Founder of Primrose’s Kitchen, Primrose Matheson, shares her top mental health hacks
The state of our mental health defines us. It mobilizes or demobilizes, which is why staying on top of it is so important. As someone who has always found it hard to stay motivated during the winter months, I am constantly exploring methods, foods and techniques which can be actioned at any time of the year. Here, I talk about some of them in order of their importance in my own life.
Having grown up on an island, the sea has always been a big part of my life, and swimming in it very normal. The feeling one got from those swims was always uplifting, recalibrating and refreshing. Skip forward and I am now living on Dartmoor. Whilst only 40 minutes from the sea, it is no longer possible for me to enjoy a daily dip, so I have been looking for other ways to incorporate the power of cold water into my life. Up until the end of October (just before my son, Wolf, was born), my partner and I would go to a favourite river spot in the morning and dunk ourselves before facing the day. I have always found river water even more punchy than the sea due to its lack of salt, which has a warming effect on the skin.
More recently, I have been fully embracing the Wim Hof Method and swapping the river for cold showers accompanied with deep breathing. Wim Hof’s belief system, with which I fully resonate, is that, over time, our relationship with the world we live in has changed. Our lifestyles have disconnected us from the natural environment. Because of this disconnection, our age-old survival mechanisms are no longer triggered and we’ve lost touch with our inner power. His method is about reconnecting with nature, ourselves, and others. Alongside his love of the cold, Hof has developed a breathing technique which, he claims, helps with a huge array of dis-ease due to its anti-inflammatory effects in the body. Where there is inflammation, there is usually a lack of oxygen. This is similar to the ancient practice of yogic breathing techniques known as pranayama, which has shown to decrease stress, lower blood pressure, and improve immunity. Hof claims utilising cold therapy, breathing techniques and one’s commitment can positively help grant us increased energy; better sleep; reduced stress levels; heightened focus and determination; increased willpower; and a stronger immune system. I can definitely vouch for this, as can so many of his disciples.
Over the last five years, I have really become addicted to a good incline. I wanted to understand why it feels so much better to walk a shorter distance uphill than a longer distance on the flat. Whilst I believe there is a mental satisfaction in overcoming the challenge of an incline and reaching the top of a hill – like a metaphor for the challenges we face in our lives – I feel there is also a physical reason why I like it. In discussing this with a serious running friend of mine, I learnt that uphill walking uses the same motor patterns as running. It places an intensity on the cardiovascular system that is almost equivalent to running, and higher than walking on flat terrain. This increased intensity leads to improved heart and lung function with a decreased risk of the development of heart disease. If, like me, you are not a fan of running, this is the perfect middle ground, so I encourage you to find a good hill near you.
Food as medicine
First things first; keeping your blood sugar level stable is the first step to maintaining a good mood and reducing the likelihood of feeling tired, irritable, and depressed. To do this, we must eat regularly and choose foods that release energy slowly. Serotonin is often talked about in relation to making us feel happy, but it also helps regulate sleep and appetite, mediate moods, and inhibit pain. About 95% of your serotonin is produced in your gastrointestinal tract. The gastrointestinal tract is lined with one hundred million nerve cells – or neurons – so it makes sense that your digestive system also guides your emotions. The function of these neurons and, therefore, the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin, is highly influenced by the billions of “good” bacteria that make up your intestinal microbiome. These bacteria play an essential role in your health, helping you absorb nutrients from your food and boost your immunity. In short, when it comes to diet, anything we can eat to support a healthy gut is going to help us feel good on all levels.
Kefir and sauerkraut provide beneficial bacteria to support your gut. Gut bacteria needs fibre to flourish; apples and peas are excellent examples, providing good insoluble and soluble fibre. Chicory, which makes a great addition to salads, provides prebiotics to feed the good bacteria. Fatty acids from high quality hemp and olive oil provide potent anti-inflammatory effects to support gut health. One of my favourite snacks is almonds, and studies show almonds possess probiotic qualities. In addition, Vitamin D is crucial for brain development and health, so incorporating Vitamin D-rich foods into your diet is a great idea. These are foods like egg yolks, oily fish and nettles, which help regulate mood and stave off low feelings. Interestingly, people living in areas of the world in which they eat a more traditional, varied diet including plenty of fermented and no processed foods show a lower rate of mental illness such as depression.
When it comes to health hacks, I think it is best to keep them short and simple, so they are memorable and easy to implement. These are my go-to mood enhancers and feel-good optimizers. The only addition I would make to the above is not to forget to interact with others. We create great things when we come together as a collective and by being a community. Remembering you are part of a whole is key. We are not on our own. We all have a valuable role to play in the great plan of life, even if we might feel like we haven’t yet discovered what it is.