Posted in Health and Nutrition, life hacks, lifestyle, meditation, mental health, self care, wellbeing, wellness

Monday Matters: Wheel Of Wellness – Physical – Part 2: Sleep

For the second part of the Physical element of The Wheel Of Wellness I will today be looking at the importance of quality sleep to maintain good physical and mental health. I’ve previously published a couple of blog posts on the topic of sleep namely 5 ways to get better sleep tonight and 5 things to do in the evening to ensure a restful night’s sleep and a productive next day which you may like to have a read of as well. Many people have issues with their sleep for one reason or another and if you’re one of them, you might want to prioritise this area of the wellness wheel and spend some time learning about the effect that sleep (or lack of) affects your body and your life and pick up some tips on how to manage this aspect of your physical health.

Why is sleep so important?

Sleep has a huge impact on our health and wellbeing throughout our lives. Anyone who has ever had difficulty sleeping will know that the quality and quantity of our slumber dramatically affects our mind, body, general quality of life and our safety. While you are sleeping, your body is actively working and preparing you for the next day.

The following is a list of the basic functions of sleep which illustrate the importance of a good night’s kip:

  • physical restoration
  • mood regulation
  • cleaning the brain of toxins
  • information processing and memorization (committing things to memory for later recall, the storing of visual, auditory or tactical information)
  • strengthening the immune system

In children and teens, sleep also supports growth and development.

In addition, further benefits of quality sleep include:

  • better heart health
  • stress reduction
  • generally makes you feel more alert throughout the day
  • can help you lose weight (you’re less likely to crave high sugar or junk foods)
  • reduced risk of anxiety and depression
  • improved appearance – healthy, glowing skin (versus dark circles under eyes, dehydrated complexion, breakouts and redness from lack of sleep, plus comments from friends and family along the lines of “you look like ****)
  • better concentration (hopefully leading to improved productivity)
  • better decision making
  • stronger immune system (so less likely to get ill / feel run down etc)
  • boosted creativity (better ideas and use of imagination)
  • better motoric response (including quicker reactions)
  • enhanced sporting performance
  • reduced risk of high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, stroke and obesity
  • better emotional regulation (meaning amongst other things that you’re more likely to get along with others and less likely to become overwhelmed by your feelings)

Sleep and wakefulness is controlled by two biological processes: Sleep Homeostasis, commonly known as ‘sleep pressure’ and The Circadian rhythm, otherwise known as ‘the body clock’.

What is sleep pressure?

Sleep pressure is basically, the brain’s desire and need for sleep. The more time you’ve been awake for, the greater the sleep pressure. When you wake up in the morning, you should have very little need for sleep (if you’ve had a good night) so sleep pressure is very low. As we get on with our day, the sleep pressure begins to grow so that by evening time sleep pressure is much higher, making us feel sleeping and in need of our beds! By morning, following a good night’s sleep, our sleep pressure will have reset and be back to little or no desire for further sleep.

In order to make sure that we have the right amount of sleep pressure present by bed time, we should really make sure that we get up and go to bed at the same time each day. However, I know that a lot of people will have a lie in on a weekend, which tends to make it difficult to switch off and sleep on a Sunday night (especially if Sunday night dread is at play). Taking naps should also be avoided as this can reduce sleep pressure too. If you absolutely must have a nap, tried to take it before 3pm and make sure it lasts for less than one hour.

What is meant by the term Circadian rhythm AKA our ‘body clock’?

Like all living things, humans have a circadian rhythm which is the brain’s way of aligning the body with the environment. Our sleep/wake cycle follows this 24 hour rhythm. During the day, exposure to light helps us to feel alert, awake and active. As night/darkness falls our internal body clock starts to produce melatonin, a hormone which promotes sleep.

You can help promote a healthy circadian rhythm by seeking natural light (sunshine) during the day, getting some daily exercise, avoiding caffeinated drinks after mid-day, limiting light before bed and having a set bed time / wake up routine which prepares the body for sleep at night and encourages wakefulness first thing in the morning. I’ll discuss some of these in more detail later.

Creating the right bedroom environment

It’s really important to create a comfortable and relaxing environment in your bedroom to help you fall asleep quickly and easily. We invested in a ‘posturepedic’ mattress which is pocket sprung with a latex top. We’ve had it for years and it’s still completely supportive and so comfortable. Every time we go on holiday, we always look forward to being back in our own bed! The best sheets and pillowcases we’ve found for softness and durability are bamboo ones. An added bonus for us is that they’re breathable and hypoallergenic too.

Your bedroom should also be nice and dark as the absence of light sends a signal to your body that it’s time to get some rest. A nice thick pair of curtains or light blocking blinds are essential for this (we have blinds and lined curtains which allow just enough morning light to help us wake up). Some people also like to wear a sleep mask to block out light and these are also good for shift workers who are in bed during the day.

