The Do's and Don'ts of Brain Health + Why and How Correct Brain Health Practices Can Reduce Anxiety and Depression
"If our neurochemistry is, in any way, off due to poor brain health, whether certain chemicals are not produced in the proper amounts or do not function as they should, this can potentially influence how we feel, from our work life to our eating habits to our relationships!"
As you have heard me say many times before, how we choose to use our brains affects both our mental and physical health. Not only do our choices create real, structural changes in the brain, but they also affect the overall health of our brains, which impacts how the brain and body function on a day-to-day basis, while, if our brains are not healthy, it's hard for our minds to be healthy and for us to make healthy decisions. (Photo by Jeremy Perkins on Unsplash)
In this week's blog and podcast, I will be discussing some of the major "do's", and "don'ts" when it comes to our brain health with my good friend and board-certified neurosurgeon, Darlene Mayo, and how we can make use of our incredible ability to think and choose to reduce anxiety and depression in our lives.
Darlene, who is part of my research board, spent years researching and studying the way the brain functions, including over a decade of practice as a neurosurgeon specializing in Parkinson's diseases and chronic pain. She currently researches brain chemistry and how we can use this knowledge to enhance the overall functioning of the mind and brain.
As she points out, when we think about brain health, we often don't realize just how connected it is to our everyday lives: our relationship with a spouse or loved one, our performance at work, how likely we are to get other diseases and so on. For instance, when it comes to connecting with others, oxytocin is an important bonding chemical, and is released in greater amounts when couples first come together. However, if someone's brain is not as healthy as it should be (whether from a lack of nutrition or exposure to toxins in the environment), it does not produce the necessary levels of oxytocin, which can negatively impact how this person bonds with a loved one, thereby directly impacting the quality of that relationship and potentially setting it up for failure.
If our neurochemistry is in any way off due to poor brain health, whether certain chemicals are not produced in the proper amounts or do not function as they should, this can potentially influence how we feel, from our work life to our eating habits to our relationships! This is why it is so important that we make an effort to protect and improve the health of our brains, which will help us succeed at home, at school and in the workplace. This is particularly true when it comes to the brain-body connection, as Darlene notes. Our gut has about 500 million neurons, for example, which are intricately connected to the brain. So, if our brain is not as healthy as it should be, this can directly affect the gut, and thus our digestive system. This, in turn, impacts the way our body functions by impeding our ability to get nutrients from our food, which can set us up for all sorts of diseases (for more on the gut-brain connection, see my recent blog and podcast). When it comes to our biology, it is so important to remember that everything is connected, and that we should always take a holistic approach when it comes to our mental and physical health, and avoid magic bullets and one-shot wonders.
So, what are some aspects of this holistic approach to brain health that you can apply in your everyday life?
1. Brain, body, and mind detox:
As Darlene notes, from a nutritional standpoint it is important to detox the body and get rid of toxins by drinking water, using natural herbs, avoiding processed junk foods, eating lots of fresh, sustainable fruits and vegetables and so on. I speak about this in greater detail in my book Think and Eat Yourself Smart.
Eating healthy is also incredibly important when it comes to getting the necessary nutrients to build up the brain. The omegas we get from our food (from sources like wild salmon and flaxseeds), for instance, help build and strengthen our myelin sheath, which enable us to think about and process information at much faster speeds and with more efficiency. This, in turn, increases our cognitive performance, boosting our mental and physical health by positively impacting the way our brain and body functions on a day-to-day basis. If we do not get the necessary nutrients we need from our foods, on the other hand, we can actually increase our chances of developing feelings of depression, anxiety and other mental and physical issues, which impacts our ability to think clearly and deal with the issues of life.
Part of my daily detox routine is my morning cup of mushroom coffee from Four Sigmatic, a company which creates superfood lattes that can help detox the brain and boost cognitive function (you can get a 15% discount off your order at foursigmatic.com/DRLEAF, or use coupon code DRLEAF at checkout), my daily probiotics from BiOptimizer (my readers can get a free bottle sent to their home by visiting www.p3om.com/leaffree with the code leaffreep3om. You can also get 20% off your order of BiOptimizers at www.bioptimizers.com/drleaf with the coupon code: DRLEAF20) to keep my gut-brain connection in perfect health, and my evening cup of organic herbal Pique tea before bed (Get up to 20% off your organic Pique Tea order and FREE shipping at piquetea.life/drleaf).
