Dr. Caroline Leaf – Mental health is a hot topic these days, especially considering the current COVID-19 pandemic, and the enforced social separation and isolation many of us have experienced over the past several months. Even though things are starting to open in many places, we all are facing a world which is dramatically different to the one we knew before the pandemic—so many things are uncertain, which only exacerbates our collective mental distress. Thankfully, as I discuss in this week’s blog and podcast with world-renowned psychiatrist, brain specialist and best-selling author Dr. Daniel Amen, there are ways we can take our mental and brain health into our own hands! The human brain is remarkably resilient: over time we can heal our minds and find freedom, purpose and renewal in an imperfect world.
Indeed, Dr. Amen has spent his professional life witnessing this resiliency. As he describes in his excellent new book, The End of Mental Illness: How Neuroscience Is Transforming Psychiatry and Helping Prevent or Reverse Mood and Anxiety Disorders, ADHD, Addictions, PTSD, Psychosis, Personality Disorders, and More, the technological advances in the field of neuroscience have huge strides in our understanding of the brain and what mental distress looks like on a biological level. Rather than just look at someone’s symptoms and giving them a “pill for every ill”, when we take someone’s whole story into account and look at their brain using the latest technology, we can give them practical and powerful tips to find healing on both a mental and physical level.
These advances have reshaped our understanding of what mental health actually means. Nobody wants to be labelled as defective, and no one should be. Instead of talking about “mental illness”, we should talk about what Dr. Amen calls a “brain health issue”. When we focus on improving our brain health by looking at what is going on inside our heads and taking action, we improve our mind and life, and when we focus on improving our mind, that is what we think every day, we improve our brain health: we need to look at the whole picture, not just the alleviation of certain symptoms using medication.
We can start doing this by recognizing that certain things affect the health of our brain, which include:
- Inflammation. This can occur from what we eat, how we live and how we think, which is why it is important that we pay attention to our lifestyle choices and strive to live a healthy life, including practicing good dental and physical hygiene, exercising regularly, eating well, taking care of the gut, practicing mind management, learning and so on, as I discuss in my blogs, books and podcast.
- Diet. Obesity and diet-related illnesses like diabetes can directly and indirectly impact our brain health, which is why we cannot afford not to eat well and move regularly. In fact, research has shown that the more our weight goes up, the more the size and function of our brain goes down! What we eat affects how we think and our physical health, just as what we think affects our digestion and ability to keep the brain and body healthy (I discuss this in detail in my book Think and Eat Yourself Smart).
- Immunity. A lot of infectious diseases affect our brain health, such as Lyme disease, which is why protecting and boosting the body’s immune system is so important. This includes getting enough vitamin D, which is essential for a healthy immune response!
- Neurohormones. As I discussed in a recent blog and podcast (episode #158), our hormones affect our brain health. This is especially the case as we age, which is why we should look at natural ways to improve our hormones, such as diet and bioidentical hormones (for more on this listen to my most recent podcast episode #162 and see the blog I published last week).
Ironically, these are also the areas that affect our susceptibility to viruses like COVID-19. When we focus on improving our brain health, we also improve the health of our whole body, which can help us fight off infections and diseases!
Thankfully, as Dr. Amen mentions in his book, there are things we can do to improve the health of our brain:
1. Focusing on our biological health.
This is the physical functioning of the brain, which includes making healthy lifestyle choices like eating well and exercising regularly. If you are interested, Dr. Amen has clinics around the country where you can have your brain health examined.
It is important to recognize that traumatic brain injuries (including mild injuries and concussions) can directly impact mental health, which we can only see on a brain scan. This is often overlooked in the current mental health system, which can lead to tragic outcomes for people who are suffering from brain trauma. This is particularly the case with children, whose brains are especially vulnerable as they are still developing. As parents and guardians, we should be protecting children’s brains, because if you don’t you can affect the quality of the rest of their lives. We need to rethink what we should allow our children to do!
2. Focusing on our psychological health.
What we think and how we handle stress affects our brain health, which can have long term consequences for both our mental and physical health. As I always say, thoughts are real things that have real, physical consequences on the brain and body, so mind management is crucial. Mental hygiene is as important as washing your hands!
We always need to pay attention to the physical and emotional warning signals our brain and body send us, and think about the impact our thinking is having on our wellbeing. My SWITCH app is a great tool for helping you learn how to do this, dealing with the roots of your stress and anxiety, and overcoming negative thought patterns and behaviors that impact your health (through the mental process of reconceptualization). It is now on sale less 50% for a 3-month subscription!
It is also important to build the brain through deep thinking and learning, especially as we get older! This not only improves our brain health, but also helps prevent the onset of cognitive decline, as I spoke about in my blog and podcast (episode #87). As we age, the brain gets less and less active, but it doesn’t have to! For more on building the brain see my book Think, Learn, Succeed.
3. Focusing on our social health.
Humans are social beings. We thrive when we are connected—we are happiest and healthiest when we have deep, meaningful relationships with others, as I recently spoke about on my podcast (episode #103) and in my blog. Getting your relationships right is one of the best antidepressants!
4. Focusing on our spiritual health.
We all need purpose, a reason to care that we are alive and well. What gets you out of bed in the morning? What gives your life meaning? As I discussed on in my blog and podcast (episode #149) with Dan Buettner, author of the Blue Zones (areas of the world where people live the longest), knowing your sense of purpose helps you live longer!
Never forget, your brain can get better, even if you have been bad to it! Get into the habit of asking yourself everyday if what you are doing is good for your brain, and you will start to love your brain and love your life!