Other essentials for a calm and relaxing space include as little clutter as possible and a quiet environment to minimise distractions. Just the right room temperature – not too hot and not too cold is also helpful for inducing sleep (experts recommend around 18.3 degrees Celsius / 65 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal). Some people also swear by lavender as a soothing and sedating scent but I find it sets my allergies off which is certainly not sleep inducing!

Sleep experts also suggest that your bedroom should be strictly for two purposes only – sleeping and sexual activity. This means it should not be used for:

  • eating, drinking or smoking
  • dealing with bills, reading letters or any form of paperwork
  • using technology or looking at screens e.g. TV, mobile phone, laptop, tablet etc.

I also like to read fiction books on my Kindle Paperwhite in bed but I do find that as long as the screen is pretty dim, I become really sleepy after a couple of chapters. If you feel that reading certain books stimulate your brain too much, bedtime reading may be best avoided.

Diet and sleep

Most people know that caffeine isn’t good for sleep due to the stimulants it contains so if you have trouble sleeping, it’s best not to drink coffee or other caffeinated drinks such as cola, sports and energy drinks for at least 4 hours before bed. Having a large meal before bed is also likely to keep you awake as your body will still be digesting the food. Also, you may find yourself suffering from indigestion or acid reflux if you eat or drink too late. If you do find yourself craving a late evening snack a small amount of nuts, a banana or a small bowl of oatmeal with berries should be safe to eat.

Alcohol is well known to cause a slowing of brain activity and make you feel relaxed and sleepy but beware that the consumption of alcoholic beverages, especially in excess has been shown to cause poor quality sleep and shorter duration so you may find yourself waking up repeatedly in the night or not feeling very refreshed in the morning. Night-time drinking may also result in acid reflux too!

A good daily routine to help you sleep

Throughout the day, it’s important to get as much natural light as you can. This could include working next to a window, taking regular outdoor breaks during the day e.g. sitting in the garden with your morning cuppa and having an al fresco lunch. Obviously this is more difficult during the Winter months but even short walks outside, maybe with a nice, hot drink can make all the difference.

Exercise (or being active) including aerobic workouts, resistance training and yoga during the day can also help with sleep. Just make sure you don’t do anything which elevates your pulse rate for at least 3 hours before bed.

In the evening time, it’s a good idea to do relaxing activities which can calm the body and the mind. This could include listening to some soothing music, reading a book, doing some meditation, writing in your journal to help put the day to rest (see my 5 ways to get better sleep tonight for an explanation of how), enjoy a warm bath or hot shower.

If you regularly struggle to sleep, something you should definitely try is avoiding using electronic devices for at least an hour before bed. This is helpful for two reasons – one, a lot of online content can be mentally or emotionally stimulating (including emails) and two, the light that these devices emit can affect your body clock by increasing alertness and delaying the release of melatonin. If you must use your phone, at least set the blue light filter or night time mode to come on after around 7pm.

What if I find myself wide awake in bed?

After approximately 20 minutes of lying awake (estimate this, do not use your clock), you should get up out of bed and leave the bedroom. Either do something boring or something really relaxing (not something stimulating (no looking at your phone!) until you start to feel tired, and then go back to bed. If you’re not asleep after another estimated 20 minutes, get up again and repeat the process. If this happens regularly, spend some time during the day assessing what you think might be causing the problem and try making some changes to your routine.

A word about sleep disorders

There are a number of sleep disorders which can seriously affect the quality of your sleep. Some of the common ones are:

  • Sleep walking / talking
  • Nightmares / night terrors
  • Sleep apnoea (obstructed airway)
  • Sleep paralysis (a temporary inability to move that occurs right after falling asleep or waking up)
  • Hypnogogia / Hypnopompia (hallucinations occurring as you wake up or fall asleep)

If you suspect that you may be struggling with any of the above, it’s really important to speak to your GP who can offer medical advice or make a referral to a sleep specialist.

Final thoughts…

If you are struggling with your sleep right now you have my completely sympathy as I’ve had real issues with insomnia in the past. However, it’s usually quite easy to identify the contributing factors which are preventing a good night’s sleep. Finding solutions to the problems is a little more difficult but I hope this blog post has given you some ideas. Remember that quality sleep is vital to your wellbeing and it’s worth investing time and energy into this aspect of your physical health.

Posted in goal setting, Health and Nutrition, lifestyle, Planning and journaling, self care, wellbeing, wellness

Monday Matters: 5 main barriers to eating healthily and ideas to overcome them

As regular readers of my blog will know, I’m currently signed up to a weight management programme, where, for 12 weeks, I have free access to my local wellness centre including the gym and fitness classes and also receive tips on developing a more healthy lifestyle through exercise and diet. I was already quite active and have now upped my exercise levels significantly so that I’m burning more calories due to more steps and more active minutes each day. I’ve made some changes to what I eat but I need to continue to work on this so I thought that for today’s Monday Matters, I’d consider the barriers to eating healthily and ways in which they can be overcome.

