Updated: Mar 11, 2021
Many of us enjoy taking care of others. Women adopt many roles often all at once – mother, wife, partner, carer, career professional, cook, housekeeper and nest builder. This care we give to others is great - until we reach the point where we are exhausted, demotivated, lacking sleep, tired and wired, anxious or irritated. The idea of implementing self-care strategies is aimed at placing our needs first and to take care of ‘us’. This concept can seem difficult to some people. There is still a misguided belief that by doing so, we are being selfish and many still need a bit of gentle encouragement to put themselves first. Conversely, by actively spending more time on our own needs, the benefits of taking care of your own self radiate positively into the world around us. We feel calmer and more rested – this allows us to generate more stabilizing energy and to stay more focused and less reactive. So what easy ways can we start to implement self-care strategies?
1) Go for a short walk daily – Walking is a wonderful, low intensity exercise that carries with it a myriad of benefits. Being outside is good for us, it connects us to nature. Plants and trees emit chemicals which we inhale (think essential oils) which help our brain to produce feel good neurotransmitters called ‘endorphins’. Endorphins get released by movement and one of the ways to do this is to pump your big muscles. We are also more likely to connect with others and seeing as we are social animals this interaction is good for us on many levels.
2) Create a moment of ‘calm’. Many of us suffer from low mood, depression and tiredness intermittently over our lifetime but some can experience this over longer time periods. Good nutrition plays a very important role in supporting mood and reducing anxiety but learning small daily lifestyle strategies aimed at being kinder to ourselves has enormous benefits. When you feel demotivated and tired our mind can turn to negative chatter all too easily and this can be exhausting. To quiet the chatter can be as simple as engaging in mindful activities like immersing yourself in a good book, listening to your favourite music, learning an instrument, taking time out to cook a healthy meal, practicing meditation or yoga or treating yourself to a massage. Other ideas like listening to an audio book or inspiring podcast or doing a puzzle are all activities we can engage in that help to turn the focus gently on ourselves and away from niggling worries and negative self-talk. Start by giving yourself half an hour to an hour daily to focus on something that benefits you.
3) Cultivate gratitude. Keep a diary beside your bed or a place where you can reflect before bed and write into it daily 3 things that you were thankful for in the day. Expressing gratitude shifts the brain into thinking more positively and has shown that it not only changes the molecular physicality of the brain, it helps to keep our grey matter functioning and activates regions of the brain associated with the endorphin dopamine, our ‘reward’ and ‘action’ neurotransmitter (1). Gratitude studies have demonstrated that when we feel happier it influences the central nervous system in a positive way. We become less reactive and more resilient which in turn makes us feel healthier. In a study by Emmon and McCullough (2), participants completing daily gratitude exercises each day offered other people in their lives more emotional support than those in other groups (3). Another study conducted by the National Institute of Health (NIH) looking at blood flow into brain regions demonstrated that those who expressed more gratitude had higher levels of activity in the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus influences many bodily functions including our metabolism and levels of stress. Positive effects associated to changes in this brain chemistry are better sleep, less depression, increased exercise and reduction of pain (4, 5). If you don’t have a diary to hand saying three things to yourself that you are grateful for can be just as beneficial – practicing daily is the aim. Remember to be grateful for the small things and express kindness to yourself and others. Write a note to someone or tell someone special something you appreciate about them and highlight what you like about yourself or an achievement rather than focusing on the critical. Gratitude sets the brain thinking in a virtuous cycle and by doing so it struggles to focus on other things at the same time.
4) Get more sun. The effect of blue light through the eye helps to reset the circadian rhythm, by sending a message signalling daylight to the part of the brain that controls sleep, alertness and depression. The decrease in daylight hours and loss of blue light in winter can trigger seasonal depression and raise feelings of anxiety so blue light plays an important role in resetting our body clock and improving sleep and mood (6). By reducing exposure to blue light late in the evening (phone, TV screens, laptops, tablets) we can support our melatonin production and prepare ourselves for bed. Limit phone or tablet use for least one and a half hours before bed and dim the lights and ensure that your bedroom is as dark as possible. If you struggle with early morning brain fog heading out for an early morning walk will decrease the level of melatonin which results in feeling more alert. Exposure to the sun also helps us to increase our levels of Vitamin D. Ensuring you have a good level of vitamin D directly supports mood and helps to alleviate depression by attaching to serotonin receptors (7). Vitamin D also regulates immune function making us feel generally healthier and brighter. Exposing skin without sun protection for 20 minutes in the summer months will top up your levels. Supplement in the winter months with D3 to maintain levels and support mood and immune function. Vitamin D is also present in some food sources and can be found in oily fish like sardines, salmon, tuna, egg yolks, dairy and also mushrooms which have been exposed to UV light (8).
