Revamping the culture of Men’s Health

It’s fitting that Father’s Day falls in the middle of June. The annual holiday arrives this year on June 17, right in the middle of another yearly event: Men’s Health Month. Each June marks a month of increased conversation and focus around men’s health.


The occasion is used to single out health issues that men face and raise awareness for them. The campaign focuses on preventability, encouraging men to become more active in caring for themselves. (Studies suggest that men visit the doctor for prevention purposes half as much as women.) Prostate cancer is among the most popularly-discussed diseases during Men’s Health Month, in addition to issues like heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and sexually transmitted infections.


But a critical link in the campaign is missing. These issues (preventability, lack of awareness, and a reticence to take care of themselves) can usually be traced back to men’s mental health. Indeed, the John Wayne stoicism of old might not be front and center anymore, but it’s imprint is still left on men who are told to ‘man up’ or, worse yet, ‘stop acting like a girl.’


These phrases are weaponized by men against men to police masculinity, and the results are bleak. If you feel your manhood (and, thereby, your personhood) will be jeopardized if you speak up about a pain in your gut, chances are you might stay silent. The same goes for mental illnesses, perhaps more so: according to Mental Health America, over 6 million American men are affected by depression each year, but most cases will go undiagnosed.


This is where that culture of stoicism and enforced silence can turn lethal. Undiagnosed mental illness increases risk of suicide, which disproportionately affects young men. In 2010, 79% of Americans who died by suicide were men, with high rates of suicide occurring among marginalized groups including gay and bisexual men. In much the same way an unaddressed tumor can lead to an untimely death, so too can unaddressed mental illness result in suicide.


What this tells us is that the narrative around men’s health is shaped by a toxic shaming and subsequent internalization that, often, results in severe or terminal illnesses that could otherwise have been prevented. This suggests, then, that changing the culture could not only reduce rates of preventable illness in men, but could even reduce rates of preventable deaths.


So where does that change begin?

That might depend on the situation, but a key shift is to deconstruct the reductive masculinity that most North American men have been conditioned to accept as the norm. This includes being able to have open, empathetic, and sensitive conversations about health, and implementing workplace policy that doesn’t hamstring men, making them choose between an income or their health. All illnesses, including mental illnesses like depression, should be recognized as legitimate cause for sick leave, rather than met with scoffs and, ‘Why don’t you just suck it up?’


We need to encourage men to view their pain, bodily and mental, as serious, and deserving of attention and treatment. This goes hand-in-hand with legitimizing men’s health issues when they express them: if a man expresses discomfort or hurt, the appropriate response is not, ‘Quit whining.’ If these off-the-cuff responses continue, so too will heightened rates of undiagnosed illnesses, and higher rates of suicide, in men. Changing our language is one of the first steps to changing the culture around men’s health.


This Men’s Health Month, concentrate your efforts on changing how you think and speak about men’s illnesses, and not just the kinds that affect men below the shoulders. Practice empathy and kindness, and encourage your friends to do the same. This culture and preventability are correlated, so with a few small changes, we can make the positive spirit of Men’s Health Month a year-round phenomenon.

Why Summer Vacations Matter – Even to Adults

In just a few weeks, millions of American kids and teenagers (not to mention, teachers) will be able to enjoy a well-earned respite over the next few months – why? As that old song goes, school’s out for the summer.

Summer vacation. For many, growing up, it was the favourite time of the year. The sun shone longer, and the classroom-free days meant we could spend hours on youthful adventure with friends.

Sure, many of us worked summer jobs or found ourselves occupied with more structured pursuits but it was summer vacation nonetheless. That time away from school allowed us to decompress and recalibrate after the stresses of making the grade; which might now feel relatively trivial next to those that many adult Americans now face daily in the workplace.

So why is it that so many working Americans are placing less importance on their need to take a vacation?