Information overload

There’s so much information online, in magazines and in books about diets and ways to lose weight that it can seem really overwhelming and leave you feeling like you don’t know what to do for the best. There are a great number of ‘fad diets’ which promise super quick results in terms of weight loss with little scientific evidence to back up their claims. They’re also often very restrictive encouraging you to only eat at certain times or to dramatically cut down or cut out certain foods. Then there are adverts for diet pills and meal replacement drinks which make all sorts of claims about awesome results and feature images of slim, smiley, glowing women to go with the emotive and persuasive language used in the words.

Realistically, your goal should not be to lose weight at a rate of knots, but instead, should be about making gradual changes to your diet to make it balanced and more healthy. Here’s some ideas to help you:

  • Ignore ‘fad’ diets and read reliable information from reputable sources such as the government or the NHS (in the UK).
  • Check out a healthy eating plate like the one below to establish how much of each food group to should be eating.
  • Avoid listening to dietary advice from friends or family members, unless they’re a registered dietician or expert nutritionalist!
  • Remember that even diets which sound healthy, like vegetarian or vegan can still be highly calorific if certain choices are made e.g. eating lots of cheese and butter or consuming too much soya milk and other dairy alternatives.

There’s a wealth of accurate and reliable information provided by the (UK) government which includes a PDF version of the above and a comprehensive guide to eating well. Click here to go there now.

Lack of time

It takes time to develop a healthy lifestyle, including eating better and ensuring you have a balanced diet. Many people lead very busy lives and if improving your health isn’t currently one of your top priorities, you may feel that you haven’t got the time or energy to devote to making dietary changes.

The first thing I would suggest doing is spending about half an hour considering the different areas of your life and assessing which you’d like to focus on more. I use Hal Elrod’s Level 10 life sections to rate the different aspects of my life. The following aspects are given a score out of 10 (with 10 being near perfect and 1 being an area which requires lots of work):

  • Family and Friends
  • Personal growth and development
  • Spirituality
  • Finances
  • Career/business
  • Significant other/romance
  • Fun and recreation
  • Contribution/giving
  • Health/fitness
  • Physical environment (home/office)

If you figure you could make improvements in the area ‘health/fitness’ then it’s a good idea to identify some small changes you could make to your life to enable you to work on some related goals e.g. preparing a healthy packed lunch to take to work each day, cooking from scratch more often so you can enjoy the benefits of home cooked meals or creating a meal plan so that you can work on having a balanced diet with healthier snacks.

When most people say ‘I haven’t got time’, what they actually mean is that they don’t want to dedicate time to a particular venture, that they are actively making a choice to do something else or that the particular thing that they ‘haven’t got time for’ isn’t important enough to them or high enough up their agenda.

If you want to eat healthily but need help with motivating yourself to start changing your eating habits, you might want to do a little research on the benefits of a healthy diet and record your findings. I created a spread in my Bullet Journal as a great reminder of why healthy eating should be a priority.

A motivational page from my current bullet journal

A few time saving tips:

  • make twice the amount when cooking a favourite dish and save the rest to enjoy quick and easy leftovers later in the week
  • buy canned pulses so you don’t have to remember to soak them
  • have some pre-cooked packets of couscous, rice and grains to accompany your dishes
  • if you can afford it, buy pre-prepared veggies when you’re super busy
  • do a quick weekly meal plan over coffee on a Sunday morning and then make a list of groceries for the supermarket shop
  • have some frozen veggies in your freezer e.g. petit pois, spinach, green beans, mixed pre-chopped veg etc
  • batch cook and freeze soups and stews

Lack of confidence with cooking

Pre-prepared dishes or ‘ready meals’ as they are known, make it easy to enjoy a main meal but often these items are highly calorific and contain lots of sugar and salt. They’re also usually seriously lacking in vegetables which, as shown on the food plate above, should, along with fruit, make up a large portion of your daily food.

Home cooked meals might require a little more effort, but, you can find a range of simple, healthy recipes online or in cook books and if you specifically look for those which contain minimal or basic ingredients or label themselves as ‘one pot’ or ‘quick and easy’ then there’s no excuse to give it a go. You could also treat yourself to a few new tools and gadgets such as a set of cooks knives for speedy dicing of veggies, a food processor for chopping, mixing, grating and shredding, a blender for soups and smoothies or even a slow cooker for setting the dinner off at a simmer whilst you’re busy working so it’s ready to eat when you return home or get back to your kitchen.

My husband and I have found that each time we make a tasty and healthy dish we appreciate our efforts and the positive feelings it evokes prompt us to try more new recipes and boosts our confidence in the kitchen. We’re now more willing to try new ingredients and will give anything a go.

