Nick Loffree Talks Diet, Exercise, and Sleep

About Nick Loffree

Nick Loffree leads weekly qiqong classes for teens in the Partial Hospitalization and Intensive Outpatient Programs (PHP/IOP) at Evolve Treatment Centers. While teaching, Nick often talks about his personal journey through complementary medicine and self-healing. He first started practicing Qigong (an exercise involving meditative breathing coordinated with slow, fluid movement) after discovering the benefits of meditation and mindfulness. Nick is now a wellness expert and Qigong master dedicated to helping teens struggling with addiction, substance use disorders, and mental health issues like depression and anxiety.

How Diet, Exercise, and Sleep Impact Mental Health

Through his own personal journey, Nick has gained a wealth of knowledge on diet, fitness and wellness. Here, he shares three lifestyle factors which, based on his experience, directly impact adolescents’ mental and physical health.

1. Diet.

Food has an impact on what you think and feel. Or, in other words, says Loffree, “You are what you eat.” These days, many teens consume junk food and fast food on a regular basis. However, this type of habit doesn’t just affect your body, it affects your mind.

“The brain needs healthy nutrients to function optimally,” he warns.

If you’re not eating properly – which means a healthy and consistent diet– you’re more vulnerable to depression and anxiety. Loffree recommends teens eat three full meals a day, ensuring each meal includes a complex carb (like rice or sweet potatoes), and of course lots of fruits and vegetables, especially berries, which reduce inflammation. “If you want your energy levels – your Qi – to stay stable, keep that source of carbs stable.” Loffree also recommends teens find out which foods trigger insensitivities or allergies and stay away from those foods. For instance, lactose-intolerant teens should avoid dairy, no matter how much they crave pizza or ice cream.

2. Exercise.

There are mountains of evidence showing the benefits of exercise on mood, emotional wellbeing, self-acceptance, emotion regulation, distress tolerance, and more.

Of course, exercise also has a host of physical benefits, including increased heart health, reduced stress, improved sleep, decreased blood pressure, and increased energy. Studies have also shown that exercise reduces depression and anxiety—so much that it works as well as mainstream therapies like CBT and medication! While all forms of exercise are beneficial for teens, Loffree is a huge fan of yoga and Qigong – which have been shown to promote mental health, reduce stress, and improve mood.

Both yoga and qigong utilize mindfulness, slow, fluid body movements, coordinated, rhythmic breathing, and precise structural alignment, all of which help teens struggling with addiction and mental health issues.In fact, yoga and qigong are evidence-based to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.

3. Sleep.

At the risk of sounding like your mother, we’re going to remind you for the one hundred millionth time:

It’s vital to get enough sleep every night.

Loffree points to neuroimaging research showing that the brain washes itself of all its toxins and waste products with cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) during sleep. The toxins then drain out via the lymphatic system. This process, which also contributes to memory consolidation, is naturally restorative for the brain and the entire body. However, it only happens during a specific stage in your sleep cycle – deep sleep.

That’s why sleep hygiene is so important for adolescents: they need to head to bed early enough so that they can get enough deep z’s.

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), teens should get between 8-10 hours of sleep a night. Lack of sleep causes and exacerbates all kinds of mental health issues, including negative mood, lack of concentration and focus, anxiety, angry outbursts, depression, and behavioral issues. Research shows that sleep deprivation even makes certain teens vulnerable to self-harming behaviors and suicidal ideation.

Avoid Drug Use

While it’s important to eat well, sleep well, and exercise, it’s equally as vital to stay away from maladaptive lifestyle choices, such as substance abuse.

Loffree states that recreational drugs and addictive substances are especially damaging to adolescents, whose brains are still developing. “The combination of anxiety, emotional turmoil, identity crises, and drug use doesn’t lead to anything good in teens,” says Loffree. Drugs can also exacerbate mental health symptoms, such as anxiety, and can lead to harmful consequences such as angry outbursts, psychosis, paranoia (including delusions and hallucinations), risky behavior, and various other health problems.

Lifestyle Choices in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)

If you think all these lifestyle recommendations are just that – recommendations – think again. Making positive lifestyle choices to improve mental health is supported by scientific research.

In fact, therapists who use Dialectical Behavior Therapy (an evidence-based treatment for depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, self-harming and suicidal behavior, and other emotional issues) place a strong emphasis on the connection between proper self-care and positive wellbeing. They also address the consequences of the opposite of self-care and positive wellbeing: lack of self-care and negative emotions. You may have noticed this in yourself on occasion. When you feel hungry, weak, exhausted, or under the influence of drugs, you may be more vulnerable to anger, anxiety, and depression. You may also be more likely to express negative emotion.

However, when you take care of yourself and make adaptive lifestyle choices, you may notice you’re less vulnerable to extreme, negative emotions.

DBT Skills, PLEASE

The DBT skill “PLEASE” is a way of reminding teens about the factors affecting their physical health and mental wellbeing. “PLEASE” reminds teens to engage in daily exercise, eat healthy, balanced meals, get the proper amount of sleep per night, stay off alcohol and street drugs, and see a doctor whenever necessary.

PLEASE stands for:

Treat PhysicaL illness, balance Eating, avoid mood-Altering drugs, balance Sleep, and get Exercise.

At teen treatment centers that specialize in DBT, adolescents learn the importance of self-care and how to make positive lifestyle choices.  If you think your teen can benefit from Dialectical Behavior Therapy for mental health or substance use issues, contact a DBT residential treatment center (RTC), partial hospitalization program (PHP), or intensive outpatient program (IOP) today.