May is the National Month for many worthy causes, including Brain Cancer, Celiac, and ALS awareness, but I would like to focus on the National Mental Health and National Mediterranean Diet pieces today. Like many professionals, I am concerned about how the pandemic is affecting the mental health of a generation of adults and their families now and in the years to come. Essential workers in any of the frontline fields who are keeping our economy and society moving forward at this time are experiencing unprecedented levels of sustained stress, but so is everyone else in the world to varying degrees since we're all experiencing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. During times of extreme stress, sustained hormonal cascades of cortisol, adrenaline, norepinephrine, etc., have the capability of changing our DNA through epigenetics. This means that chronic stress can turn on switches for predispositions to disease that we may not have ever experienced before this moment. It's a perfect storm for inflammation. Research shows that inflammation is the hallmark of chronic disease: instead of repairing, our cells are being primed for deterioration and decline and in the process changing our mood and thinking. That is, if we don't intervene in some positive ways.
There has been some media coverage recently about four positive ways to support our psychological well-being through use of the "4 Ms of Mental Health." I first heard about this mnemonic device from Dr. Sue Varma on CBS This Morning, my go-to morning news program. The 4 Ms according to this psychiatrist are: Movement, Mindfulness, Mastery, and Meaningful Engagement. The idea is that if we engage in each of these every day or frequently enough, we will be on our way to resilience in our mental health. If we move our body; if we do things that we love, creating chunks of time where we experience "flow" and develop higher-level skills; if we pay attention to the present moment instead of worrying about the past or future; and if we reach out to our family, friends, and wider community with kindness and generosity; we will be happier, calmer, and more resilient, even during times of high stress. These four Ms provide an excellent framework to remind us where our efforts and attention should be for the development and support of our mental health. I think it's important, however, to include a 5th M, one that is often forgotten, especially in the American culture: the Mediterranean diet.
Eating nutritious, whole foods is data for our brain and gut, at the cellular level, for the promotion of overall health. Given my multidisciplinary training and holistic perspective, I view mental health as one part of the whole. Mental health is connected to physical health and vice-versa, with our gut health mediating and modulating how we think, feel, and behave. There's a slew of recent research connecting the microbiome to our mental health and affecting our risk for developing anxiety, depression, neurodevelopmental disorders such as ADHD and autism, and even neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease. There is a comparable amount of research that is showing that the Mediterranean Diet can promote mental health and decrease risk for chronic disease through the reduction of inflammation in the body and the feeding of good bacteria in our gut. The Mediterranean Diet focuses on fresh, often organic and seasonal, fruits & vegetables high in prebiotic fiber, extra-virgin olive oil, fish & seafood, some meat, nuts & seeds, and a social and slow enjoyment of mealtime. Every family can start eating this way as a lifestyle change, as long as it becomes an expectation and there is an open invitation to all family members to contribute to meal-planning and cooking together. Organizing, preparing, and eating as a social experience is always going to be a meaningful, mindful, skill-building experience that requires movement; and perhaps that is the magic of the Mediterranean Diet: it combines all of the other 4 Ms of Mental Health while keeping our microbiome diverse, healthy, and thriving.
I was privileged to present webinars on the topic of the 5 Ms of Mental Health to both the parent community of the Massachusetts Association for the Education of Young Children, and to that of the Montclare Children's School in NYC this month. If you'd like to access either of these, you can find them on my Facebook business page. I hope today will be the day you consider trying to cook a Mediterranean dish with your family and in the process slow down, laugh, and enjoy your time together.
To your health!
Anastasia Galanopoulos, Ph.D. Parent, Educator, Health Activist. A note about my signature. When I first started teaching at Wheelock College, one of my first students with whom I still keep contact, started referring to me as Dr. G. In the affectionate spirit of its tone, I adopt that nickname here.