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lady-walkingExperts at the National Institutes of Health believe depression is likely caused by a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors that together may trigger a range of symptoms from sadness, fatigue and loss of appetite to headaches, digestive problems and difficulty concentrating.

For many people, the change in seasons can bring on depressive symptoms—especially in fall and winter when colder temperatures and shorter days (meaning less light) leave them feeling gloomy and drained of energy. But while we’re often tempted to stay indoors and hibernate during these months, a new study from the University of Michigan says we should do just the opposite.

Results of the study, published in the journal Ecopsychology, reveal that depression may be greatly reduced simply by taking a walk in nature. They recruited nearly 2,000 participants and found that those who engaged in weekly group nature walks showed fewer signs of depression and stress and instead enjoyed enhanced mental health and improved overall well-being—even if they had recently experience a traumatic life event such as a illness, unemployment or the death of a loved one.

Studies tell us seasonal changes affect women more often than men, and women are also 70% more likely than men to experience depression during their lifetime. In addition to walking outdoors, a healthy diet also supports mental health. Because a diet high in inflammatory foods such as sugars, refined and starchy carbohydrates, processed meats and trans fats has been linked to a 41% higher risk of depression in women according to Harvard researchers, fill your plate instead with anti-inflammatory foods such as low-sugar fruits, non-starchy vegetables, healthy fats and plenty of protein.

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children-runningWith the rise of electronic media, U.S. kids are spending more time glued to a screen and less time engaged in physical activity—a trend that could have far-reaching implications when it comes to their overall health. But adding just an hour of exercise each day can make a big difference, and not just for a healthy body but for a healthy mind.

In a recent study funded in part by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, researchers from the University of Illinois followed more than 220 schoolchildren between the ages of 7 and 9, half of whom were enrolled in an after-school program with a high level of physical activity while the others remained on a wait list. The 2-hour program included about 70 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity, which researchers say resulted in big “brain gains” for those enrolled.

The kids who attended the weekday program showed significant improvement in a range of cognitive skills: memory, concentration, the ability to focus and ignore distractions, and multi-tasking (being able to switch back and forth from one task to the next). These so-called “executive functions” have been linked to fewer conduct problems and less risky behavior in the adolescent and teenage years.

“I think these are the hardest evidence we have available that time spent in physical activities, which would include physical education and recess, not only doesn’t detract from academic goals, but it might enhance academic performance,” said lead researcher Charles Hillman. He and his colleagues encourage schools to consider providing more opportunities for physical activity and parents to encourage regular exercise. According to the study results, the children in the after-school program also had smaller gains in body mass index (BMI).

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