The answer might not be so obvious. According to the U.S. Travel Association (USTA), it can’t be blamed on job insecurity or economic anxieties alone. In a 2016 study, USTA researchers found no correlation between unemployment rates and vacation habits or found any evidence that vacations increased with higher consumer confidence rates. One of the culprits, according to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) is technology. Our greater connectivity has made the world much more accessible, but it’s also become a tether back to our desk and workplace responsibilities. AARP’s survey found that one-third of respondents worked while on vacation.

While in some cases this might be because of a sense of obligation rather than duty to our employer, in the end, it’s likely to cause employees to burn out faster: A Nielson poll found that 71 per cent of American workers who regularly take vacations are satisfied with their jobs, compared to 41% among those who don’t.

Dissatisfaction is one thing but what if not taking vacations meant that ultimately, you might have less time to take them in the future? The longest-running study of cardiovascular disease, the Framington Heart Study found that women who went six year between vacations “were eight times more likely” to develop significant cardiovascular problems, like coronary heart disease or experience a heart attack versus women who vacationed twice a year. Researchers also found that vacation time can also help rebalance sleep patterns, resulting in 80% improvement in reaction times after just two to three days of time off with quality sleep.

Vacations aren’t just for kids. While much of this post has focused on encouraging employees to speak up, plan and take time off, we must recognize that America can do more to ensure employees feel confident and are able to take vacations. According to CNN Travel, unlike every other developed nation in the world, the U.S. provides no required days off for employees. To the north, Canada’s provinces all provide for a minimum of two weeks paid vacation. Across the pond in the U.K., it’s a full 28 days. Employers that value their employees wellbeing – both mentally and physically – should provide adequate paid vacation time for workers to relax. They’ll likely see better performance out of those workers because of it.

The Importance of Strong Mental Health in the Workplace

The average North American workday runs from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM. For the sake of argument, let’s tack on a conservative half hour on each end of that time slot for commuting, bringing our total, door-to-door work day up to nine hours in length. America’s National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults get between seven and nine hours of sleep each night. Let’s go low, and say seven hours. Between work and sleep, that makes 16 hours total.


Of our 24-hour day, eight hours are left for ‘us’ time. That’s an hour less than our work day, though that figure assumes we get to leave work right on time, and that our commute isn’t longer than half an hour (in fact, Toronto’s average commute is longer, clocking in at 34 minutes, through 16% of commuters spent over an hour getting to work). Through the week, we spend almost-equal chunks of time working, not working, and unconscious. Some estimates suggest that we spend 60% of our waking hours at work.

The point of this is that it’s important to think of work as an environment where we invest a significant portion of our life. Given that fact, it’s important to consider the effect that this space has on our mental health.

A healthy, respectful workplace can bolster feelings of fulfilment and happiness, but a hostile or unhealthy work environment can trigger or exacerbate mental illnesses like depression and anxiety. With this in mind, it’s important to develop strategies for eliminating stressors and resolving workplace aggression so as to protect one’s health. Here are a few strategies for building a workplace that’s healthy, empathetic, and productive.


Model respect for mental health

This is a simple but important step that should begin in the boardroom, and work down to all levels of a workplace. According to Workplace Safety and Prevention Services, this means “creating a culture where employees feel trusted and respected, based on a strategic, proactive approach underpinned by strong governance and reporting.” When this structure is modeled by leaders, other staff will view it as an intrinsic part of the job. This ensures an environment where mental health and mental illness can be discussed openly and supportively, and where these things are respected across the board.



Communication is key for defusing uncomfortable situations. Though it can feel embarrassing or intimidating to express discontent, it’s an important skill to hone in the workplace so that conflicts can be resolved expediently. The longer an issue lingers, the more it wears on one’s psyche. This sort of build-up can be avoided, and workplace relationships can be strengthened, simply by confronting an issue in open, clear conversation. Encouraging this sort of dialogue makes for a safer and more cohesive environment for staff.


Manage workload

A recent study found that more than half of all American workers felt overworked or overwhelmed at their job. A few insights can be gleaned from this statistic: modern workloads are becoming increasingly demanding, and because of this, the quality of work completed tends to suffer. Keeping a reasonable workload is key to avoiding undue stress and reducing triggers for mental illnesses. If you’re struggling with work, speak to your manager about reducing it. This will help stimulate better work quality and a more stable, supportive workplace.


