June is National Men’s Health Month, and I want to talk a little about mental health. Often, men are more resistant and/or hesitant to address their mental health. Sometimes their reluctance stems from pride, stigma, experience, or the misguided notion that attending to their mental health isn’t “manly.” The reasons are endless.
Pre-COVID, experts estimated that depression annually affected over 6 million men across the US, and these numbers have surely climbed. By how much we’re still not sure. I would dare to say we haven’t even seen the peak of COVID’s effects on mental health yet.
As a result, many people have tried to self-medicate through various coping strategies, some healthy and some not. Unfortunately, ineffective or destructive solutions can negatively impact a person's overall wellbeing. Like houses, people need to have a strong foundation to build upon in order to remain stable and resilient in the face of storms, chaos, and the everyday struggles of life in general.
Other elements that bolster overall wellness are what I like to call the Four Food Groups of Mental Health: diet, exercise, sleep, and stress/anxiety management.
One of the best ways to build stability is through establishing a consistent routine, which all of us are starting to do as we adjust to our “new normal” in this post-COVD world.
Other elements that bolster overall wellness are what I like to call the Four Food Groups of Mental Health: diet, exercise, sleep, and stress/anxiety management. Individually, they’re all solid bases upon which to build a healthy life, but as you will see they’re also deeply interconnected.
We generally think of diet as the foods and beverages we consume. But if you take it from it’s Latin and later Greek origins, diet comes from diaita, meaning “a way of life.” From this perspective, diet means far more than just what goes into our mouth and technically can be anything taken into the body through our our sensory organs
This means we can think of books, TV, social media, bright lights, noxious smells, beautiful music, or grating sounds as either a source of great nutrition or empty calories.
We’re starting to understand how everything from screen time to video games to gambling can actively stimulate our reward pathways and release dopamine (Cruz et al., 2017). All these activities feel great in the moment, but can sometimes lead to unhealthy, unregulated behaviors.
Physical exertion causes the brain to release endorphins - natural “feel good” chemicals that bind to some of the same receptors utilized by pain medications such as morphine.
We’ve also learned that screen time before bed (i.e. TV, computers, cell phones), due to the blue light they emit, causes a reduction in melatonin production (Calvo-Sanz, et al., 2020).
Melatonin is a natural hormone produced in the pineal gland, helps regulate one’s normal circadian rhythm (aka sleep wake cycle). While this section is about diet, not sleep, this is a great example of how diet and sleep are interconnected.
Overall, this information guides us to be mindful of our behavior, consciously make healthy choices, and perform self-care activities to help restore the depletions that occur as a result of our entire diet.
Without going too deep into the physical benefits of a healthy exercise routine, I want to briefly mention the value of exercise for one’s mental health, along with its physical benefits.
Physical exertion causes the brain to release endorphins - natural “feel good” chemicals that bind to some of the same receptors utilized by pain medications such as morphine. Endorphins will help to naturally decrease pain sensations, improve mood, decrease stress, and improve sleep.
It may seem counterintuitive, but when we feel tired or sluggish, increasing our physical activity activates the body to get up and keep moving. Similar to how an object at rest will stay at rest, but an object in motion will stay in motion. Ultimately, increasing physical exertion can also lead to a more restful night's sleep as well. So get up and get that body moving.
Individual sleep needs vary from person to person, but the average person requires 6-8 hours a night. One thing that is for certain, sleep is an absolute necessity. Deep, slow-wave sleep (stages 3 and 4 of the sleep cycle) is the time when the body is immobile and breathing becomes deeper and longer.
These stages of sleep are when the body starts to heal itself, hormones are released (resulting in muscle growth and affecting our appetite), and the mind unpacks information gathered throughout the day.
Neither drugs nor napping can replace what deep, restorative sleep does for both the mind and body. Some short-term effects of sleep deprivation include memory issues, cognitive declines, issues with problem-solving, and diminished stress management.
