Dr. Rivera

Dr. Karla Rivera is a district-wide psychologist here in Irvington. She is here to provide support for children and families as we face these challenging times.

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Nutrition & Exercise: Natural ways to Improve Your Mood!

Everyone knows it’s important to eat right and exercise, but let’s face it, months of dealing with a pandemic can put a damper on your motivation.  It’s tough to feel inspired to cook a healthy meal when food shopping feels like an ordeal. It’s hard to want to exercise when our mood and energy are low, but good nutrition and exercise are the very things that can give us a natural mood boost.  Here’s why:

Food & Your Mood:

Making good choices: Did you know that snacking on highly processed foods like chips and processed, sugary snacks (think oreos) can worsen your mood? According to Drew Ramsey, author of Eat To Beat Depression, these foods are a problem because they lack essential omega-3 fatty acids and B vitamins  that promote brain health and a positive mood. Also, they lack fiber which is important for our digestion and gastrointestinal tract. According to Ramsey, the good bacteria in our gut helps to produce neurotransmitters that affect our mood. HIghly processed foods reduce this good bacteria. Choosing  fresh fruits and vegetables and foods rich in healthy probiotics (like yogurt) and fiber will help you to feel better physically, but mentally too! 

Timing meals right: What we eat affects our mood, but so does when we eat. Many of us struggle to eat three meals a day consistently. However, according to Ramsey, skipping meals like breakfast or lunch can be disastrous for our mood. When we skip meals, our blood sugar drops. Our brains need this sugar in the form of glucose to function well. Without it, we feel irritable, confused and tired.  Our bodies can then overproduce the hormone cortisol in response, which makes us even more cranky and stressed. Also, when we skip meals, we can feel ravenous, which can lead us to overeat. This can create physical discomfort and make it difficult to maintain a healthy weight.  

With the pandemic has come a loss of much of the routine and structure we once had, and this can affect how and when we eat. It helps to improve our mood significantly to eat three, balanced meals that include protein, healthy fats, and carbs spaced out evenly throughout the day. Try eating every three to four hours to keep your blood sugar and mood even.

The trouble with alcohol: During really stressful times, it can be tempting to use alcohol as a quick fix to reduce anxiety and stress. Over the pandemic, many people find themselves turning to alcohol far more than they used to. Does alcohol really help?  According to Annie Grace, author of This Naked Mind: Control Alcohol, Find Freedom, Discover Happiness & Change Your Life, there are many myths we believe about alcohol and its ability to make us happy that simply aren’t true.  

Myth #1- Alcohol makes me feel better: You may be thinking, “when I have a drink it calms me down and makes me feel better”.  It’s true that alcohol has an immediate, sedative effect. However, alcohol is a depressant; it depresses the central nervous system. After drinking, you actually experience greater feelings of depression and anxiety. This can trigger dependency, because you may tell yourself you need another drink the next day to make yourself feel better. Also, the stressors you’re experiencing before you pick up a drink, will still be there after. Not only is alcohol not a solution to managing stress or solving problems, it can make life worse if dependency grows. 

Myth #2- Alcohol helps me sleep.  If your mind is racing and sleep is eluding you, it’s easy to turn to alcohol to help. Alcohol will help you to fall asleep quickly, however according to Grace, it disrupts our normal sleeping patterns. We sleep far less restfully, and we may find ourselves awake much sooner than we would be if we didn’t drink. Poor sleep leads to irritability, and makes anxious and depressive feelings worse. 

So if you find yourself turning to alcohol more than you used to and your mood is low, take a look at the role alcohol may be playing. If you are struggling to sleep, develop a sleep routine to follow every night.  This means establishing and keeping a bedtime for yourself, no screens at bedtime including your phone, and doing calming activities before you go to bed.  Exercising several hours before bedtime also helps you to sleep- which brings us to our next topic, the power of exercise.

Exercise: Natural Medicine: 

Being cooped up inside means that many of us are sedentary. We may be sitting in front of computers everyday, dealing with the exhaustion of virtual work interactions. We’re helping our kids get through virtual school, and we’re taking care of our households. Who has time to work out? It’s easy after a long day to want to sink into the couch, grab the remote and put on netflix. The problem is that when we are sedentary, our mood is worse. According to Ramsey, when we don’t move enough, “feel good” hormones such as serotonin get reduced, and our mood is lower.    

When we get exercise regularly, not only are there physical benefits such as better cardiovascular health, improved energy, greater strength, endurance, even greater focus and memory, but did you know a single bout of exercise can elevate your mood for up to 24 hours? According to Ramsey, exercise bathes our brain in chemicals that make us feel good.

So how can you incorporate regular exercise into your life? Let’s talk about some myths that get in the way.

Myth #1- I have to do a “work out”: How many times have you fallen into an exercise fad or regimen, but then fallen off? When we get stuck in the idea that exercise means following a vigorous workout led by someone super fit everyday, or exercise can only happen at a gym, it’s easy to see why we just can’t keep it up. Exercise means just that. A brisk walk outside, a yoga video on youtube, or simply doing cleaning and active chores around your house all count as exercise. It’s important to find something you like that is practical for your lifestyle so you are motivated to do it on a regular basis! As long as you are moving at a pace that gets your heart pumping (where maybe you’re slightly out of breath but still able to carry on a conversation) you are exercising! 

Myth #2- I have to do an hour of exercise a day for it to count: A recent study by Karmel Choi, PhD, from the Harvard School of Public Health found that 15 minutes of vigorous exercise or an hour of moderate activity like walking fast significantly reduced the likelihood of someone developing depression, but even five minutes of vigorous activity can give a quick “dose of happy”. Researchers agree that about 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity most days of the week is ideal, but even 15 minutes a day to start is enough for someone to benefit.  

Myth #3- I don’t have time in my day to exercise: The exercise you choose to do doesn’t have to happen all at once. If you want to do twenty minutes a day, this can mean doing ten minutes in the morning and then ten minutes in the afternoon. This will still help you improve your mood and make health gains. 

Your Kids benefit from good nutrition & exercise too!

Remember our children are also dealing with many changes and stressors during the pandemic. Kids are also vulnerable to stress and anxiety. Support your child’s mental health by setting a routine schedule for balanced meals, and reducing high sugar, high processed foods. Include your child in your daily exercise, or help them find what would be fun for them and keep them active. Teaching them these positive habits now, will have life long health benefits!