Take some space

Sometimes, taking time off work to focus on regenerating your mental health is necessary. This ties into an idea called ‘presenteeism,’ which describes when employees are present at work, but unable to be productive because of various stressors. Presenteeism can cost more than absenteeism; in fact, one U.S. study found that presenteeism cost 7.5 times more than absenteeism in lost productivity. What this tells us is that to do good work, we have to mentally sound, and if we need a few days off to get to that state, it’s better for everyone in the long run.

What We Can Learn from 13 Reasons Why

Since its Netflix debut in early 2017, 13 Reasons Why has sparked a considerable back-and-forth about mental health, suicide, and major media depictions of these topics. The show’s first season spanned 13 episodes which chronicled events leading to, and unfolding after, a high school student dies by suicide.

The show was polarizing, with some praising it as an unblinking and complex portrayal of heavy topics, and others criticizing it as a contrived and reckless exploitation of them. The second season, which premiered last week, seems to have tipped public opinion towards the latter view. Beyond stylistic and narrative grievances, 13 Reasons’ handling of sensitive subject matter has been questioned. The show was forced to add trigger warnings after public outcry over a lack thereof, and season two has upped the ante considerably, with a taped disclaimer featuring the show’s main actors and actresses.

But according to critics, the disclaimers and content warnings might not be enough. The pivotal issue for mental health groups across the world lies in the first season’s depiction of suicide, which they say did not adhere to recommended guidelines on discussing and depicting suicide in media. The ramifications of this skirting of best-practices are broad, and many international mental health advocacy bodies voiced concerns that the show’s sensationalized depiction of suicide could trigger ‘copycat’ suicides. A set of considerations put forth by America’s National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) concluded that exposing at-risk youth to 13 Reasons Why could lead them to “romanticize” suicide.


While 13 Reasons Why’s depictions of suicide are ethically-questionable at best, the net worth of the conversations sparked by the show might be its redeeming factor. These discussions have stressed that imagery, language, and other minutiae can have critical effects on how media depictions of suicide can impact consumers, and thanks to the popularity of both the series and the heated discourse around it, folks around the globe are getting a primer in how to think and talk about mental illness and suicide from a risk-reduction standpoint. Here are four ways to exercise sensitivity and care when discussing suicide.


Don’t Sensationalize

Erase sensationalist language or imagery from your discussions. In the case of 13 Reasons Why, suicide was sensationalized by portraying a narrative of redemption and justice for the person that killed themself. This suggests resolution and even victory for those contemplating suicide. Try to refrain from discussing how the person died—studies show that this can contribute to suicide contagion, a term that describes an increased risk of suicide in others based on exposure to certain triggers.


Change Your Language

This is often subtle, but serious nonetheless: it’s important to remember to exercise a certain amount restraint when discussing a case of suicide. For example, phrasing it as ‘committed suicide’ stems from when suicide used to be a crime, and thus stigmatizes it. Instead, it’s recommended that we describe it as ‘died by suicide.’ The difference is small but important; removing unnecessary or inaccurate language reduces miscommunication and removes the possibility of stigmatizing associations (such as associating suicide with crime). The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention offers some helpful tips on this subject.


Focus on Warning Signs and Preventability

Accounts that depict suicide as sudden or unexpected often run the risk of ignoring observable warning signs, many of which are evident in cases where suicide is preventable. These are well-documented, so check into local resource centres for specifics on your region, but general warning signs include expressions of hopelessness or having no reason to live, reckless behaviour, increased isolation and withdrawn behaviour, and severe mood swings. For more information, consult Beyondblue for reading on possible suicidal behaviour.


Talk About It

NASP points out that it’s a myth that discussing suicide suggests the idea to individuals. Rather, talking with someone about how they feel and expressing concern for their welfare can be a critical first step in helping them seek help if they have suicidal ideations. Informed dialogue, when structured properly and sensitively, is an important part of suicide prevention. Don’t hesitate to reach out to someone you might be worried about. This could be as simple as saying, “Are you feeling okay?” or “I am here for you if you want to talk.” Your outreach could assist them in addressing their feelings.

