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Holistic Mental Health: Wellness Practices for Depression, Anxiety, and More

Did you miss the brain buzz of last week? We, in our typical, rebellious Woodstockian fashion, debunked some pretty controversial and deeply coveted myths about mental health

To the tune of: No, it’s not all in your head; yes, our culture contributes to mental health issues. Oh, and, your physical health is inextricably linked to your mental health because your brain and body are not, in fact, separate. 

That last one was an awfully difficult pill to swallow, even for us. If we accept the science behind the physical and mental health connection, then we have to take at least some responsibility for how we feel — depressive swings, anxiety spirals, and all. 

Because that means what we put in our bodies and how we treat our physical health has a direct, tangible result on our emotional experiences. And who wants to admit that? 

We didn’t mean to take away the nameless enigma you might, like us, have blamed for your mental health difficulties. Nor did we intend to negate the very real systematic factors that influence mental health. And we sure as heck don’t want to shame you for eating that McDouble for breakfast or staying up too late on TikTok.

Your brain is probably doing a good enough job of that already. 

We’d rather take a different approach, one that doesn’t involve beating yourself up. And that is, of course, to empower you with science-based holistic health education so you can take control of your mental health once and for all. 

This blog, if you scroll on, is filled with wellness practices that have been clinically proven to reduce symptoms of mental health issues (like depression and anxiety) and support mental well-being. So you, for exactly zero dollars and zero cents, can start improving your experience of life right here, right now. 

In This Article:

A Holistic, or Whole-Person, Approach to Mental Health Care

After 20+ years of working with folks from all walks of life as a holistic pharmacist, Dr. Neal has learned a few things about how we view the relationship between physical and mental health. 

Generally speaking, there are two groups of people with two very different schools of thought:  

  1. There are those who believe mental health is all genetics — or else a lack of willpower — and that wellness practices in the realms of diet, sleep, exercise, etc., don’t affect our brains or emotions
  2. And then there are those who already know that modern science has irrefutably proven the connection between physical/mental health and what to do about it, but they’re paralyzed by overwhelm. 

There probably aren’t many folks from the first group here, reading this blog, but if there are — might we refer you to this blog on the gut-brain axis? Or this one, on mental health myths? Or perhaps just the scores of clinical research on how physical health affects mental health that are waiting for you below?

We’re not saying that your mental illness will magically vanish if you do a push-up or drink a matcha latte. We are, however, saying that the story you’ve been told and sold about how mental health works is not entirely true. 

You can, in fact, do things to improve your emotional experience of life before or alongside pharmaceutical interventions. 

For the wellness-seekers who more closely identify with the second school of thought: You already know what to do. But how do we make change that’s sustainable, backed by science, and not soul-sucking? 

By breaking it down into the simplest possible categories so we can manage this massive, messy thing called mental health. 

Thankfully, Dr. Neal has already done a lot of the legwork for us. His holistic — or whole-person — structure for understanding and approaching long-term health is called the Wellness Pyramid, and it makes this complicated endeavor stupid simple. 

(Note we said stupid simple, not stupid easy. There’s a difference.)

The Wellness Pyramid for Holistic Mental Health Care

So let’s dive into the mundane — the places in our lives where we have agency to make change for the better. While decidedly not easy, these simple adjustments can, over time, transform your brain into a safe place to be. 

As Dr. Dresdale, clinical psychologist and expert on the biological bases of psychological behavior, so sagely shared with Dr. Neal in this podcast episode: If you change the body, the mind will follow. 

Learn More: The Wellness Pyramid: Your Roadmap to Holistic Health

1. Understanding Diet’s Role in Mental Health

We’re starting with diet, a big hulking mass of a topic, but don’t worry. We’re not going to call all your favorite foods bad, or tell you that your only option is to go full paleo. 

And we’re not going to demonize fruit sugars or dive into the intricacies of FODMAP sensitives either. Instead, we’re just going to look at nutritional deficiencies and how they can affect mental health. 

Malnourishment might seem like a rare thing in America, but it’s way, way, wayyyyyyyyy more common than most people know. The term malnourishment refers to deficiencies or imbalances in an individual’s intake of nutrients, and it can happen to even those of us who eat regularly and relatively well. 

The numbers we see coming from national surveys, like this one by a facet of the CDC, are sobering: 

  • 95% of Americans are deficient in vitamin D
  • 84% of Americans are deficient in vitamin E
  • 48% of Americans are deficient in magnesium
  • 46% of Americans are deficient in vitamin C
  • 15% of Americans are deficient in zinc

And that’s just a few of the big ones.

