Your physical health, happiness, relationships, success at work, financial stability – literally every single aspect of your world – is influenced by what’s happening in your head. It makes sense to me then that mental health should be at the top of the priority list for all of us.
But it’s not.
Mental health isn’t usually even a consideration for most people until it becomes a problem. And when it does become an issue, believe me, then it gets your full attention because it can totally derail your life. I know. It did mine. (Read that story here.)
I have come to believe that mental health is a lifestyle. Your thoughts, behaviors, and choices you make every day shape the form and function of your brain through a process known as neuroplasticity. Of course, the individual characteristics of the brain you were born with and the events that happen to you in your life over which you have no control, especially during childhood, also have a huge impact on your brain function and mental health.
However, you aren’t stuck with the brain you were born with or even the brain and mental health that you have on this day. Science has proven beyond any doubt that you can significantly improve your brain and mental health with your regular habits. Here’s how.
Get Enough Sleep
Getting too little sleep, which is a problem of epidemic proportions these days, can make you sick, fat, and stupid and actually shrink your brain. Lack of sleep slows down your thinking, impairs your memory, concentration, judgment, and decision-making, impedes learning, and contributes to depression. Sleep is absolutely essential for your brain to work properly because during sleep your brain is busy processing information, consolidating memories, making connections, and clearing out toxins. When asleep, your brain does its housekeeping and not having adequate time to do this could potentially accelerate neurodegenerative diseases.
In her article, These are the 7 habits of highly healthy brains (in order of importance), Dr. Sarah McKay, neuroscientist, rates sleep as THE most important factor for brain health. She writes:
A good night’s sleep every night should be a priority, not a luxury.
Sleep is overlooked, underappreciated, and the number one, fundamental bedrock of good health. Sleep deprivation (even a few hours a night) impacts cognition (thinking), mood, memory and learning and leads to chronic disease.
Move Your Body
After sleep, exercise is the best thing you can do for your brain. Research shows that physical exercise improves mood, memory, attention, creativity, and learning and reduces depression, age-related decline, and the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Moving your body increases the blood flow to your brain which elevates oxygen levels and triggers biochemical changes protecting neurons by bathing them in nerve growth factor (BDNF). These conditions encourage your brain to form new neural pathways and synaptic connections. Exercise also reduces stress and anxiety by increasing soothing brain chemicals, like endorphins and GABA.
The exact amount or intensity of the exercise required has yet to be determined, but it appears that the minimum is thankfully low and studies have shown that modest amounts of exercise yield positive results. In fact, even strength training can have lasting cognitive benefits. Research has confirmed that walking just 72 blocks (roughly 6 miles) a week can enhance brain function. One study found that just three sessions of yoga per week boosted people’ s levels of GABA, which generally translates into improved mood and decreased anxiety.
Feed Your Brain Well
When it comes to your brain, you literally are what you eat. What goes into your mouth has everything to do with what goes on in your head. You can promote quicker thinking, better memory and concentration, improved balance and coordination, sharper senses, and the activation of your feel good hormones with the food you eat.
When food hits your mouth and as it moves through your gastrointestinal tract, it causes a cascade of changes in your body and brain. You also have a “brain” in your gut, called the enteric nervous system. Just like the brain in your head, it uses over 30 neurotransmitters including dopamine and serotonin. In fact, 95% of the body’s serotonin, largely responsible for mood, is found in the bowels.
Living in your gut are tens of trillions of micro-organisms, making up your unique microbiome. We’ve always known these little guys play a major role in digestion, allergies, and metabolism, but now we know that the bacteria in your gut influence your mental health. Science has uncovered connections between intestinal bacteria and anxiety, depression, autism, Alzheimer’s disease, and other mental disorders.
Evidence suggests a Mediterranean-based diet consisting of mostly plants, fish, some meat, olive oil and nuts as optimal for brain health. Your brain will also benefit from a diet that includes some fat, wine, chocolate, and coffee!
Learn How To Calm Your Brain
Your brain’s top priority is always keeping you safe and alive.
That preservation instinct today results in a lot of worry and stress. Chronic stress changes your gene expression, shuts down your immune system, increases inflammation, causes belly fat, and more. The greatest impact is usually seen on psychological well-being as depression and anxiety.
If that weren’t enough, chronic stress actually damages your brain. Too much of the stress hormone, cortisol, prevents the birth of new neurons and causes the hippocampus, largely involved in learning and memory, to shrink.
Learning to calm your brain and body, turning down your fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system and engaging your calm parasympathetic nervous system more, allows you to break the negative cycle of stress. Practices, such as mindfulness and meditation, using imagery, connecting with others, changing your relationship with fear, coming into the present, and working with your thoughts and expectations, can help accomplish this.
Stimulate Your Brain
Your brain loves routine. However, research shows that staying in your comfort zone is anything but good for your brain. It kills productivity, creativity, motivation, and promotes backward plastic change. Humans are masters at contributing to our brains’ decline with our habits.
Your brain needs novelty and stimulation to stay healthy. It’s important to kick your brain out of its comfort zone and into the enhancement zone by doing things that are unfamiliar and mentally challenging regularly. You want to push your brain beyond the norm by learning new skills, hobbies, or sports, continuing to educate your mind, putting yourself in new social situations, and traveling to new locations, for instance.
Stepping out of the familiar stretches your brain by forcing it to make new connections and allowing the neuron’s dendrites to blossom like trees with full branches instead of little shrubs, which has been shown to have protective benefits against age-related decline.