School’s Out for The Summer: Some Tips to Make the Most of The Break And Boost Your Wellbeing 

First off, congratulations are in order. You’ve successfully finished another year of school. After working hard for eight months – balancing academics, exercise, a social life and all the while trying to find some time to get enough sleep – you’ve earned your sunny days.

Whether you’re heading into your junior, sophomore or senior year, into a postgraduate program or taking the first steps into establishing your career, the summer months provide an important time to recalibrate. The summer affords us time to work, volunteer, play sports, take a vacation, catch up on or get ahead of next semester. No matter how you’re spending your summer, it’s important that you make time to focus on you. We’ve assembled four tips to make the most out of your summer and boost your wellbeing – check them out below and remember that no matter what September holds for you, the best way to stay on top of your game is by keeping healthy habits like eating right, getting active and staying in touch with friends.


Get Some Vitamin D

For those of us north of the equator, the warmer temperatures from Spring to Fall are a great time to get outside and soak up the sunshine. While it’s always a good idea to make sure you’re wearing adequate sun protection, ensuring that your body is receiving its daily dose of Vitamin D will go a long way to ensuring you’re warding off physical and mental illnesses. Depending on your complexion, environment and atmospheric conditions, you’ll need anywhere from just 10 minutes of exposure to an hour of sunlight to produce the recommended daily intake of Vitamin D. Check out the Norwegian Institute for Air Research’s calculator here to find out how much sun is right for you. Catching some rays is also a good excuse to break away from the sedentary leisure of Netflix and reruns and find a reason to meet up with friends. Want to avoid F.O.M.O. and enjoy the summer to its fullest? Why not try…

Getting Active

In previous blogposts, we’ve emphasized the restorative power of exercise for mental health and general wellbeing. In many cities and towns, there are dozens of intramural or recreational league sports that you can join in on to get a weekly dose of athleticism and glory. Sports participation will help you remain mentally sharp, healthy and will provide an opportunity to be part of a social circle of people, all working toward the same thing: winning together. Want another want a way to stay sharp, focused and ready to conquer next semester? Then you should…

Avoid Brain Drain

After all of April’s late-night cramming ahead of exams and rapid final report writing, it’s easy to just shrug off the books for the next four months and assume it’ll be easy to pick up where you left off when school starts again. The fact of the matter is, summer brain drain is real and can rob us of the newfound knowledge earned over past semesters. This loss can make the first few weeks of the new school year even more challenging and trying on your sense of wellbeing. In a study from John Hopkins University, students with a shorter summer break (and therefore less time away from exposure to the curriculum) performed better than students with a longer summer break. That doesn’t mean you have to enroll in summer courses to stay on the ball but reviewing your notes and even reading on the upcoming year’s syllabus will help ensure your ready to start next semester off on the right foot. Want another way to avoid brain drain? Then…

Don’t Drink Too Much

Without the obligations and responsibilities of school’s deadlines and due dates, the allure of seeing the summertime as a time to party non-stop can be enticing – cold beers on a warm night can feel just right. And that’s okay – the summer is the right time to catch up with friends, old and new, to have some fun. What’s not okay is drinking to excess. As we’ve previously covered, alcohol has many negative mental and physiological effects. That’s not to mention criminal repercussions – there’s a reason that DUIs tend to spike during the summer months. Avoid being a statistic by limiting yourself to just a few drinks at social events. Not only will you likely avoid a hangover, but you’ll also prevent yourself from embarrassing yourself and spending the rest of your summer in social limbo. Alcohol also has detrimental effects on memory, so by avoiding binge drinking, you’ll be more likely to retain your scholarly sensibilities.


Summertime isn’t just for teachers – it’s for students too. Enjoy it responsibly and make the most out of your months off. This is the time to explore that new sport or hobby that you couldn’t to make time for during the school year. If you’re working, the summer is a time to build up your resume and earn a few dollars at the same time. Either way, no matter what your summer has in store for you, following these four tips will help ensure you’re at your best over the summer and for whatever lies ahead.

