by Keri Ashkenazy
Holistic Health Coach | Mindfulness Meditation Teacher | M.A. in Social-Organizational Psychology
Have you been feeling anxious, excessively worried, depressed; or finding yourself more easily distracted, frustrated or angered? If so, you might have a sick brain.
Mental health is a crucial component to our overall health and well-being. We can’t be physically healthy unless we take care of our mental health. And, we also need to take care of our physical health in order to be mentally healthy.
It may be disheartening to know that the state of mental health in the United States has been steadily declining, and especially for our younger generation. According to a 2019 report released from Mental Health America, a non-profit founded in 1909 that’s dedicated to addressing the needs of people living with mental illness in America, over 44 million American adults (18.07%), have a mental health condition. Suicidal ideation among adults increased from 3.77% in 2012 to 4.19% in 2017. That’s over 10.3 million adults in the U.S. with serious thoughts of suicide.
The situation is even worse for our kids. According to Dr. David A. Axelson, chief of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Ohio, there has been an 86% increase in the rate of death by suicide for kids 10 to 19 from 2007 to 2017. It’s now the second leading cause of death in that age group. And in particular, there has been a very large increase in the rate among younger kids in the 10 to 14 range, where the rate has increased by 190% in that same 10-year period.
So why is this happening? And how do we reverse the trend?
Our mental health depends on a complex interplay of various factors, including what and how we eat and think, traumas we’ve experienced in the past, chemical imbalances in our brain, genetic predispositions and etcetera. Some of these factors we can’t change or control and for those I suggest you work with a psychiatrist or other appropriate healthcare provider. However, one thing we can do to improve our mental health is to take better care of our brains. Dr. Daniel Amen, a well-known brain health expert, believes that brain health is central to overall health and success; and when our brains work right, we work right.
According to Dr. Amen, there are many things that negatively affect brain health, such as:
● Chronic stress, which kills cells in the brain’s memory centers (hippocampus)
● Brain injuries, concussions, or other types of physical head trauma
● Too much alcohol or drug abuse
● Negative thinking, which disrupts healthy brain function
● Poor diet and nutrition
● Environmental toxins
● Anything that decreases blood flow to the brain, such as a lack of sleep, untreated sleep apnea, smoking, and too much caffeine
So, how do we optimize our brain? Here are seven things you can do starting today:
1. Clean Up Your Gut
When you have problems with your gut, you’re more likely to have mental health problems. That’s because the gut and brain are connected via the gut–brain–microbiome axis, which connects the body’s central nervous system (CNS) – your brain and spinal cord – with the enteric nervous system (ENS) of the digestive tract.
Your entire digestive system includes about thirty feet of tubing (including your stomach) that goes from your mouth to the other end. This tubing is lined with a single layer of cells with tight junctions that allows you to digest food and protects itself from foreign invaders. When the cell junctions widen and the lining becomes excessively porous, you could develop a condition known as leaky gut, which is associated with a number of mental health issues, including: depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, ADD/ADHD, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and Alzheimer’s disease. It’s also linked to chronic inflammation, along with a host of other issues — from autoimmune diseases (such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and multiple sclerosis) and digestive issues (gas, bloating, constipation and diarrhea) to seasonal allergies and skin problems (acne, rosacea).
This means that if you want to optimize your brain health, you must optimize your gut health. Here are some ways to do that:
● Reduce processed foods: These are the foods that come in cans, jars, bags, and boxes. You’ll want to aim to eat most of your foods in their natural form.
● Reduce/eliminate inflammatory foods: Through tests and or via an elimination diet, your healthcare practitioner can help you determine if you have any food allergies/sensitivities (i.e. dairy or gluten) that might be causing gut inflammation.