Feeling deprived

When you start working towards leading a more healthy lifestyle, you might give up some of the foods you like such as chocolate, crisps, salad dressings, sauces, ice cream and Friday night takeaways. Doing this may make you feel like you are being deprived of all of your favourites and can lead to lack of motivation to continue. Eating healthily doesn’t mean you have to stop eating everything you love. You just need to moderate the amount of sugary, fatty and highly calorific foods you have so that you eat then in small amounts and less often.

A popular way of achieving a healthy diet without feeling deprived is to apply the 80/20 mindset. This means that 80% of the time, you eat ‘clean’, choosing foods that are natural, whole and unprocessed e.g. fruit and vegetables, wholegrains such as wholemeal bread, brown rice, quinoa and wholemeal pasta, nuts and seeds, no-calorie beverages such as water, unsweetened tea. For the other 20% of the time, you can enjoy less-nutritious foods and treats. For example, on one day during the week, you might have an ice cream on a particularly hot afternoon or cake and coffee for a friend’s birthday etc. If you have several snacks a day over the period of a week, 11 or 12 of them would be healthy choices such as fruit, unflavoured nuts or low fat cheese on a wholewheat cracker, and 2 or 3 times you could enjoy a favourite treat such as a cookie or a small amount of chocolate.

Difficulty changing unhealthy or unhelpful eating habits and beliefs

Changing your eating habits to make them more healthy can be incredibly difficult, especially when many of them were established a long time ago, sometimes as far back as childhood. Some examples of unhelpful habits include:

  • eating whilst watching tv / YouTube videos etc (eating whilst performing other tasks)
  • piling your plate high with food at the buffet table (eyes bigger than your belly anyone?) because it all looks good / is free etc
  • eating a dessert even if you’re already full
  • emotional eating e.g. when bored, agitated, angry, stressed, upset etc. as a form of comfort
  • making your portion size the same as your partner who may have a much higher recommended daily calorie intake
  • believing that you have to eat everything on your plate, otherwise it’s wasteful
  • eating late at night, especially snacking just before bed
  • giving in to sugar cravings
  • believing you are hungry when really you’re actually thirsty
  • skipping breakfast
  • eating far too quickly

Even if you’ve had the same eating habits for years, it is possible to make improvements. I would suggest that the first step is to take time for some reflection. Consider what you good habits are e.g. always ensuring you get your 5 a day and your not so wonderful habits e.g. having a highly calorific dessert each evening after your main meal. If you’re not exactly sure what your habits are, try keeping a food diary, recording everything you eat and drink throughout one week. Also, think about what triggers your unhealthy eating such as a stressful day, a mid-afternoon energy slump etc.

Following your reflection and analysis, give yourself a congratulatory pat on the back for your healthy habits and then choose one of your bad habits to replace. So, for example, you might choose to focus on ‘eating too quickly’ and work on a plan to replace this with eating slowly and mindfully. Just as a bad habit does not evolve overnight, new and improved habits take time to develop too. But if you work on cementing one healthy habit at a time and continually reflect on how things are going, you can get there as long as a) you’re patient with yourself and take it one day at a time and b) you remember that there may be slip ups along the way and this does not mean that you’ve failed and should give up.

Tackling negative core beliefs about food and eating e.g. once I start eating, I can’t stop, I need to eat to make myself feel better, food is just fuel etc. can be extremely difficult. In this case, it is usually best to seek the help and advice of a trained professional such a dietician or a CBT therapist. These can be accessed via your GP.

Final words…

I hope you have enjoyed reading today’s blog post and it has helped to explain some of the main barriers to eating healthily. If you are planning on making changes to your diet, it’s best to make small changes rather than doing anything drastic. It might also be a good idea to do a little journalling and reflection on the process, for example, recording any improvements you notice such as clearer skin, better sleep and feeling more attentive when working etc. You could also reward your progress by giving yourself little treats (non-foodie ones preferably!) such as a bath bomb, a gorgeously scented hand cream, new stationery or a potted plant for your room.

Posted in depression management, Health and Nutrition, mental health, self care, wellbeing

Monday Matters: Why Exercise is Good for your Mental Health

We all know exercise is important for maintaining physical health but working out is also extremely beneficial for your mental health. As someone who regularly struggles with depression, I have a really good understanding of how important exercise is to help me manage my symptoms. In today’s Monday Matters, I thought I would discuss some of the reasons why regular exercise is so great for your mental wellbeing.

Boosts your mood

An energetic workout such as a brisk walk, a dance class or cardio at the gym releases endorphins AKA the feel good hormones into the body. These chemicals help to boost your happiness levels and can be great for alleviating anxiety and depression and any physical aches and pains you might have. Exercise also gives us something positive to focus on and can be a useful distraction from negative and anxious thoughts during periods of difficulty.

