, vegetables, fish and whole grains reported 30 percent less depressive symptoms than those who did not follow the diet closely.

Of special interest are the fatty acids that come from fish (omega-3s), which help improve cell function, and those from olive oil (monosaturated fatty acid), which are thought to help the mood-regulating chemical serotonin bind to its receptors.

Whole grains are also essential for improving your mood, Logan explains, because they stabilize your blood sugar and are a source of folic acid. “Studies have shown that people with the lowest levels of folate had the worst outcome with depression treatment,” he says.

Tip: Swap your white rice for brown and stock up on whole-grain breads and oats to up your intake of folic acid. Click here for more foods that improve your mood.

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2. Get more sleep

Statistics Canada surveys reveal that 25 percent of Canadians over the age of 15 regularly have trouble getting to sleep, and 3.3 million Canadians suffer from insomnia. People with insomnia produce higher rates of stress hormones than others, according to new research. This puts their bodies in a hyper-aroused state that can make it difficult for them to wind down. The inability to sleep causes more stress, which can have a devastating impact. People who don’t get enough sleep can become depressed, and that causes insomnia. Inversely, more and better-quality sleep can make you feel happier. (Excerpted from Sleep to be Sexy, Smart and Slim (Reader’s Digest), available in the Best Health Store now.)

Tip: Try getting to bed 30 minutes earlier every night for a week and see how the extra sleep affects your mood. Then, if you can, challenge yourself to hit the sack a full hour earlier the following week.

Is stress stopping you from getting a good night’s sleep? Click here for tips on how to stop worrying and sleep better.

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3. Spend time outdoors

“Research has shown that if you expose yourself to nature and exercise, there’s a significant influence on mental outlook,” says Logan. He describes studies that found that people who exercise in “green environments” have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than those who exercise in an urban environment.

Tip: If you live in a city or large town, try to visit a nearby park as often as you can.

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4. Make contact

There’s a lot of research supporting the idea that social support can have a positive effect on mood, says Logan. “I’m not talking about Facebook; I’m talking about actual face-to-face contact and having true friendship connections.”

Tip: Seeing your friends on a regular basis can be just as important to your mental health as exercise and nutrition. Schedule regular dates with your current pals and make an effort to meet new people in your community and beyond.

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5. Work out

Exercise can help reduce anxiety and improve mood, according to the Mayo Clinic. There are physical reasons why working out may help make you happier, such as releasing feel-good brain chemicals; raising your body temperature, which may have a calming effect; and reducing immune-system chemicals, which may contribute to depression symptoms. Exercise also builds your confidence, distracts you from worries and helps you interact with others.

Tip: You don’t have to run a marathon to reap the mood-boosting benefits of physical activity-simply taking a brisk walk, working in your garden or playing with your kids can help you feel better.

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