● Add more fiber to your diet: Prebiotics (such as those found in apples, beans, cabbage, psyllium, artichokes, onions, leeks, asparagus, and root veggies); and fermentable fibers (such as those found in beans, legumes, artichokes, onions, garlic, and plantains) can help feed and fuel the growth of beneficial gut bacteria, which are crucial for optimal health in humans. Please note that fermentable fibers can cause excess gas and stomach discomfort, especially if people are not used to eating a lot of fiber, so proceed slowly and cautiously; and work with your healthcare provider.
● Eat more fermented foods: Fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, yogurt, and kefir, are rich in probiotics, which are healing to the gut.
● Eliminate gut pathogens: If you are experiencing gut discomfort, talk to your healthcare provider about testing you for bacterial, fungal or parasitic imbalances that might be causing gut imbalances.
● Drink enough water: Water helps break down food in the gut, so that your body can absorb nutrients.
2. Eat Brain-Healthy Foods
Again, we’re talking about a high-quality (as much as possible, go for organic, grass-fed, GMO/chemical-free, hormone-free), whole foods, minimally processed, plant-centric, diverse/nutrient-dense diet. Some foods that specifically promote brain health according to Harvard researchers include:
● Green, leafy vegetables (i.e., kale, spinach, collards). Leafy greens are rich in vitamin K, lutein, folate, and beta carotene, which have been found to help slow cognitive decline.
● Fatty fish (i.e., salmon, cod) and other healthy fats. Fatty fish are abundant sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which can reduce your risk for Alzheimer's disease. Other healthy fats include avocados, extra-virgin cold-pressed olive oil, olives, nuts (i.e., almonds, walnuts, cashews) and seeds (i.e., pumpkin, sunflower, flax, chia, hemp).
● Berries (i.e., blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, blackberries). Berries contain flavonoids which have been shown to improve memory.
● Tea and coffee. Caffeine (in moderation) can help give you a short-term concentration boost.
● Walnuts. Walnuts (and nuts in general) are an excellent source of protein and healthy fats, which has been linked to improved memory.
● Water: Plain and simple. Your brain is mostly water and drinking water is essential for delivering nutrients to the brain and for removing toxins. When the brain is fully hydrated, the receipt of nutrients and elimination of toxins is more efficient, thus improving concentration, mental alertness, memory, and mood/emotions.
Research shows that regular exercise increases the number of tiny blood vessels that bring oxygen-rich blood to the region of the brain that is responsible for thought. Exercise also spurs the development of new nerve cells and increases the connections between brain cells (synapses). This results in brains that are more efficient and adaptable. Exercise also lowers blood pressure, improves cholesterol levels, helps blood sugar balance and reduces stress and anxiety, all of which are good for the brain (and heart).
Not only will a regular meditation practice help reduce stress and anxiety, helping you feel happier and healthier (reducing chronic inflammation), but it has also been shown to improve cognitive performance. A study conducted by researchers in Boston found that regular meditation increases blood flow to the brain, which leads to a stronger network of blood vessels in the cerebral cortex and reinforces concentration and memory capacity. You can aim for 15-20 minutes a day, but ultimately any amount of time you can spent practicing is better than none.
Getting at least seven hours of sleep at night has been shown to help your brain function at optimal levels, by strengthening connections between communicating nerve cells (synapses) in the brain, which help you to learn and create memories. Research also suggests that sleep plays a housekeeping role that removes toxins in your brain (such as those that have been linked to Alzheimer’s Disease) that build up while you are awake.
6. Develop your Community
Strong social ties have been associated with a lower risk of dementia, as well as lower blood pressure and longer life expectancy.
7. Stimulate Your Brain
Scientists have found that brainy activities stimulate new connections between nerve cells and may even help the brain generate new cells, building up a functional reserve that provides a hedge against future cell loss. Any mentally stimulating activity should help to build up your brain. Read, take courses, try "mental gymnastics," such as word puzzles or math problems Experiment with things that require manual dexterity as well as mental effort, such as drawing, painting, and other crafts. If you need further ideas, you can check out this list.