Increases energy levels

You might think that exercise will wear you out and make you feel tired, but the reverse is actually true. According to my research, moderate exercise helps to increase the level of mitochondria cells, which are directly responsible for producing energy. Also, a good workout boosts the circulation of oxygen in your body which makes you feel energised. Although you may feel worn out at the end of your exercise session, a few hours later, your energy levels should have picked back up, leaving you refreshed and invigorated for the rest of the day.

Fatigue is a common symptom of depression so by getting some exercise each day, even if it’s just a short walk or ten minutes of housework, you can combat the constant feeling of tiredness.

Promotes better quality sleep

As well as increasing your energy levels, exercise also helps to improve the quality of your sleep. You should find that you fall asleep more quickly and get more minutes of deep sleep, leaving you feeling refresh in the morning. It should be noted, however that you should avoid exercising for at least a couple of hours before bed as the production of those endorphins I mentioned earlier will leave you feeling buzzing, unable to switch off and struggling to sleep.

Improves self esteem

Self esteem is all about our perception of ourselves and how much value we place on our personal characteristics and qualities. Low self esteem can have a negative impact on our emotional wellbeing causing feelings of worthlessness and lack of self love. Exercise has been shown to have a really positive impact on our self esteem. As well as helping to put us in a more positive frame of mind which can make us feel better about ourselves, regular exercise can also boost our self esteem by:

  • improving our body image
  • helping us to feel more physically competent as we become stronger and more flexible
  • giving us a huge sense of achievement as we create new habits and stick to them
  • encouraging you to build friendships with others who are on a similar fitness journey or enjoy the same kinds of exercise
  • helping us to feel more healthy as we observe the effects on our body and mind

Can combat social withdrawal and isolation

Mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression and schizophrenia can make us feel very lonely and cause us to withdraw from social situations such as talking and meeting with friends, going shopping, family get togethers etc. Even if you are struggling a little at the moment and don’t particularly feel like socialising, pushing yourself to take a walk in your local park where others are exercising or going to the gym when it is relatively quiet can help you feel a part of the community. Joining a class with other likeminded individuals can help combat feelings of isolation. I’ve attended a few yoga classes recently and although I felt really nervous about going, I met some really lovely people and felt super proud of myself for making conversation both with class attendees and the instructors.

Improves cognitive function

Cardio workouts i.e. those which raise our heart rate and get us sweating help to improve the function of the hippocampus. This is the part of the brain which processes and retrieves different kinds of memories. Moderate-intensity exercise can also boost other aspects of cognitive processing including thinking, problem solving, attention, language and learning. This can help us feel better about ourselves and increase our self confidence. Studies have also shown that regular exercise can also help to combat the cognitive decline associated with ageing.

Stress busting

Regular aerobic exercise has been found to be really effective at reducing stress levels. The production of endorphins in the brain can decrease tension, elevate your mood and generally make you feel good. Also, exercise that involves deep breathing, such as yoga and Pilates, can help you to relax by producing calming energy.

Feeling the benefits of being fully present

Certain types of exercise encourage you to be mindful by paying attention to the quality of your movements or holding poses. Yoga and Pilates may not get your pulse racing and endorphins flowing, but, as well as being great for improving strength, muscle tone and flexibility, the level of concentration required takes the focus away from your low mood, stresses or worries about your current circumstances and negative self talk associated with anxiety or depression. As one of my yoga teachers once said, you’re enjoying the benefits of a mini mind break or a mental holiday.

Ways to get active every day

There are so many great ways to increase the amount of physical activity you do each week. In order to stay motivated, it’s best if you choose things you enjoy and which easily fit into your daily life. Here’s some suggestions:

  • Be active around the house and in the garden by doing moderate exercise such as washing the car, cleaning the windows, doing some digging, mowing the lawn or vacuuming every room.
  • Arrange a fun weekly class to attend with a family member or friend. Popular choices include clubbercise, spinning (indoor cycling, often done to loud dance music), bums and tums and body pump.
  • Enjoy a weekend woodland walk, immersing yourself in the environment and forgetting about life’s stresses and strains.
  • Dust off your bike and head to a country park for a spot of cycling. Safer than riding on the roads or pavements and the paths often include some inclines to really work your legs!
  • If you’ve just got 10 or 20 minutes, try an online workout. There are plenty of short fitness videos on YouTube and you can choose which part of your body you want to work on such as legs, glutes, arms or tummy.
  • Try Nordic walking which involves using a pair of walking poles. Not only do your legs get a good workout, you will also be using your arms and engaging your core.
  • Join your local gym and ask a personal trainer to help you create a workout to suit your current fitness levels and target specific parts of your body you’d like to tone.
  • Put some fast tempo music on whilst you do a spot of dusting and dance your way around the furniture and various rooms.
  • Get off the train or bus a stop early and walk the rest of the way.
  • Search for local walks and hikes online and and pick one out each weekend to go on with your partner or a friend.
  • If you have kids or grandkids, encourage them to be active and spend time as a family doing something sporty such as having a kick about, taking some netball or basketball shots, riding a bike, playing frisbee or having a game of tennis in a nearby park. You could even pack a nutritious picnic for when you’re done!
  • Walk or cycle instead of taking the car.
  • Go for a swim – it’s a great full body workout, low impact and easy on your joints. Or, if you like being in the pool, but, like me, you’re not so good at swimming, try an aqua aerobics class.