How Nutritional Deficiencies Affect Mental Health

Vitamin D deficiency has been, by several modern studies, linked to worsened or increased symptoms of depression and anxiety, as has zinc deficiency. Inadequate levels of magnesium can cause actual, physical neuronal damage that can manifest emotionally as depression, and there’s an inverse relationship between magnesium levels and ADHD.

Plus, prenatal vitamin D deficiency directly increases the likelihood of the child having ADHD, as well as schizophrenia.

Need we go on?

The food and nutrients you eat — or don’t eat — affect your mental health and, unfortunately, there’s no way around that. So if you’ve been struggling with mental health symptoms, it’s time to take a look at what you’re putting on your plate. Dr. Neal’s advice? It’s pretty simple:

  • Eat more nutrient-dense foods
  • Eat less highly processed foods

Learn More: Mastering Holistic Nutrition: Dr. Neal’s Top 5 Diet Guidelines

2. Exercise and Holistic Mental Health

Here we go again saying a push-up will cure your depression! Except that’s not really the case.

What is true about the role exercise plays in maintaining balanced mental health is that regular, moderate movement is absolutely crucial. Lack of exercise is not only a contributing factor in the development of many physical health diseases but also mental ones, it turns out.

A meta-analysis from 2022 showed, after analyzing 15 studies of nearly 200,000 patients with depression (in total), that physical activity had beneficial outcomes on depressive symptoms. But here’s the kicker — the benefit of movement on depression shows up even at levels lower than the recommended amount.

So you can alleviate symptoms of depression through exercise without the side effects associated with other interventions, and without having to become a marathon-running bodybuilder. Who would have thought?

When it comes to other mental health difficulties, like anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, OCD, PTSD, and more, they still are no match for the powers of consistent movement.

In this study on bipolar disorder and exercise in particular, 8 out of 10 patients reported a 50% decrease in depressive symptoms. With — get this — 45% of patients with bipolar disorder “presenting criteria for full remission.”

Why? What? How is this possible? Because exercise is, at its core, a neuroprotective practice that benefits the entire body — brain included. So start soon and stick to it. Dr. Neal recommends, for an accessible and sustainable movement routine, 30 minutes of aerobic or body-based exercise, 5 days a week.

Learn More: The Truth About Exercise: Ditch the Myths

3. Sleep and Its Role in Managing Mental Health

Sleep, if you ask us, should be the baseline treatment for all psychiatric disorders and uncomfortable mental health experiences.

Depressed? Go to sleep. Anxious? Sleep more. Got ADHD? Snoozetime. Clinical research has illuminated the fact that people with ADHD, schizophrenia, OCD, anorexia, or PTSD can see major benefits in their moods when sleep quality and duration are prioritized.

And by major benefits, we mean major benefits.

Recent studies have shown that while sleep deprivation can aggravate symptoms of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and yes, even anorexia, we can Uno-reverse that two-way street. By treating insomnia in bipolar patients, for example, studies have shown that sleep improvements improve mood state and general functioning in turn.

Because sleep plays such a vital part in mental health, sleep deprivation can masquerade as common mental health disorders, like ADHD. To avoid getting mis- or overdiagnosed, it’s crucial to address any barriers to deep, restorative sleep you may have first.

But if you’re already struggling with racing thoughts, anxiety loops, insomnia, and other common symptoms of mental health difficulties, then getting good sleep can be difficult. To jumpstart your journey to better sleep, begin by:

  • Taking the electronics and devices out of your bedroom
  • Avoiding blue light from said electronics and devices at least 3 hours before bed
  • Avoiding sugary, fatty, or caffeine-containing foods and drinks at least 3 hours before bed

Learn More: 5 Things to Do (Not Take) for Better Sleep

Where Do We Go From Here?

We wish we could tell you that eating more nutrient-dense food, exercising regularly, and sleeping well will have your brain in tip-top shape by tomorrow. We can’t, but we really wish we could.

While these natural, holistic wellness practices can and will improve mental health, they must be done consistently and correctly. There’s no one-size-fits-all timeline for this kind of work, and sometimes, quick answers are needed for individuals with mental health disorders to stay safe and stay alive.

If you’re in a position where slow, sustainable lifestyle changes aren’t enough to get you through 2024, speak with a licensed mental health professional to explore your additional options.


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