Meet Kimberley Wilson, our latest expert in residence for whole body mental health. Kimberley will be sharing how we can take better care of our brain by looking after the rest of our bodies
Kimberley is a Chartered Psychologist and author of How to Build a Healthy Brain working in private practice in central London. She is a Governor of the Tavistock & Portman NHS Mental Health Trust and the former Chair of the British Psychological Society’s Training Committee in Counselling Psychology. She also has a degree in nutrition and is passionate about the power of psychology to transform lives.
Kimberley hosts the podcast Made of Stronger Stuff alongside Dr Xand van Tulleken on BBC Radio 4. Its unique approach takes the pair on a journey around the human body, exploring a different body part in-depth in each episode, asking what it can tell us about our innate capacity for change. Kimberley is often recognized as a former finalist on the Great British Bake Off.
What is whole body mental health?
Whole Body Mental Health is a comprehensive approach to caring for our mental health. It integrates evidence-based nutrition, lifestyle and psychological factors altogether. It’s all about putting the mind back into the body. It also looks at the roles food and lifestyle play in our mental health, including disordered eating, the gut-brain axis and our emotional relationship with food.
Essentially, we can take better care of our mental health by looking after our physical health too.
Did you know the brain is the hungriest organ in your body?
Your brain is more metabolically active than other organs and tissues in your body. Your brain actually accounts for 2% of your total body weight but takes up 20-25% of your body’s energy requirements when you’re at rest.
Nutrition and mental health
A degree of stress in life is inevitable. However, whether we become overwhelmed by stress depends on the interaction between the type or amount of stress and our coping mechanisms and resilience. Stress and nutrition are a two-way street: stress can influence food choices, and what you eat affects how well your brain and body handle stress.
If you have ever found yourself heading straight for the fridge when you are under pressure, you are far from alone. Evidence suggests that around two-thirds of people eat more when they are stressed. But why does this happen? Simply, stress cranks up your hungry hormones. Carbohydrates aid our recovery from stress, helping to turn off the production of stress hormones. In this sense, the common craving for carbohydrates during stressful periods is an adaptation.
Neurotransmitters that help you to feel good such as serotonin and dopamine, are made from nutrients. However, so are your stress hormones, and because, from an evolutionary perspective, stress is a survival mechanism, it gets priority on the available nutrients. So, if your nutrient levels are low and you go through a period of stress, there will be insufficient nutrients available for general wellbeing. This is one of the reasons that prolonged stress is a risk factor for depression. It also means that increasing nutrient availability can increase stress resilience. For example, recent research has shown that vitamin and mineral supplements following a natural disaster such as an earthquake or a flood, reduced the risk of later developing post-traumatic stress disorder.
Movement and mental health
Some of the most substantial evidence for the role of lifestyle on brain health comes from the research on exercise. We are all aware that exercise is beneficial for the health of the body – helping to strengthen the heart, improve glucose sensitivity and strengthen bones. But we rarely hear about the many and profound ways that physical activity protects and supports the brain.
For example, greater cardiovascular fitness is linked with larger hippocampal volume. The hippocampus is the area of the brain that is crucial for learning and memory, and, consequently, we also see better memory performance in fitter individuals. Exercise studies have also shown that physical activity: Improves attention, enhances information processing capacity and reduces reaction times in the elderly i.e. their brains are sharper.
But it gets better – exercise can slow down, halt and even reverse brain aging. This is especially important because globally Alzheimer’s disease prevalence is expected to triple by 2050. But, alarmingly, the age at which people are first diagnosed with dementia is lowering.
Kimberley has created a special series on whole body mental health, which is available exclusively on the Dialogue app. Exploring the basic concepts through articles, videos, and action plans will guide employees through practical tips on using nutrition and physical health to improve their mental health and brain health, no matter their starting point or experience.
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