N.B. Please bear in mind that the above are examples of ways in which you might get yourself moving and begin to enjoy the many benefits of exercise. I am in no way an expert on exercise and it’s best to consult with your doctor prior to beginning any exercise programme or upping your physical activity levels, especially if you have not exercised for some time or if you have a particular medical condition or concerns.

Final words…

Regular exercise can be quite costly if you join a gym and attend classes regularly. However, there are many inexpensive or free exercise options if you are on a tight budget. I’m currently signed up to a programme which gives me free access to my local gym and wellness centre for 12 weeks and I’m making the most of it by regularly working out at the gym and also trying out some of the classes which are available.

It might be a good idea to do some research online to see if there are any special deals or programmes on offer in your local community, Or, you could find out if there’s a recovery college nearby which might have some physical activity based courses to become involved in to help you manage mental health difficulties such as depression and anxiety. Walking is also a free or inexpensive way of getting moving and if you are hoping to socialise with others, many towns and cities have local walking groups available to people of all levels of fitness.

Posted in Health and Nutrition, lifestyle, Planning and journaling, self care

Monday Matters: 7 benefits of home cooking

Over the last few months, my husband and I have been trying out some new recipes, making sure that, at least once a week, we cook a meal from scratch. We’ve had some amazingly tasty dishes and afterwards, I’ve typed out any that we’ve really enjoyed (making any alterations to ingredients and method) and added them to a file we keep in one of our kitchen cupboards. We’ve ended up with a personalised cook book of laminated recipe cards with both vegan and vegetarian options.

There are so many benefits of home cooking on a regular basis and for today’s post, I’m going to focus on some of them which I feel have made a real difference to me personally.

Quality family time

To ensure we have plenty of time and energy for cooking, my husband and I tend to do our cooking from scratch on a weekend, mostly on a Saturday night. On a Friday evening, we have a routine of looking online for some veggie or vegan recipes which use seasonal ingredients and are not too difficult to prepare. When we’ve found something that appeals, we make a shopping list and pop to the supermarket late Saturday afternoon to collect what we need.

When we get back, we make a start on preparing our meal together. I take the lead and my husband assists me. As well as the process helping me to develop my confidence again following months of being unwell with depression and anxiety and having poor appetite, it’s been really nice to spend quality time together in the kitchen and at the dining table enjoying what we’ve made (or pulling faces on the rare occasion when what we’ve made has ended up being revolting!) We even work as a team to load and unload the dishwasher with the vast amount of pots and pans afterwards.

Easy to adapt dishes according to your taste, likes and dislikes

When you go to a restaurant or get a takeaway, you might be able to ask for something to be omitted from the dish (such as a sauce) or swap your chips for salad, but you’re generally limited to one or two changes. However, when you cook a meal at home, you can adapt a dish in as many ways as you like. For example, you can add more or less spice and herbs, serve the dish with your favourite veggies on the side, omit the salt and pepper and change the sauce or dressing. You can use your preferred type of cheese or alter the recipe to make it less calorific. And you can easily simplify a dish that has a long list of ingredients or swap something you don’t like for something you love.

An example of this is the vegan butternut squash and chickpea tagine that my husband and I made this week. We found two different recipes online, one had some negative reviews saying it was tasteless and the other had lots of different spices in it which we didn’t have at home. I used the information from both to create a mildly spiced version which included ingredients listed in one or the other recipe and altered the cooking time as I knew the veggies would take longer to soften. We thoroughly enjoyed our food and I’ve now typed out our heavily edited recipe so we can remember the ingredients, measures and method for next time.

As you become more confident in the kitchen, you’ll learn which ingredients work together and will be able to make changes to recipes and cooking methods to suit you and your family. You might also want to do what I do and save successful dishes by copying and pasting a recipe into a Word document, editing the ingredients and method and then printing and laminate the sheet to keep to make again. I’ve also created a template on MS Word so all of my sheets are A5 with the same font type and size, margins and layout.

Portion control

Often, when eating in a restaurant, the portion sizes are way bigger than you’d serve at home. Also, it can be tempting to make the most of your evening out by selecting a starter and a main course, then finishing off with a dessert. You might also choose sugary drinks, wine or cocktails to accompany your food and often you’ll have more beverages whilst you wait for the different courses to arrive. Before you know it, you’ve racked up more than your daily calorie intake in just one meal.

At home, when cooking for yourself or your family, you’re more likely to make just one dish and serve it with a side of your favourite veggies, salad or a tasty bread to fill up your plate. The portion size can also be easily controlled by you so overeating is avoided.