Alcohol and Mental Health: 5 Ways Alcohol is Hurting your Wellbeing

People and alcohol have a long, complicated history. Archeological evidence suggests that we’ve been producing and consuming alcoholic drinks from as early as 10,000 BC. Since then, alcohol production and consumption has had a profound impact on the course of history across the world; in various times and places, it’s been valued as a gift from god, to a public health danger, which leads to violence and moral failure.

April is Alcohol Awareness Month. Since 1987, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) has worked to raise public awareness in April of each year to encourage discussion and promote a focus on tackling alcohol-related issues. The theme for 2018 is “Changing Attitudes: It’s not a ‘rite of passage’” – raising a spotlight on the hazards of alcohol use by youth including binge drinking and the aggravating effects of peer pressure.

In universities and colleges across America, it’s no secret that drinking is a significant part of student culture. Research shows that more than 80 percent of college students drink, with nearly half reporting binge drinking (4-5 drinks within a two-hour period) within the past two weeks.

Given this year’s youth focus, in today’s blogpost, we’re going to look at 5 ways alcohol could hurt your wellbeing and success in school.

  1. Alcohol alters your chemistry
    Chemically speaking, alcohol is a depressant, which means that it lowers neurotransmission levels, which reduces the function of the central nervous stem; reducing arousal, stimulation in the brain. Other drugs that fall into this category include sedatives, tranquilizers and anesthetics. The chemical changes that can result from the use of depressants can impair thinking, coordination, perception and more. At best, the depressant effects can lower inhibition and create feelings of euphoria. At their worst, depressants can lead to nausea (and vomiting), unconsciousness and even death. It’s important that when you consume alcohol, you understand it for what it is and the unintended effects it can cause.
  2. Alcohol can exasperate depression
    While we’ve covered that alcohol is a depressant, it’s important that we don’t assume that depressants inherently cause depression. That being said, the evidence shows that alcohol can antagonize and worsen depression. Regular consumption can lead to lower levels of serotonin – a chemical that helps to regulate mood. Becoming dependent, alcohol negatively affecting relationships and feeling physically weakened after drinking can also all cause or exasperate feelings of depression or sow the conditions for it. Depression can significantly affect your motivation and ability to complete your classes, maintain relationships and succeed. And alcohol can aggravate it further. On an even scarier note, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that more than one fifth of suicide victims had a blood-alcohol content at or above the legal limit.



  1. Alcohol can damage your memory
    Ever woken up after a night of heavy drinking without the foggiest idea of what happened and how you ended up here? Blacking out or alcohol related amnesia happens when your blood alcohol rises too quickly and your brain temporarily loses the ability to create new memories. Research shows that some people are more genetically predisposed to blacking out than their peers. Obviously, a lack of memory is a liability – not remembering what happened can cause serious stress and anxiety.
    It’s not just short-term memory either – alcohol can impact your long-term memory If you’re studying for an important exam while drinking, you’ll be facing an uphill battle.
  2. Alcohol can increase risky behaviour; injury
    Hold my beer! While we often drink because we want to lower our inhibitions and increase confidence, it’s important to remember that these behavioural processes are also important for helping us make smart judgement calls. High confidence and a lack of judgement spurred by alcohol can lead to an overestimation of physical prowess (can you even do a backflip sober?) to a false assumption that you’re sober enough to drive. The World Health Organization estimates that nearly one-fifth of emergency room visits in hospitals world wide have alcohol as a factor. While a few scrapes and bumps might not dampen your studies, a serious concussion or life-altering accident could.
  3. Those who drink more fall behind
    Research from the Harvard School of Public Health found that students that students that reported poor mental health and consumed alcohol were 29% more likely to fall behind in school work. A 2013 study corroborates these results and finds that “heavy episodic drinking” is very likely to have negative consequences on academic motivation and performance; citing knock-on effects like sleep disruption, memory loss and more.