5) Nourish yourself with good nutrition. The precursor for our feel good neurotransmitter serotonin comes from the ingestion of the amino acid tryptophan. Serotonin is also crucial for the production of our melatonin which activates in dim light from amounts of blue light exposure throughout the day, so fueling this neurotransmitter benefits our sleep. Sleep is where our brain makes repairs, builds proteins and stores the memories experienced throughout the day (9). Good dietary sources of tryptophan are avocado, walnuts, tofu, chicken, dark chocolate, cod, cottage cheese, eggs, fish, lamb, nuts, oat bran, pork, pumpkin seeds, ricotta, sesame seeds, tahini, turkey and yoghurt.
When we experience low mood, anxiety or poor sleep we are more likely to reach for the refined carbohydrates. This activates a release of tryptophan which gives us temporary relief but can be detrimental in the long term by dysregulating blood sugar and increasing calorie intake which may lead to unwanted weight gain. Replacing heavy processed carb laden foods like bread, biscuits and cakes with fibre rich carbohydrates slows the release of sugars and supports the production of serotonin (oats, bananas, quinoa, brown rice, beans or lentils with each meal) helping to reduce cravings and reducing irritability. This can also be beneficial for women who struggle with PMS and crave carbohydrates as the replacement for more complex, tryptophan rich foods are still fuelling the serotonin release but also giving the body what it needs in terms of better nutrients and fibre content.
Ensure that your level of iron is good – the conversion of the amino acid tryptophan to serotonin requires iron as a cofactor so a good dietary intake is important as well as good absorption in the gut. Conditions like small intestinal bacteria (SIBO) and celiac disease can affect the amount of iron absorbed from food and can result on low levels being stored in the body which can manifest as low mood and depression. Adequate levels of vitamin A or beta carotene are also required to transport the iron throughout the body where it belongs (do not supplement iron without checking your blood markers first).
Dietary sources of iron are apricots, peaches, bananas, raisins, figs, whole rye, walnuts, kelp, dry beans, leafy greens, asparagus, potatoes, liver and lamb. Beta carotene is found in vegetables and fruit like sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, peppers, squashes, carrots, spinach, kale, chard and other greens. Vitamin A (retinol) is found in liver, egg yolks, oily fish, cheese and butter.
Other foods which help to support calming neurotransmitters (10) are:
GABA – Walnuts, oats, spinach, beans, liver, mackerel
Serotonin – Salmon, beef, lamb, figs, bananas, root vegetables, brown rice, turkey
Tyrosine – Almonds, asparagus, beef, cheese, chickpeas, dairy, flaxseeds, lentils, meat, sesame seeds, soybeans, walnuts
6) Ensure your intake of essential fatty acids is good – think omega 3’s from oily fish, hemp seeds, flaxseeds and oil, chia seeds and mono-saturated fats from avocado, olives and olive oil. The types of fats that you ingest are deposited in your cell membranes so directly influence cellular functioning. Intake of omega 3 fats makes the cell membrane more flexible so assists with removal of toxins and improves the cells receptors’ response to neurotransmitters like serotonin. DHA also improves the connection between synapses in the brain, supports learning ability, memory and depression. Consume oily fish (mackerel, sardines, sprats, herring or salmon) 3 times a week or supplement with a good quality fish oil. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) can be found in flax, hemp or chia seeds and assists with blood glucose levels and help to support healthy cholesterol. ALA is another good source of omega 3 fatty acids.
7) Top up your magnesium levels – known as nature’s ‘tranquilizer’ magnesium acts on receptors in the brain stimulating the GABA response and calming the nervous system. It becomes depleted due to lack of intake or through exposure to chronic stress, kidney problems and through digestive conditions which impact absorption in the gut like celiac disease. It acts as a natural sedative and helps to regulate insulin, plays a major role in the enzyme which sits at the heart of energy metabolism, supports cardiovascular function and bone health and regulates blood sugar and blood pressure. It is a smooth muscle relaxant so is good for asthmatics too (11).
Magnesium also helps to improve serotonin synthesis and reduces inflammation and oxidative stress. There are many forms of magnesium available, some not as absorbable as others. The forms which pass over the brain blood barrier more easily are glycinate and L_threonate which has shown efficacy in studies for alleviating stress, low mood, anxiety and improving overall cognitive function (12).
Magnesium can be taken during the day for mental and muscle relaxation and at night to improve sleep. High levels can cause loose stools and stomach cramps so take up to 500mg divided over the course of the day or use the glycinate or L_threonate form to improve absorption and increase bowel tolerance.