However, when it comes to our brain health, detoxing the brain and body through nutrition is not enough. It is equally important to detox the mind, as toxic reactions to stress can also lead to toxins in the brain. This is why I constantly emphasize getting to the root of our toxic stress and reconceptualizing negative thinking patterns in my research and work, and is why I created my app Switch, which is based on my scientifically-researched 5-step program, and is designed to help you identify and detox the root of your toxic thoughts and help build healthy, new thinking habits in their place.
2. Take more thinker moments:
"Thinker moments", when we take time to switch off to the external and switch on to the internal and just let our minds wander, are also incredibly important when it comes to our brain health. Darlene talks about how a study done on Buddhist monks showed how a lifestyle focused on mindfulness and internal mediation can improve the overall health of the brain, increasing our wisdom and clarity and helping us make healthier decisions when it comes to our lifestyle.
These moments give your brain a rest and allow it to reboot and heal by letting your mind wander and daydream, which increases your clarity of mind and ability to problem-solve when face with a tough situation. So, be intentional about creating "thinker" breaks throughout your day by taking a few moments every day, or when you are feeling stressed out, to switch off and just mediate on the internal by taking a few minutes to sit and daydream or meditate. For more information on Thinker moments and how to make them a part of your daily routine, see my book, Think, Learn, Succeed.
3. Make creativity a part of every day:
Darlene, who is also a classical pianist and music-lover, noticed in surgery that playing music her patients liked helped improve their outcomes. She has studied this phenomenon extensively in her research and has seen, first-hand, how music can help heal the brain and improve communication between brain cells! Creativity, whether we are talking about music, painting, writing, drawing, poetry and so on, can have real, positive effects on the physical health of the brain and on our overall mental health, and has the potential to heal damage from toxic thinking and toxic lifestyles. This, in turn, can improve both our physical and mental health by giving us a deeper perspective and reducing feelings of depression and anxiety. This is why it is important to take the time to be creative: draw, paint, build, write, play—make time to do what you enjoy doing, and watch your brain health improve!
Creativity also boosts confidence, allows for more "thinker moments", and boosts imagination, which helps with problem solving and troubleshooting everyday life issues! So, try out new hobbies, and include more time in your schedule for creativity! Some easy ideas include: keeping a coloring book on your desk, doodling, writing, composing, building puzzles, or even creating new recipes!
4. Build the brain:
Focusing on the mind is critical to our health, as I mention in all my books, talks, products and research—we need to exercise the brain like we exercise our bodies. Building up the brain is so important: it helps prevent cognitive decline (such the Alzheimer's and the dementias), prevent the onset of depression and anxiety, and increase our cognitive flexibility and ability to think well. When we do not take the time to build our brain, on the other hand, we tend to build toxic structures into our brains, which can lead to feelings of anxiety, intrusive thoughts and even psychotic breaks.
Mental training via deep thinking and understanding to build memory and learning actually increases the numbers of neurons that develop in the brain, particularly when the training goals are challenging. This growth of neurons with their dendrites (where memory is actually stored) means long-term, useful, and meaningful memories are formed, thereby strengthening the mind and forming the basis for a healthy brain.
So, choose to do something every day that challenges your mind, whether it is reading a book, learning a language, or studying something that interests you. Choose something that will help you expand your knowledge base and help you develop mental resilience. In fact, the more you build your brain, the more confident, and less anxious, you will be when faced with a challenge! I recommend planning ahead and setting aside a few hours every morning, evening or afternoon to read something, listen to a new podcast series or audiobook, or learn a new sport or language (or whatever appeals to you!). I always try spend at least an hour in the morning building my brain by doing research and then detoxing my brain using my SWITCH app. I also love using the app Blinkist to build my brain, which teaches you key ideas from thousands of bestselling non-fiction books in a short period of time (for free week go to Blinkist see: https://blinkist.com/drleaf).