What can be done?
For students, avoiding alcohol entirely can be a challenge. In these cases, moderation is key. Being aware of the risks of alcohol, avoiding binge drinking, seeking counselling when alcohol becomes a crutch are critical ways to ensure that you don’t let alcohol negatively impact your mental health.

If you feel that alcohol has become a problem for you, get in touch with your school’s counselling and mental health support services to see a counselor or see if there are alcohol abuse support programs in your community. Acknowledging you need help – and seeking it – are the first and most important steps to taking back control of your wellbeing from alcohol.

And as part of Alcohol Awareness Month, the NCADD encourages trying out an alcohol-free weekend. Give it a shot – you might be surprised about how well you can feel (and productive you can be) on a Saturday or Sunday morning!

taking your lunch break can actually make you a better employee

In our first March blog post, we took a look at how eating a nutritious breakfast can help ensure you’re starting your day with a healthier body and a healthier mind.

While hobbits and some others might subscribe to the idea of a second breakfast and even “elevenses” (Middle Earth’s spin on brunch) following breakfast, for the rest of us, lunch and dinner are the other cornerstone meals of our day. In today’s blog post, we’ll focus on how important these meals are as well.

Let’s start with lunch. For many of us during the weekday, lunch represents the first extended break during the school or workday, where we can sit with colleagues and peers and chat, grab a favourite meal at the restaurant down the road or escape the office, relax and eat a snack in the park. Not only is lunch important for keeping distracting hunger pangs at bay but taking your lunch break can actually make you a better employee. In a Harvard study of nurses, higher meal breaks were linked with lower psychological distress.

And as the Harvard Business Review explains, what you choose to lunch on can play a part in determining your productivity at your desk: eating foods that release glucose quickly, like fries or soda, can lead to mid-afternoon slumps. Choosing nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables, nuts or fish will leave you working smarter; not harder.

Another tip: if you have a cafeteria at school or work, try to choose what you’ll eat before you go to buy lunch (perhaps do some recon or find out the day’s menu ahead of time). This will help prevent you from submitting to cravings and spur of the moment decisions for foods that won’t give you the mental boost you need.

As for dinner, for those of us on the go, this can be the first meal of the day that we’re able to eat at home. With eating at home comes the benefit of a home cooked meal – but what if you’re not a culinary cavalier? Try taking a cooking class, which not only has social benefits but will equip you with the knowledge to take full advantage of healthy ingredients and whip up a nutritious meal. Studies show that people who cook and bake are more likely be happier and more enthusiastic about achieving goals. Similarly, a 2016 study found that teenagers with cooking skills were likely to have “better mental health, less depression and stronger family ties”.

Not to mention that on average, a home-cooked meal will cost less than take-out – reducing the mental health worsening effects of financial stress.

Another healthy dinner tip: try not to eat too late at night. In addition to several physical risks, like an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes or experiencing a heart attack, eating late can negatively affect your memory and increase your risk of “bizarre or disturbing” dreams.

Just like breakfast, lunch and dinner have an important part to play in establishing better mental health and helping you go further. Taking the time to eat right can help put you on the path to a happier and healthier you.

For some more healthy lunch and dinner ideas, check out the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute’s many resources here and take a look at the University of Waterloo’s handy student survival guide for studious snacking!

Healthy Habits: Cooking and Eating Your Way to Better Mental Health

Have you ever sat down to a nutritious, home-cooked meal and felt healthier, happier and inspired to continue eating right? What about being worn-out and hungry, indulging on fast food and feeling more irritable than you were before? As we explored in our last blogpost, a growing body of evidence is showing that the foods we eat can influence our mental health. Conversely, our mood and our emotions can affect our food choices and eating patterns – the sadder we are, the more likely we are to forgo wholesome choices for unhealthier “comfort” foods.

