Are you missing these factors in optimising your mental and emotional performance?
1/ Science proves the importance of a routine
For many years we’ve been told to keep to a routine – go to sleep at a similar time each night and have meals at the same time, but why? Whilst old wisdom suggests routine is good for us, we now finally have science to back it up. The 2017 Novel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded jointly to three researchers who discovered how our ‘internal clock’ genes inside our cells function to govern the circadian rhythm.
Why does this matter when it comes to how we feel?
With exquisite precision, this internal clock regulates key functions including behavior, hormone levels, sleep and metabolism. We have rhythms associated with the brain, blood vessels, liver, bone, ovaries and gastrointestinal system, and the ‘clocks’ for all of these are sensitive to meal timings and light. Keeping to a routine where possible can therefore help to optimise functions relevant for day time and those functions relevant for the night time. A better balance of hormones such as cortisol (chronic stress hormone) and melatonin (modulates sleep-wake cycle) can leave us feeling calmer and happier.
Disrupting the circadian rhythm for just 8 days has been shown to ‘flip’ the daily cortisol rhythm, leading to increased blood sugar levels, reduced sleep efficiency and reduced satiety meaning we feel hungrier and consume more calories.
Disrupted circadian rhythm can also lead to increased inflammation, impaired cognition, reduced energy, and a significant reduction in neurotransmitter production – melatonin and serotonin - causing mood alterations.
To avoid a mismatch between our internal clocks and our environment, try finishing meals by 7pm (insulin sensitivity declines after this), sleeping prior to 11pm in complete darkness (cortisol levels begin to rise after this, giving us a ‘second wind’), fasting overnight for at least 13 hours, and consuming breakfast within 2 hours of awakening.
2/ Caffeine’s stimulatory effects could last for 24 hours
Whilst there’s nothing wrong with a great cup of coffee now and then, more than one cup daily, may be problematic for many of us, and here’s why:
The half-life of coffee in adults is around 5 to 6 hours. This means that caffeine is reduced by 50% in around 5 to 6 hours and is completely eliminated from the body in around 10 to 11 hours. So just one cup of coffee at 10am, may still be in the system at 9pm, causing a stimulatory effect.
Caffeine causes an adrenaline surge resulting in the ‘fight or flight’ response and stress hormones rise too. These hormonal changes can either be the cause of, or exacerbate, anxiety symptoms. Just two cups of coffee a day could mean caffeine is in your system for a full 24 hours, affecting sleep and leading to increased tiredness and anxiety, and low mood.
Try reducing / eliminating coffee for a while and see how you feel, or replace with green tea which contains lower levels of caffeine and has beneficial antioxidants.
3/ Gut bacteria influences mood
There is a well-documented bi-directional link between the gut and the nervous system, linking the emotional and cognitive areas of the brain with intestinal functions. This ‘gut-brain axis’ means that what happens in the digestive system can influence mood and behaviour, largely due to signalling from gut bacteria to brain, and from brain to gut bacteria.
This raises the importance for ensuring a healthy and happy digestive system for mental health and happiness. Healthy gut bacteria can be supported through certain fibre rich foods such as artichoke, asparagus, garlic, onions, leek, oats, apples and flaxseeds. A high quality probiotic supplement can also be helpful, and is even more important after a course of antibiotics.
4/ Stabilising blood sugar levels
What we eat gets converted to sugar (glucose) in the body, and one of the best ways of supporting mood and reducing stress hormones is by keeping the amount of sugar in our blood as constant as possible throughout the day. Eating meals that are carbohydrate heavy will raise blood sugar levels far more quickly than a meal that is well balanced with some protein and healthy fats, as well as carbohydrates. If you’re hungry an hour or so after lunch, then this is probably the reason.
What goes up must come down, and a blood sugar ‘high’ is followed by a blood sugar ‘crash’, which can leave us feeling tired, grumpy, anxious, irritable, and with reduced concentration and focus. It is also perceived by the body as a stressful situation (and prompts a stress hormone response). Stabilise blood sugar levels with protein rich foods such as fish, eggs, meat, beans, lentils and quinoa, and plenty of healthy satiety promoting fats such as olives, avocado, nuts, seeds, olive oil and oily fish.
5/ Neurotransmitters to reduce anxiety and improve mood
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that control our mood. GABA is one such neurotransmitter that is associated with mood and anxiety. Increased GABA is associated with a feeling of calm, promoting relaxation without causing any sedation. Low levels are linked to anxiety, low mood and insomnia. Some anti-anxiety medications mimic the actions of GABA, however levels can be supported naturally. Theanine is an amino acid that stimulates the synthesis of GABA and significant levels are found in green tea (another great reason to switch coffee to green tea).
Serotonin is perhaps the most well known neurotransmitter, for its mood boosting effects. Levels can be supported by increasing the precursor amino acid, tryptophan, found in chicken, turkey, halibut, salmon, meat, nuts and seeds. The supplement 5-HTP can also help increase serotonin levels, but please seek professional guidance first.
6/ Importance of taking time out for yourself
A main contributor of stress is feeling overwhelmed and not taking time out for yourself. With the many responsibilities and pressures of work, it can feel as though you just don’t have the time to do something for yourself that brings enjoyment or relaxation.
In fact, taking time out helps to put things into perspective and helps to re-focus on tasks with more positivity and motivation. It also provides some healthy work-life balance meaning that you’re less likely to reach ‘stress burn-out’.
If you haven’t taken any time out for yourself for a while, keep it simple, how about a half hour walk in nature, or meeting a friend for lunch. Taking up a new class or social activity can be refreshing and an opportunity to try something you’ve always wanted to.
To your lean, healthy, optimised future,
Dee & the Optimised clinic team