Perspectives on Nutritional Mental Health

Yoga Medicine instructor Valerie Knopik shares her perspectives on nutritional mental health in a multi-part series on how the Yoga Medicine® approach might just change your practice, your teaching, and your life.

Perspectives on Nutritional Mental Health

In a recent article on “The Emerging Field of Nutritional Mental Health” Kaplan and colleagues state, “We live in a transformational moment for understanding the etiology of mental health.” The premise of the article was that the medical community is accumulating more and more information about how inflammation in our bodies, imbalances in our gut (digestive system), chronic low levels of stress, and metabolism affect the brain.  Moreso, the article was a call for the medical community to use nutrition, i.e., diet changes and dietary supplements, to alleviate pain and suffering.

As a scientist and researcher in the world of mental health, I read this article with nerdy fascination.  As a yoga teacher and assistant in the Yoga Medicine® community, I read this article thinking of the important variables that were missing.  And, as a someone who has personally struggled with an auto-immune disorder for the past three years and changed their prognosis, in part, by diet changes, I was thinking of how so much of what was said in that article applied to me.  But again, there was a key missing link.

Where was yoga?  Mindfulness? Community connection?

In this multi-part series, we will explore each of these topics.

Part I. Yoga.

In our daily lives, the majority of us live in our sympathetic nervous system, or what is more commonly known as “Fight or Flight.”  Whether you work as a stay-at-home mom, a full-time yoga teacher, a corporate attorney, or anything in between, we live in a culture that is go-go-go. We’re running from here to there, trying to make ends meet, trying to stay afloat, constantly promoting our businesses on social media, and addictively texting and checking email.  We are screen-obsessed.

This constant bombardment affects our blood pressure, our metabolism, our heart rate, our brain waves, our entire being.  Indeed, we are, as a culture, depleted.  Depleted in mind.  In body.  In spirit.  And some of the ways in which that chronic stress and depletion might show up in our physical bodies is via inflammation, imbalances in our gut, and in our metabolism – which, in turn, can lead to mental health and physical health imbalances.

The etiology of these imbalances has been shown to be due, in part, to the biological pathways brought up by Kaplan et al (2015) and, in part, to our genetic predispositions; however, what I see in my own work is that people forget that our environments are just as important.  The amount of stress that we are under is an example of one such environment.  (There is also research to suggest that some of us may have a biological or genetic predisposition to consciously or unconsciously put ourselves in stressful or challenging environments, but that can be the topic of another forum article.)

Yoga as a Mental Health Treatment

As a yoga teacher, I know that yoga can offer, at least part of, a solution.  Pranayama, or specific breathing techniques, and Asana, the physical postures of yoga, can elicit the Relaxation Response and turn on the parasympathetic nervous system (i.e., Rest and Digest).  This is particularly salient for restorative yoga, yin yoga, and gentle flow classes; however, many seasoned practitioners might also find this Relaxation Response in more powerful classes. And that is just it. 

We have the capacity to change our physical environment and we have the capacity to change our internal cellular environment and in turn, modify our mental landscape.  One such approach to changing our internal and external environment is yoga – and for the purposes of the article, when I say yoga, I am referring to Pranayama (or breath practices) and Asana (the physical postures).  I will address mindfulness and connection in separate forum offerings as part of this multi-part series.

This is not to suggest that yoga can be the end-all-be-all cure to mental health concerns.  But, I am suggesting that practicing something as simple as basic breath awareness can calm our nervous systems, and in turn, ease symptoms of anxiety and depression.  Adding a handful of yoga postures can further bolster that Relaxation Response and bring our bodies back into balance.  Here is a 20-30 minute mini-sequence to try whether as a student or as a teacher guiding your students.

1. Basic Breath Awareness 

Basic Breath

Lay on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor and at least hip-distance apart.  Once comfortable, place a hand on your abdomen.  Begin to just notice your breath.  Does your breath feel strained or smooth?  Just observe your breath without judging whether or not you’re doing it right or wrong.  Gradually begin to make your breath as relaxed as possible.  Introduce a slight pause after each inhale and after each exhale.  Now begin to bring your awareness to your hand on your abdomen.  Notice that with each inhale, your abdomen rises, and with each exhale, your abdomen contracts. Without being forceful, just begin to gently try to expand the abdomen on the inhale and contract the abdomen on the exhale to support the natural movement of your diaphragm.  Continue for 6-12 breaths.   