If you think about it, these emotions and dietary choices can lead to a perpetuating cycle; meaning it can be difficult to break out of a bad food habits when you’re already feeling low. Never mind that many of the salty or sugary foods that we eat can have addictive qualities that can make it harder to break out of an unhealthy rut. So, how can we escape the junk foods that are making us feel like junk and start eating for a happier future? In today’s blogpost, we’re going to explore some small steps that you can take to help to build better nutrition habits and achieve a healthier body and healthier mind:

Stay Hydrated
We all know that we really should drink more water but why don’t we? In 2013, 40% of Americans were drinking less than half of the recommend amount of water daily. Instead, they’re drinking sugary or artificially sweetened sodas, which in addition to being bad for your body, are bad for your mind as well. Research shows that heavy soda consumption can lead to a smaller hippocampus – an area of the brain important for learning and memory. Even mild dehydration can alter our mood and make us more irritable. The solution: drink water throughout the day to keep your brain working at its best.

Simply, Substitute
As the title says, this one is quite simple: instead of abandoning your favourite foods, find ways to improve them with healthier ingredients. Love dipping potato chips in sour cream? Try veggie sticks with Greek yogurt. Can’t start your day without some toast? Instead of white, try some whole grain out for size. With healthier ingredients, we can transform our guilty pleasures into hallowed habits without totally abandoning our favourite meals.

Follow a Meal Plan
As a collection of our habits, routines for better or worse are responsible for our mood patterns over a period of time. Healthy routines will help sustain motivation and wellbeing; unhealthy routines will keep you in a funk. To escape the bad groove, set up a new routine and follow it, like a meal plan. Planning healthy meals in advance and sticking to it can ensure you maintain your healthy habits and avoid falling off the wagon. You can also try cooking your meals in advance when you’re not busy to stay on track when you’re pressed for time. Take a look at Harvard’s 6-Week Plan for Healthy Eating for some examples.

Stick to Regular Meal Times
Life comes at you fast. Admittedly, we’re not always going to be able to keep our schedules flowing down to the minute. But when you can, try to eat your meals around the same times everyday and you’ll be ticking towards better mental health. As we explored in our last blogpost, consistent meal times can also lead to a healthier heart. And when possible, try to share your mealtime with a family member, friend or colleague: eating together can help improve your wellbeing and your partner’s wellbeing, too.

Big changes can be daunting, but the first paces don’t have to be. Making small steps can ultimately lead to bigger and better strides into healthier habits and a happier life. For some more healthy eating habits, check out the Mayo Clinic’s 5 Key Habits of Healthy Eaters.

Go Further With Food

Spring has arrived and soon, slumbering creatures will emerge from hibernation, ready to fill their bellies with nature’s bounty.

Which makes it fitting that March is National Nutrition Month. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has declared this year’s theme is “Go Further with Food”.  In our March series of blogposts, we’re going to explore the link between diet and mental health and how eating right can help you go further with your wellbeing and achieve more. Today, we’re going to look at breakfast.

At one point or another, perhaps as we’re running out the door, late to class or work, we’ve all been cautioned not to skip breakfast because it’s the most important meal of the day – but is it?

Yes – according to a 2017 study, foregoing breakfast could be hurting your heart. In response to hunger pangs later into the day, those who skipped breakfast were more likely to eat more and rely on fast food alternatives throughout the work day to meet their caloric needs. Those who ate breakfast at home generally consumed healthier alternatives to fast food and were sated longer, leading to more moderate eating throughout the day. And it seems that the American Heart Association agrees: people who adhere to regular meal times, including eating breakfast are less likely to have high cholesterol and blood pressure than those who skip breakfast. As we’ve explored in other blogposts, there is a strong link between a healthy body and a healthy mind – some food for thought.

So, we now know that having breakfast is important but what about what we’re choosing to eat in those early hours? Luckily for you, nutritionists and researchers have been working hard to crack the code on what you should be consuming to start your day off right.

Let’s start with coffee: a 2017 meta-analysis published in the British Medical Journal reviewed research that concluded coffee consumption had a “consistent association with lower risk of depression and cognitive disorders”. Additionally, a 2012 study found that drinking two to three cups of coffee a day was correlated with a 50 percent reduced risk of suicide. According to Psychology Today, coffee’s benefits on wellbeing can be traced on its effect on dopamine release – a neurotransmitter linked to the brain’s reward and pleasure centers.

