5 Everyday Rituals to Boost Mental and Physical Health, From Dr. Joel Kahn
Saturday, October 10th is World Mental Health Day, and Dr. Joel Kahn, Clinical Professor of Medicine at Wayne State University School of Medicine and bestselling author of The Whole Heart Solution, reminds us that if we take care of our mental health, it will pay us back in terms of our physical health as well. The two are inextricably linked. Here is what Dr. Kahn does daily to be both mentally and physically healthy, and you can too.
Why Is Mental Health So Important? Is It Linked to Physical Health?
Dr. Kahn: "The reason lifestyle medicine is a growing specialty among doctors who are constantly re-educating themselves in this area is that there is a common thread between mental wellbeing and physical health. We have seen this proven over and over again, and it appears to be universal: Mental and physical health are linked.
"If you are healthier mentally you will also be healthier physically. For example, if you go back and look at 1990 Dr. Dean Ornish's lifestyle heart trial: He advocated that if you don't smoke, and you get regular fitness (from walking or more vigorous activity) if you eat a whole-food, plant-based diet that is naturally rich in vitamins and nutrients, and you regularly practice a mind-body exercise such as meditation, and you have meaningful connections as part of a tight-knit community, then these things all will lead to better health and even lowering your heart disease. In a follow-up to the study, in 1998, he looked at what had happened in eight years and the data showed there was a correlation between these practices and enhancement in general wellbeing, including an improvement in blood pressure and body weight. Taken all together, these practices led to a documented reversal in atherosclerosis and also to improved mood and optimism. We now know these go hand in hand.
"Even further back you can document the connection between mental and physical health: All the way back to 1951 Dr. Lester Morrison an internist in LA, and he took 100 heart patients and he asked 50 of them to follow this diet sheet... essentially it was a whole food plant-based diet and he pushed the data that found not only was the survival rate much better among those eating the whole food plant-based diet–and their cholesterol improved– but that their symptoms of heart disease abated, and they felt better, and they reported having a more positive outlook. They didn't call it mind-body back then but it was the start of it.
"Now doctors realize that eating plant-based is a way of elevating your health, and in cases where there are multiple symptoms of heart disease when you treat your health it improves your mood, and when you treat your mood it makes you healthier.
"In one such study, where they followed about 125,000 healthcare workers, over three decades and found that making these five practices (including the mental health-oriented ones such as being in a strong community) resulted in adding 14 years to the lives of the women, on average, and 12 years to the lives of men. When you look at a reasonably healthy 50-year-old, what predicts how long they will live is whether they follow these five practices. So if you are reasonably healthy at 50 and you don't smoke, eat a mostly whole-food plant-based diet, get regular exercise and keep your weight normal, practice gratitude or mindfulness, and have a strong sense of community, you will likely be healthy for years.
What Does Dr. Joel Kahn Do Daily to Practice Mental and Total Wellbeing?
1. Sleep is the Foundation and Everything Else Flows from There
Dr. Kahn: Number one: Focus on sleep. There is a whole ritual around sleep in my house. You need to have a set going-to-bed time, relatively the same waking uptime. I like a cool bedroom, I use noise reduction, white noise or waterfall noise, and earplugs or an eye mask. I actually have a ski cap on my nightstand and sometimes I will pull that over my entire head. I use it to block out noise or light.
If you have trouble sleeping, find a safe natural supplement of magnesium or CBD, or people take lavender essential oil. Whatever works for you. Before bed, you can also allow your eyes to get a break if you read on screens [like a computer or tablet] by wearing blue light glasses. I wear a fit bit and you can look at it and see you did better than you thought.
2. Get Daily Fitness, Especially Outdoors, and Whenever Possible, Go Barefoot
Dr. Kahn: "Fitness improves mood. especially if you can get outdoors, walking, biking or hiking. I love getting outside every day, and other than in the winter I will be barefoot in the grass behind our house, running up and down the hill. There is a concept that being barefoot on the earth is anti-inflammatory. It's called Grounding, or Earthing. So every day, I will do that whenever I can. Combine fitness, being in nature, and being barefoot and it will give you a sense of wellbeing."
According to the study: Earthing refers to walking or hiking or running barefoot on the earth's surface, where the body can connect to the energy of the natural world. A 2012 study found that "scientific research supports the concept that the Earth's electrons induce multiple physiological changes... including reduced pain, better sleep, a shift from sympathetic to parasympathetic tone in the autonomic nervous system, and a blood-thinning effect.
3. Eat the Rainbow and Try to get 7 to 8 Servings of Fruits and Vegetables a Day
Dr. Kahn: "Eat a brightly colored plant-food diet. Studies show that you can correlate eating fruits and vegetables with mood. If you eat 7 to 8 servings of plant-based foods a day it has a positive impact on mood. There is even a study that eating carrots improves mood. That's because carotenoids are so powerful. So if you just eat more carotenoids you'll feel better."
4. Practice Meditation, or Gratitude Thoughts for a Few Minutes a Day-- or The Blues
Dr. Kahn: "I practice meditation every day, specifically Kirtan Kriya Yoga Meditation, which is an exercise that helps you develop greater attention, concentration, focus, improved short term memory, and better mood.
"I also practice gratitude, even if it's just gratitude thoughts before I get out of bed in the morning, for 3 or 4 minutes. Studies show that meditation every day can help with better brain function and focus, and help you have a more even blood flow. So if you find yourself with shoulders gripped with stress and your breathing shallow and anxious, try meditation.
"Another way to feel better and relax is to listen to music. I used music all the time: Yoga music or Italian rock or Whiskey Blues, which I love since listening, you can't help but feel like other people's problems are worse than yours."
5. Don't Give Away the Keys to Your Brain or Let Others Take Up Too Much Time
Dr. Kahn: "Don't give away the keys to your brain or let others take too much of your time. That can be people in your life or the media. You don't have to listen to every news report every day. you can turn stuff on and turn stuff off.
"I don't give the keys to my brain to every podcaster or news show. If I do listen to the news, I limit it to 20 or 30 minutes a day. It gets pretty ugly out there.
"If you do all this, you will become more mentally healthy. If you incorporate most of these practices on most days, it will help to find meaning and have the drive (which I seem to have more of than I need on most days). But practicing these mental health exercises gives you resilience and optimism. You will have physical health. And if you have gratitude, you can ride some rough waters.
6. Lastly I Keep In Mind a Gratitude Statement, Which I Learned and Never Forgot:
Dr. Kahn: This is one of my favorite statements: A person with good health has 1,000 dreams and a person with poor health has only one dream.
This quote reminds me to think: What you are having problems with, someone else is hoping for. So every day holding onto that idea, it's truly amazing.
Mental health will allow you to ride the rough waters when you have downturns or friends are challenging or family members are. If you do the work to take care of your physical and mental health, you can ride out the bumps. But if you have not done the work, it's harder. So if you do the due diligence, it will pay you back later.
Dr. Joel Kahn is a Clinical Professor of Medicine at Wayne State University School of Medicine, and author of the bestsellers: The Whole Heart Solution, Dead Execs Don't Get Bonuses, Vegan Sex: Vegans Do It Better, The Plant-Based Solution and owner of GreenSpace & Go.