mental health

Supporting your mental health after lockdowns

Those who already experience mental health concerns such as anxiety, depression and stress in their lives may feel overwhelmed by all that is surrounding us right now. And many of us who took our mental health for granted, are having to acknowledge the fact that it can be tricky not to feel overloaded with lots of information, testing our resilience by constantly having to adapt to what we are being guided to do by the government and the media, whilst dealing with peer pressure and feeling the effects of isolation and lack of contact {Yamamoto, 2020 #34188}.

This blog has been written by one of our guest writers Miguel Toribio-Mateas,  renowned clinical neuroscientist and nutrition practitioner. Miguel is also currently working towards a professional doctorate in health neuroscience.

I was myself affected by lockdown in ways that both my physical body and my mind couldn’t miss. But being an optimist – at least most of the time – I am always inclined to see the positive side of things, and I like to think that the pandemic has highlighted the need for us to not take our mental health for granted.

Navigating “the new normal” is likely to need all of us to use a range of tools. In this blog I’m highlighting some key areas from interesting angles that I hope you’ll find useful.

Stay connected

Social isolation and loneliness have been associated with negative health outcomes, including a higher risk of cardiovascular disease as well as a higher risk of a mental health condition surfacing if it was “bubbling under the surface”1. Perhaps it’s no surprise that during lockdown virtual connections have blossomed and everybody has embraced videoconferencing as part of their new normal. This is not just a consequence of COVID, in my view, but a reflection of the need for contact that humans have. We’ve missed out on being in the close proximity of those we love, so we’ve swapped some of that need for social interaction with seeing each other on a screen. The effects on brain areas that control emotion, e.g. the limbic system including the amygdala, of this new way to interact with each other are still unknown, but we should assume that direct eye contact should still make us relate to the person we’re talking to, and that this will have effects on the plasticity of our brain, or neuroplasticity, that are beneficial2.

Keep moving

We all know that physical activity is good for us, but we may not have realised of the impact it has on our mental health until we were in lockdown. Exercise has been seen to positively affect resilience and emotional regulation, and to enable us to better deal with psychological distress3,4. Not only is exercise good for your body and your mind, but it also does wonders for your microbiome. The beneficial effects of physical activity on microbial diversity are well documented5 but scientists have now found a tangible, measurable relationship between the composition of our gut flora and cardiorespiratory fitness: the better our cardiorespiratory capacity (based on VO2max readings) the better the diversity of gut bacteria6. Taking into account both angles, it pays to move for a number of reasons to stay true to the Latin proverb mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind follows a healthy body).

Prioritise sleep

Social isolation can affect the quality of your sleep7. Conversely, lack of restorative sleep has a myriad of negative ramifications3,8,9, particularly for those whose mental wellbeing may be a little more delicate10. That’s why it is important to create a sleep routine. I myself found it difficult initially and often stayed up binge-watching films, then feeling exhausted in the morning. If that resonates with you, going as extreme as creating a reminder to go to bed could be a really useful way to let yourself know that it is time to switch off and to put yourself on rest and repair mode.

And if you’re also interested in gut health, you may be encouraged to go to sleep “at a decent time” by the results of a recent pilot study where self-reported sleep quality was positively associated with microbial diversity11. You know that I can never stop talking about microbial diversity, so I am completely fascinated by these findings. Gut microbes and their metabolic outputs, e.g. short chain fatty acids like butyrate, as well as tryptophan metabolites contribute to maintenance of intestinal immunity by promoting healthy barrier function and regulating the mucosal immune system where a large proportion of human immune function is located12. The role of the gut microbiome in the context of the day and night rhythms (circadian rhythms), nutrition and sleep in psychiatric disorders is an emerging scientific research topic. The loss of rhythmic interactions between you and your gut bugs brought about by irregular sleep patterns is known to disrupt immunity and to increase the risk of inflammation and metabolic complications13, as well as contributing to the exacerbation of mental health issues that would otherwise be manageable14,15.

Enjoy the therapeutic power of nature

Environmental changes resulting from urban growth, including land use changes, population and housing density, agricultural intensification, and altered wild and domestic plant and animal populations are all known to influence aerial microbial communities, i.e. the communities of bugs that we breathe every time that we inhale, and that help regulate the relationship we have with our surroundings16,17 and, ultimately, our immune response. If you’ve been stuck in an urban location during lockdown, this will have affected your body as well as your mind. We all started appreciating the beauty of nature a lot more the moment we were allowed to leave our homes again. But was it just an appreciation or was it a craving the contact with nature we are hardwired to have as human beings?

The positive effect of forest bathing on the mental health and wellbeing of those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or experiencing stress has been extensively documented18,19 but trees, forests and “greenery” may play an even bigger role than that. A recent study argues that how the COVID-19 pandemic has induced dramatic effects on the population of the industrialised north of Italy, whereas it has not heavily affected inhabitants of the southern regions, which a recent study suggests may have been protected by evergreen Mediterranean forests and shrubland plants found in this area of Italy20. The high density of forest trees is believed to have exposed to inhabitants of these areas to immuno-modulating compounds. Trees such as pines are a major source of biogenic volatile organic compounds, known to have therapeutic potential not only against respiratory inflammation, but also against atopic dermatitis, arthritis, and neuroinflammation21.

Final thoughts

The new normal will be different for every one of us. Being aware of simple tools that can help us feel better is more important than ever before, as will be discussing these openly with those around you, whether in person or via Zoom. Staying connected and active are key to keep a positive outlook going forward. I wish you all the very best for the next phase in our new reality.

About the author

Miguel Toribio-Mateas is a clinical neuroscientist and nutrition practitioner, currently working towards a professional doctorate in health neuroscience, using health-related quality of life outcome measures alongside biomarkers from microbiome analysis to assess the complex effects of food on cognitive function and mental health via the gut brain axis.

With many thanks to Miguel for this blog. If you have any questions regarding the health topics that have been raised, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with Amanda via e-mail or phone:
01684 310099

Amanda Williams and the Cytoplan Editorial Team


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Last updated on 16th December 2021 by cytoffice


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