As Darlene mentions, sleep is like the "street-sweeper" of the body, and is essential when it comes to our brain health. Sleep helps the mind, brain and body regenerate. When you go to sleep, you are kind of going into a "housekeeping" mode—everything is cleaned up, which helps prepare you for the next day. Just like a dirty house is a hotbed for disease, a polluted mind can be very unhealthy!
When we talk about managing sleep, we need to make sure we get enough sleep to allow this regeneration to happen, but this will be different for everyone, as we all have different schedules, lifestyles and needs—the average amount of sleep an adult should try get is 6 to 8 hours (and more for children), but of course this may be different depending on where you are in life. Indeed, at any one moment, we need to look at the context of our life: what we are eating, any medications we are taking, our emotional state is, our work schedule, our thought life and so on. These will all affect the quality of our sleep, and how much we sleep.
When it comes to sleep, remember to avoid panicking when you can't fall sleep. This fear will cause more damage in the brain than no sleep at all, and can impact your mental and physical health. If you are battling to sleep, take the time to look at where you are in life: how busy you are, what you are eating, and so on, seeing if you can improve your sleeping habits by taking more time to rest, for example, or improving your diet. Most importantly, take the time to examine your thought life; a chaotic mind will affect your quality of sleep and how much you sleep. For example, if you go to bed worrying about everything you need to do the next day, or try suppress all your fears before turning off the light, this toxic energy will move through your brain and body, causing neurochemical and electromagnetic chaos, which will disrupt your body's ability to regenerate as you sleep.
Of course, you are not going to resolve everything perfectly by the time you go to bed, but you can choose how you want to go to sleep. You can tell yourself something along the lines of "I cannot solve all this now, but I will write them down and work on these issues over the next few days—I have got this!" before you go to sleep. This will bring a degree of closure in your mind, enabling you to compartmentalize your thoughts and sleep well.
If you do this and are still battling to sleep, I recommend looking at your lifestyle choices, such as your schedule and eating habits, and see where you can improve (as I discuss in my book Think and Eat Yourself Smart). And, if you find that you fall asleep and suddenly wake up with a rush of adrenalin, turn on the light read a bit of a book, do some work, or journal about your thoughts (I often do this when I can't sleep), which can help you organize what you are thinking and bring some clarity to the situation. Do not lie in bed and worry about not sleeping, or panic about how you will feel the day ahead or whatever is going on in your life, and this will impact your mental and physical help and make you feel even worse the next day. Don't worry if you cannot sleep—your body has its own natural sleep rhythm, and eventually you will rest and regenerate. Give yourself grace, especially if your life is a little crazy at the moment! Remember, if you constantly think about how bad you will feel the next day, your body will go into toxic stress, and you really will feel bad, which can affect your heart health! So just relax, tell yourself you will eventually sleep, do something constructive, and make a plan to catch up on your sleep over the next few days.
I personally love using red light therapy to help me sleep as well, which I spoke about on a recent podcast and blog with Wes from Joovv, a company that sells red light therapy products. It helps get me into that parasympathetic, non-stress state (especially after a super busy day!) and helps me maintain a healthy sleep schedule even when I travel.
So, when it comes to our mental and physical health, it is imperative that we take "a complete lifestyle approach", especially in today's world, where, for the first time in years, people are dying younger and younger from preventable, lifestyle diseases. For instance, Darlene notes how the risk for autism has increased tenfold in our world today, while there is a documented peak of early onset Alzheimer's and Parkinson's—these issues are progressively affecting younger generations! This is why we should never forget that what we think affects how we feel, and our physical health can impact what we think, say and do. It is all connected, and we should always be wary of any philosophy, medication or product that promises to "fix" everything. When it comes to our health, there are no shortcuts!
If you are interested in learning more about how to improve your brain health and why it's vital for your mental health I highly recommend listening to my full interview with Darlene on this week's podcast, and purchasing her amazing books!