You are about to board an airplane for a long flight. Suddenly someone runs up to you and says, “Stop! Don’t get on that plane! Your pilot hasn’t drunk enough water today!”
That may be a bit dramatic, but here’s the point: The health of your brain determines the health of your mind—your mental health. In fact, a study of pilots who were dehydrated showed they had poorer performance in the cockpit, especially as it related to working memory, spatial orientation, and cognitive performance—three areas where you definitely want your pilot to be in top shape!
Let’s dig a little deeper.
What Is Mental Health, Anyway?
“Mental health” is not just the absence of a mental illness. Rather, “mental health” is the presence of the following positive characteristics:
- A sense of contentment
- A passion for living
- The ability to laugh and play (play is not just for kids!)
- Resilience (the ability to bounce back from adversity and trauma)
- The ability to deal with stress
- The ability to learn new skills
- The ability to adapt to change
- The ability to achieve and maintain balance in work and recreation
- The ability to build and maintain healthy, fulfilling relationships
- Self-confidence and high self-esteem
You Are In Control
There’s a lot of stuff in life that you can’t control—stuff that will result in feelings you have to deal with. No adult skates from birth to death without encountering pain, disappointment, sadness, stress, and grief along the way.
As a result, over a lifetime, most people will suffer from some degree of mental or emotional health problems. It’s just the way life is.
But although you can’t always control what happens to you, there are things you can do to improve your ability to face life’s challenges in the best possible way. There are practices you can put into place to elevate your mood, become more resilient, and enjoy life to the fullest.
And it all begins with taking care of your brain.
But First, Let’s Be Clear…
There is a difference between your brain and your mind.
Your brain is visible. If you could look inside your head, you would see it.
Your mind, on the other hand, is invisible; It’s that whole domain of intelligence, thought, feeling, attitude, belief, and imagination.
The health of your brain affects the health of your mind.
And your mind has a lot of control over what happens in your body.
What Does Your Brain Require?
To be optimally healthy, your brain needs you to take care of your whole body. It needs you to eat a nutritional diet, stay hydrated, stay active, and get adequate sleep. It needs you to not abuse alcohol or drugs (legal or illegal), use tobacco in any form, or engage in any other self-destructive behaviors.
Grandma Was Right
You may have rolled your eyes at your grandmother when she repeated pithy quotes, such as “You are what you eat,” but she was right. What you put into your body affects your entire body, including your brain. You know that if you eat too much sugar, for example, that you might get a stomachache.
Did you also know that a diet high in sugar is directly associated with the following mental conditions?
Diets high in sugar—even if it’s natural honey—cause your blood sugar to spike and then drop. The result is erratic brain cell firing, which can result in:
- Increased fatigue
- Increased cravings
- Increased aggression
- Decreased sense of wellbeing
- Decreased memory
- Decreased ability to learn
Other foods besides sugar that adversely affect your mood are
- Trans fats, or anything with “partially hydrogenated” oil
- Foods with high levels of chemical preservatives or hormones
- Refined carbohydrates, such as white flour or white rice
- Fried food
On the other hand, following are mood-boosting foods that your brain loves:
- Fatty fish rich in Omega-3s (salmon, tuna, herring, mackerel, etc.)
- Walnuts, almonds, cashews, and peanuts
- Beans (kidney beans, pinto beans, navy beans, etc.)
- Leafy green vegetables (spinach, kale, Brussel’s sprouts, etc.)
- Fresh fruit (blueberries, apples, peaches, strawberries, etc.)
Your Brain As A Car
Think of your brain as a cherished, expensive car that requires premium fuel to run in peak condition. You wouldn’t dream of filling it with regular-grade fuel! Anything less than premium fuel is going to decrease horsepower and make the car sluggish.
And if you consistently filled your expensive gasoline-powered car with diesel? The car would stop running altogether and would have to be towed to a repair shop or junkyard.
Now read the same paragraph with a few additions:
Think of your brain as a cherished, expensive car that requires premium fuel (fruits, nuts, berries, Omega-3) to run in peak condition. You wouldn’t dream of filling it with regular-grade fuel (sugar, refined flour, junk food)! Anything less than premium fuel is going to decrease horsepower (energy) and make the car sluggish (tired, sad, depressed).
And if you consistently filled your expensive gasoline-powered car with diesel (drugs, alcohol, trans fats, fried food)? The car would stop running altogether and would have to be towed to a repair shop (hospital) or junkyard (the cemetery!).
See why good nutrition is vital to brain and mind health?
If you think your brain is busy when you are awake, just look at what it’s doing when you’re asleep:
- Re-energizing your body’s cells
- Clearing toxins from your brain
- Forming and maintaining pathways that help you learn
- Forming and maintaining pathways that create new memories
- Regulating your appetite
- Regulating your sex drive
- Regulating your mood and sense of wellbeing
A sleep study at the University of Pennsylvania revealed that people who were limited to 4.5 hours of sleep per night for one week reported feeling more stressed, angry, sad, and mentally exhausted. When they returned to normal sleep, they reported a dramatic improvement.
Sleep affects mood, and mood affects sleep. Depression and anxiety make it hard to sleep, and lack of sleep can lead to depression and anxiety. Stress also affects sleep. People under chronic stress generally have sleep problems—and not getting enough sleep increases stress (just ask the parents of a newborn baby!).
It’s no secret that physical activity keeps the body in top shape, but did you know that it’s also highly beneficial to the brain and mind?
You can thank endorphins for that.
Endorphins give you that “runner’s high”; that feeling of euphoria, wellbeing, and bliss . Not only that, but they are believed to relieve pain, build up the immune system, reduce stress, and delay the aging process!
You might be saying “But I hate to exercise!” You say that because you’re probably equating exercise with vigorous activity, like running, or spending hours sweating in the gym. The good news is that endorphins are also produced and released with meditation, acupuncture, massage therapy, deep breathing, and even eating spicy food!
Unless you are a couch potato or sit at a desk all day, you’re probably getting more exercise than you think. Household chores can give you a good workout too. Vacuuming, mopping, deep cleaning, washing windows, mowing the lawn (not a riding mower!)…anything that keeps you moving benefits your brain by:
- Improving blood flow
- Improving memory
- Lifting mood
- Enhancing and protecting learning and thinking skills
And if you are a caregiver of small, active children? You probably get more exercise than you think…
What About Medication?
Many people mistakenly think that mental/emotional problems can be solved only with medication.
While meds are necessary in some cases, taking care of your brain health will go a long way in ensuring that your mental health is in tip-top condition.
At times, we all need a bit of mental health support. Contact us at any time and schedule an appointment!