2. Supported Bound-Angle Pose (stay 5-15 minutes)

This is one of the most relaxing of all restorative poses and while it requires some props (and time) to set yourself up comfortably, it is well worth the effort!  In the picture, we used several bolsters and blankets, but you can use a combination of pillows, couch cushions, towels or blankets to set yourself up similarly.  Sit at the small end of a bolster (or a stack of blankets, pillows, or cushions).  The bolster should be close to the tailbone.  Bend your knees and place your feet firmly on the floor. Use your arms to lower yourself back onto the props.  Your entire spine should be supported.  If you feel any discomfort, decrease the height of the props. 

Make sure your head and neck are adequately supported as well – place a towel or blanket under your head and neck to raise the head slightly.  Your forehead should be higher than your chin, your chin higher than your collarbones, your collarbones higher than your pubic bone.  Bring the soles of your feet together and let your knees fall open.  Place bolsters or blankets under the outer thighs to support the weight of the legs.  The object is not to stretch the inner thighs here, but rather to support the body for relaxation. Once you are set up and comfortable, this is the perfect opportunity to come back to your Basic Breath Awareness.

3. Simple Spinal Twist (5 breaths each side)

Lay on your back.  Gently pull knees into the chest.  Let your arms relax on the floor like a “T”.  Take your knees to the left, stay for at least 5 breaths. Practice Basic Breath Awareness here. Extend your Basic Breath Awareness as follows: With each inhale, envision length and space in the torso and spine.  With each exhale, gently soften (do not force) the right shoulder blade and right rib cage closer the floor.  After you have completed at least 5 breaths, gently pull the knees back into the center of your chest.  Repeat the entire series taking the knees to the right.

4. Supported Forward Fold (10 breaths) 

Place a bolster (or pillows, couch cushions, or blankets) under the knees.  Gently forward fold.  If needed, additional blankets/towels can be placed between the tops of the legs and the chest for extra support.

5. Savasana (at least 5 minutes)

Keeping bolster under the knees, lower yourself down onto your back.  To increase the feeling of groundedness, place a folded blanket across the abdomen/hips.  If your feet are not grounded, place a blanket under them to bring the floor closer to the feet, or remove the bolster.  You want to feel grounded during savasana.

6. Reflection

As you awaken and rise to a seated position, notice how you feel.  Allow yourself to take a ‘feeling moment’ and acknowledge any changes or shifts that have been made by unplugging, breathing with purpose, and slowing down for as little as 20-30 minutes.

This emerging field of “Nutritional Mental Health” can be so much more than just how diet changes or supplements can assist in overall health.  This is not to say that nutrition is not important, because it is, and research supports this.  But, nutrition is just one part of a much larger solution.  In the Yoga Medicine® community, we are on a mission to change the landscape of traditional health care. 

The vision is to create a community of impeccably well-educated yoga teachers that can work alongside Western and Eastern modalities of medicine to treat the overall person as opposed to treating just the symptoms.  We have the capacity to make real and lasting changes in our own lives and for our students and clients.  These offerings are intended to be an innovative perspective on the term “Nutritional Mental Health” – specifically, nourishing the mind, body, and soul not only via food or supplements, but rather via a combination of movement, meditation, breath, and community outreach to offer true connection and deepened community in order to cultivate happiness and well-being.

Check back soon for Part II of this series:  Community Connection

Suggested Readings:

Kaplan, BJ, Rucklidge, JJ, Romijn, A, McLeod, K.  (2015).  The emerging field of Nutritional Mental Health:  Inflammation, the microbiome, oxidative stress, and mitochondrial function.  Clinical Psychological Science, 3(6): 964-980.

Lasater, Judith (1995).  Relax and Renew:  Restful Yoga for Stressful Times.  Rodmell Press: Berkeley, California.

Shaw, Scott (2004).  The Little Book of Yoga Breathing:  Pranayama Made Easy.  Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC:  San Francisco, California.

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