Eggs, a long-time breakfast staple, have also been evidenced to enhance cognitive performance and can help pregnant mothers reduce the risk of developing schizophrenia in their babies. Yogurt and other fermented foods contain probiotics (healthy bacterial cultures), which have been linked to reduced anxiety and stress hormones. Breakfast favourites, like whole grain toast or oats release glucose slowly, providing steady fuel for the body and mind throughout the day. Fatty fish, like salmon, contain omega-3s, which can also benefit your mental health by reducing symptoms of depression and ADHD, while boosting learning and memory.

With all of these healthier options, there’s no better time than now to put away other traditional breakfast choices, like processed cereals and fruit juices, which loaded with added sugars, spike blood sugar and insulin, leading to an energy crash and irritability later in the day.

While the field of nutritional psychology is relatively new, there are thousands of researchers studying the link between diet and mental health and a growing body of evidence is helping connect consumers with options that are good for the body and the brain. We’ll explore more of these links in the rest of our March blogposts. Until next time!


Paws and Claws Deserve Some Applause: Pets and Mental Health

Earlier this month, a UK meta-analysis of existing academic research concluded that pets provide benefits to those with mental health conditions. Led by the University of Liverpool’s Dr. Helen Louise Brooks, the analysis reviewed 17 separate studies, which in total included data from 1727 pet owners. The studies covered a gamut of pets, including dogs, cats, birds, horses and more.

Among the psychological benefits provided by pets, Brooks’ review pointed to studies that evidenced the significant benefits of canine companionship for military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Physical activity and exercise, a strong mental health management tool, was also correlated with dog ownership, leading to better quality of life outcomes and increased social interactions – important things to keep in mind, next time you feel like skipping out on walking Spot.

As the meta-analysis notes, despite the identified benefits of pets, they’re often overlooked as effective tools or seen as “additional work” by health professionals. Brooks’ calls for a “cultural change” that allows pets to be considered and included as part of the support systems provided through formal service provision.

While Brooks’ recent study is an important confirmation of the healing power of pets, a growing trend recognizing the psychological benefit of animals has been popping up on campuses for years now.
Across universities and colleges in the United States and Canada, “puppy rooms” have been organized to give students a respite from studies and the opportunity to destress in a positive, furry environment.

Students are also increasingly seeking to bring their own pets to school with them to serve as “emotional support animals”. A 2016 article from the American Bar Association identified that the rise in mental illness on campuses is also correlated to the rise in emotional support animals by students –creating at tricky legal and housing landscape for schools and students to navigate. One interesting way to address, creating designated “pet” floors, was raised in a 2015 University of California, Berkley article.

Ultimately, while this study is further proof of the power of pets, it seems that the secret has been out for quite some time: approximately 63% of households in the United States have a companion animal. Dr. Maggie O’Haire, Assistant Professor of human-animal interaction at Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine in West Lafayette, also notes that outside of our homes and campuses, the presence of animals in our workplaces can also help reduce stress.

Dr. O’Haire is also currently managing a study looking into the health, emotional and social quality of individuals and families living with service dogs versus those on the waitlist to receive a service dog. If you’ve read the rest of this blogpost, the results so far shouldn’t come as a surprise: individuals and their families that already had a service dog showed better social and emotional functioning compared to those without.

And for all those reading along that have felt that this post was all bark and not enough meow, the UK’s Mental Health Foundation 2011 study found that of 600 people surveyed, 87% of cat owners felt their felines had a positive impact on their wellbeing and 76% reporting that they helped them cope better with everyday life.

There’s no doubt that pets can help us achieve mentally healthier lives. For some people, their pets’ unconditional love and companionship is the reason that they continue to be, and work to be, happy. While the old adage, “dogs are a man’s best friend” still rings true today, the growing evidence shows that it’s not limited to canines: wings, scales, claws and fins, whether 2 or 4 or 8 or no legs at all, pets can be a profoundly powerful tool for helping us realize our best selves – for us, and for them.