One thing that is for certain, sleep is an absolute necessity.
Over time, sleep deprivation can lead to physical and psychiatric issues such as cardiac changes, weight gain, depressive symptoms, and even psychotic symptoms. No matter how much you try to fight sleep, one’s physiological body requires it.
Practices which help manage sleep disturbances are known as sleep hygiene. These include limiting napping during the day, maintaining routine sleep practices (including going to bed and waking up at the same time daily), physical exertion during the day, minimizing screen time at least 1 hour before bed, minimizing caffeine intake before bed, and minimizing alcohol intake (it actually disrupts the ability to get into deep sleep states). Soft, ambient sounds may also help, and there are some great free guided meditation apps available on line that can help as well!
If you require short term use of medications for sleep, remember they are not intended to be used for long periods of time. Non-pharmaceutical alternatives should be explored first, most importantly improving sleep hygiene practices. A sleep graph can serve as a way to track your sleep patterns, any changes you may have made on a given day, and note how those changes affect your sleep.
Short term, intermittent stress and anxiety can be helpful for drive, motivation, and activating our fight or flight response. But over time, chronic elevated stress can result in increased levels of cortisol (a hormone that can lead to weight gain and hinder muscle growth), changes in mental health, and cause long term health issues such as elevated blood pressure, ulcers, and cardiac problems.
Improving stress resilience can minimize the impact that stress has on one’s overall well-being and prevent stress from building up and negatively impacting our health. While self-care is associated with all 4 of the pillars of health, self-care activities are arguably the most impactful for decreasing stress and anxiety, improving one’s overall health, and improving one’s ability to remain present.
Stress and anxiety management also encompasses socialization and social interaction. Humans are social creatures by nature. We require contact and a sense of connection with others. Prominent mycologist Paul Stamets (2020) proposed that all living things are interconnected by a network of mycelium, sharing information, energy, and life. While humans are part of this network connecting all living things, we also need to feel that sense of connection with others.
Another thing that everyone can benefit from is self-care, which can be anything from exercise, reading, or talking with a friend to sitting on the beach or meditation. Men, I know some of these might not seem “manly” or relevant but the important part is you are taking time for yourself.
“Self-Care is what people do for themselves to establish and maintain health, and to prevent and deal with illness. It is a broad concept encompassing hygiene (general and personal), nutrition (type and quality of food eaten), lifestyle (sporting activities, leisure etc), environmental factors (living conditions, social habits, etc.) socio-economic factors (income level, cultural beliefs, etc.) and self-medication.”
The WHO (ISF, 2020)
So, what can men do for self-care? Working out, going to a baseball game or concert, fishing, swimming, hiking, learning a new hobby, camping, or hunting. Self-care can be anything you do to recharge yourself. Get creative and find something to fill yourself back up.
One of the biggest misconceptions preventing people from taking time to replenish is that self-care is a selfish act - which couldn’t be further from the truth. We are all mortal human beings doing the best we can. We’re not impervious machines, and self-care is absolutely necessary to prevent burnout and fatigue.
One way to visualize self-care is to think of yourself as a glass of water. As you pour a little bit of that water into all the parts of your life - be it family, school, work, or service - you give from yourself. Eventually, the cup starts to run dry and there will be nothing else to pour out.
Self-care activities are the things in our lives that enable us to refill that cup, making us more resilient and our lives more sustainable. In that sense, denying yourself the ability to perform self-care activities is actually doing yourself a disservice in the long run. Self care can also lead us to be more present in the moment for those around us.
Throughout the rest of the month, let's remember men’s health and ways that we can try to improve our physical and mental wellbeing. Men face many of the same mental health issues as women, but tackling the problem takes some unique and creative approaches.
*Sections of this blog comes from C.J 's upcoming book The Microdosing Guidebook: A Step-by-Step Manual to Improve Your Physical and Mental Health Through Psychedelic Medicine which will be released in Spring 2022 by Ulysses Press.