When my husband and I make a meal at home, we tend to serve a small portion from the pan or oven dish (putting more on my husband’s plate than mine in-line with recommended calorie intake) and then have some more if we find we’re still hungry. Otherwise, we transfer the rest to a smaller container and save the leftovers for another day. In a restaurant, it’s tempting to clear your plate, even if you’re full, either because you’re not eating mindfully and don’t notice you feel full, or because you’ve paid a lot for the meal and don’t want to leave some of it.

You can control the cost and quality

When you go to a restaurant or get a takeway, you have to pay the price stated on the menu and the chef has made choices about the quality of the individual ingredients that make up the dish. When you cook at home, you choose the price you want to pay for the items on your shopping list. You select the fresh foodstuffs which look and smell good (and are in season) and the quality you feel you deserve and can afford. If you want to choose free range eggs for a dish, you can. If you prefer organic produce, you can choose specific items which meet with your expectations. When money is a little tight, you can pick basics ingredients from your supermarket own brand collection to make budget friendly meals.

Healthier dishes

Restaurant meals, takeaways and supermarket ready meals are often loaded with salt, sugar, butter, cream or other additives that should be consumed in moderation. When you make your meals yourself, you can control exactly what goes into your dishes and this often makes them a lot healthier. You can use fresh ingredients and add herbs and spices to make your meals taste good. You can choose whether to add salt, decide between butter or vegetable oil to shallow fry and even find different ways to sweeten your dishes. Studies have found that those who frequently cook meals at home have healthier diets overall and consume much less calories per day.

Good for your mental health

It might surprise you that as well as being good for your physical health due to the nutritional benefits, home cooking can also be great for your mental health. When I was struggling with anxiety and depression a few months ago, my support worker suggested that I try planning and preparing one meal per week as part of my work on behavioural activation. There were a number of ideas behind her suggestion, including trying to find joy in cooking again, improving my appetite, having a sense of purpose when going to the supermarket (I had to challenge myself to make a list of items needed for the recipe and collect them independently), being assertive when advising my husband how to assist with the preparation, feeling a sense of achievement and confidence building. It also became a wonderful mindful activity which took me away from my anxious thoughts. Although it didn’t do much to improve my appetite at the time, it was wonderful for my self esteem and, overall, was a really positive experience.

Now that I’m feeling much better, my husband and I are continuing to try out new recipes regularly and it feels great when we sit down to enjoy the fruits of our labour. Preparing and cooking a meal is also a great way to slow down and focus on all of the physical processes involved such as weighing out ingredients, peeling, chopping, blending and stirring – all of which demand lots of attention and can help to relieve stress.

It makes you more creative

I’m used to getting creative with my art and craft supplies, but cooking at home can also make you creative in the kitchen too. When I first started making meals (back when I was at university), I tended to find super easy recipes with simple ingredients and follow the instructions carefully. Now, I look for dishes in books, magazines and online and I’m not frightened to try out new cooking methods, change up the ingredients or merge ideas from several different recipes together. The more I cook, the more my confidence grows. I also find I can throw things together to make meals using whatever is left in the fridge and kitchen cupboards and most of the time, they turn out great!

Final words…

I hope you have enjoyed reading today’s post and it has encouraged you to do more home cooking. The only downside we’ve found is that the dishwasher is always full to bursting and it takes ages to dry everything and put it all away. However, if you make twice as much of the dish, you can enjoy the leftovers another day and then you have barely any washing up to do!

Posted in compassion, depression management, lifestyle, mental health, self care, wellbeing

Monday Matters: 7 ways to be kind to yourself when you’re struggling

In today’s Monday Matters post, I’m going to be talking about something which I believe many of us struggle with and that is self-kindness. At school, we’re taught to be kind, respectful, patient, forgiving and gentle with others but do we apply this same compassionate attitude to ourselves? I know I certainly don’t, and I also notice that I’m particularly harsh and critical when I’m struggling. So, here are some ways in which being kind to ourselves can help our mental health and 7 ways you can show yourself some kindness right now.

Benefits of self-kindness which are particularly relevant during periods of difficulty

  • better self-esteem
  • increased resilience
  • less self-criticism
  • increased self-acceptance
  • helps us cope better with stress
  • improved self-confidence
  • decreases anxiety and depression
  • helps us feel more optimistic

7 ways you can be kinder to yourself

Practise self-compassion

During times of difficulty, many of us tend to be really unkind to ourselves. We place unrealistic expectations upon ourselves, say engage in negative self talk, criticise ourselves when things don’t go right, place blame unfairly, find fault in what we do and fail to celebrate our achievements. Sounds pretty harsh right? And it makes us feel ten times worse than we already do. Instead, what we would really benefit from is practising self-compassion, where we offer ourselves warmth, gentleness, understanding, acceptance and empathy. A good way to do this is to imagine what you would say to a friend who was going through a period of difficulty and was dealing with the same issues that you are. Then apply that compassion to yourself. You can even take this a step further and write yourself a compassionate letter where you offer support and encouraging words and then read it back. You can find out more about the therapeutic benefits of writing here.

