The new year is here. But have you thought about ways you can improve your mental health and well-being in 2016?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO): "Mental health is an integral part of health; indeed, there is no health without mental health."
This is a statement that is supported by numerous studies. One from 2012 published in The BMJ, for example, found that individuals with poor mental health are at increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Other research recently reported by Medical News Today linked mental illness to a higher risk of heart disease and stroke.
What is more, studies have associated poor mental health with gender discrimination, social exclusion, increased risk of violence and crime and an unhealthy lifestyle.
But what is the definition of good mental health? WHO say it is a "state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community."
The UK's Mental Health Foundation also describe good mental health as the ability to learn, form good relationships with others, and express, manage and feel an array of positive and negative emotions.
In this Spotlight, we look at some ways in which you could improve your mental health and well-being, ready to take on whatever life throws at you in 2016.
Adopting a healthy diet
Most of us are aware that a healthy, balanced diet is beneficial for physical health. It can help with weight maintenance and protect against a range of illnesses, including heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
But following a healthy diet also has benefits for mental well-being. As the Mental Health Foundation state: "Your brain needs a mix of nutrients to stay healthy and function well, just like the other organs in your body."
One of the healthiest diets is considered to be the Mediterranean diet, which incorporates high consumption of beans, nuts, cereals, seeds, plant-based foods and fruits. The diet is also low in saturated fat, includes moderate consumption of fish, poultry and dairy, and low consumption of meats and sugary foods.
Experts say following a healthy diet is beneficial for good mental health and well-being.
A 2012 study reported by MNT revealed that the Mediterranean diet is not only good for physical health, but it is also beneficial for mental well-being. And in 2013, another study of almost 11,000 middle-aged women found that those who followed a Mediterranean diet not only lived longer than control participants, but they also had better cognitive function and mental health.
"Maintaining physical, cognitive and mental health with aging may provide a more powerful incentive for dietary change than simply prolonging life or avoiding any single chronic disease," said the researchers of that study.
In September 2014, MNT also reported on a study published in BMJ Open suggesting that eating five portions of fruits and vegetables a day is good for mental well-being.
The research team - led by Dr. Saverio Stranges of the University of Warwick Medical School in the UK - found that of 14,000 adults, 35.5% of participants who ate five or more portions of fruits and vegetables a day had good mental well-being, compared with 6.8% of participants who ate less than one portion a day.
"These novel findings suggest that fruit and vegetable intake may play a potential role as a driver, not just of physical, but also of mental well-being in the general population," said Dr. Stranges.
There are a number of foods and drinks that are associated with poor mental health. "The foods and drinks that most often cause problems are those containing sugar, artificial additives (E numbers) and caffeine, as spikes in our intake in these can be detrimental to our mental health," Sam Challis, information manager of UK mental health charity Mind, told MNT.
Physical activity is important for all aspects of health, including mental well-being. The US Department of Health and Human Services recommend that adults should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise each week or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise.
But you do not have to engage in long, dull sessions on the treadmill to reap the mental health benefits of exercise. In 2014, MNT reported on a study by researchers from the University of Michigan, which found that group nature walks could promote good mental well-being.
"Walking is an inexpensive, low risk and accessible form of exercise, and it turns out that combined with nature and group settings, it may be a very powerful, under-utilized stress buster," said study leader Dr. Sara Warber, associate professor of family medicine at the University of Michigan, adding:
"Our findings suggest that something as simple as joining an outdoor walking group may not only improve someone's daily positive emotions but may also contribute a non-pharmacological approach to serious conditions like depression."
Challis noted that research from Mind also found that 9 out of 10 individuals who took part in green exercise activities, such as walking and gardening, reported improved mood. Other studies have shown that outdoor exercise can be as effective as antidepressants in treating mild to moderate depression and anxiety. Challis told MNT:
"Being cooped up indoors or living a largely sedentary lifestyle both at the office and on the sofa at home can have a knock-on effect on mental health.
Getting physically fit and achieving personal goals boosts our confidence and self-esteem and helps combat feelings of hopelessness, which can often come over us when we're feeling low."
Get more sleep
It is common knowledge that sleep problems can affect our mental well-being. A 2010 study by researchers from the George Institute on Global Health in Australia found that people who have less than 5 hours sleep a night may be at higher risk of mental illness.
"Too little sleep over a sustained period can leave you vulnerable to developing mental health problems," says Sam Challis.
"Sleep problems - even quite mild ones - can damage your well-being and quality of life," Challis told us. "Too little sleep over a sustained period can leave you vulnerable to developing mental health problems, but there are lots of things that you can do to improve your chances of getting a good night's sleep."
The Mayo Clinic recommend going to bed and getting up at the same time every day - even at the weekends and during holidays - as a routine can boost the body's sleep-wake cycle, promoting a better night's sleep.
A bedtime ritual - such as a warm bath or reading a book - may also encourage better sleep, as such rituals tell the body it is time to wind down. "Electrical screens, TVs, computers and phones all stimulate your brain, making it hard to relax, so it's best to switch them off in advance, to help you switch off," noted Challis.
Challis also told us that the sleep environment is important for a good night's sleep, and that most people tend to sleep better in a cool, dark and quiet room.
A high intake of alcohol, caffeine and sugary foods in the evening can disrupt sleep patterns, so experts recommend limiting their use for a better night's sleep.
On the next page, we look at more ways to boost your mental health and well-being in 2016.