Focus on the good

When we’re struggling, we tend to get into a negative frame of mind. Try to break this by thinking about your positives. Here are some ideas for you to try:

Congratulate yourself on your achievements no matter how small – maybe you got dressed and went out for a walk, maybe you completed something from your to-do list or maybe you dealt with a difficult situation assertively. Just getting out of bed can be a huge achievement if you’re struggling with depression.

Use positive self-talk – I’ve written before about the impact that negative self talk can have on us and how we can reframe it. As part of being encouraging and supportive towards yourself, you can counteract negative thoughts with positive affirmations. Some examples are: I am kind to myself during difficult times, I am doing the best I can, I can get through this, I have the ability to cope, I am brave and strong.

Make an all about you list – things you’re good at, your best qualities, a ‘done list’ of all of the things you’ve achieved today/this week. Try writing a different list each day to really improve your relationship with yourself.

Nourish your body and your brain

When you’re struggling, it can be really tempting to reach for high calorie snacks full of sugar or fat and eat processed foods for your meals. The reason we crave these items is because they temporarily increase our mood boosting endorphins leaving us feeling happy, blissful, calm or soothed or provide you with a chemical sugar high. Unfortunately, these feelings don’t last and can lead to overeating and poor diet overall. And of course, an unhealthy diet can create all sorts of problems including reduced energy levels, weight gain, obesity, depression, weakened immune system and vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Be kind to yourself by focusing on eating a balanced diet which includes a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Something that I find really helpful is to plan my meals in advance. This means that I’m more likely to eat healthily but also that I can ensure I’m eating a balance of different foods and a range of fruit and vegetables. And don’t forget, you are allowed a treat every now and again but it’s best if you really take your time eating it so you can savour the flavour and really appreciate it (search ‘mindful eating’ online for more info).

Get moving

When life is hard you might feel tired and lacking in energy and this might mean that even the though of exercise too much. But, something gentle, like a walk in your local park, ten minutes of basic stretching exercises or a short yoga session could make you feel so much better. Exercise releases feel good endorphins which help to boost your mood and if you engage in a mindful activity you will also be focusing on the present moment and forgetting about other concerns in your life which can lead to feelings of calm and relaxation.

Do something that brings you joy

Try to make it a habit to do something you love each day. Try to carve out at least half an hour for your own enjoyment. Here’s some ideas:

  • Hobbies – sewing, watercolour painting, papercrafting, drawing, playing a musical instrument, baking.
  • Outdoors – time in the garden, nature walk, sculpture trail, sit in the sunshine.
  • Retail therapy – a new houseplant, a scented candle, a pretty scarf, some sweets you haven’t had since childhood, some stationery.
  • Brain stimulation – crossword, word search, sudoku, jigsaw puzzle, board game.
  • Movement – yoga, stroll along the beach, mindful walking, dancing to some upbeat music, ten pin bowling, try out a team sport.
  • Socialise – coffee with a friend, take a class e.g. flower arranging, phone a relative.

If you’re struggling with depression right now, you might be thinking that nothing brings you joy at the moment so there’s little point in doing anything. However, research has found that if you do some of the things that you normally enjoy, you will still reap the benefits of the activity so try scheduling something in and then congratulate yourself for finding the motivation to do it.

Add some soothing activities to your day

When you’re struggling with your mental health or life is extremely busy and stressful, it’s a really good idea to plan something soothing to help yourself feel calm and relaxed. The activity you choose is very much a personal preference but you could try one or more or the following:

  • a hot bath with scented bath oil or a bath bomb
  • a foot massage with refreshing peppermint oil
  • read a book, under a blanket with optional hot chocolate
  • light a scented candle and watch the flame flicker
  • buy some flowers and spend time arranging them in a vase
  • cuddle something – a pet or a soft toy
  • watercolour painting or colouring in

Make good sleep a priority

A good night’s sleep benefits us in so many ways including better mood, more energy, improved cognition and stronger relationships with others. However, when we’re struggling, we’re likely to find that the quantity or quality of our sleep is affected so it’s important to take steps to fix it. This can include doing relaxing activities before bed (and avoiding known stimulants), spending time journalling about your day so you can process what’s happened and prepare yourself for tomorrow, and making sure your bedroom environment is just right. If sleep is an issue for you right now you might want to check out this blog post. Or, for really in depth look at sleep issues, the NHS has a long self help guide which can be accessed here.

Final words…

I hope that today’s blog post has been useful in providing you with some ideas about how you can be kinder to yourself. However, if the thought of doing all of these things seems a little overwhelming, trying choosing one suggestion which you think might make you feel a little better and start from there. Remember tiny steps can lead to a big impact.