Updated: Jan 12
WHAT'S THE GIST?
Our whole experience of life is created by our brain activity in response to the outside world.
The health and function of our physical brain is directly linked to the quality of our subjective experience.
A quest for mental wellness often takes us on an intellectual journey into the mind, however, it should also consider the health of our physical brain as well.
Science is beginning to show a focus on particular brain health habits can alleviate physical issues in the brain and in turn rapidly improve subjective experience (e.g 85% of patients reporting an improved quality of life.
Aspects of our brains physical health are more within our control than we may realise. Through changes in our behaviour we can rewire our brains neural connections, change our brain chemistry and even influence neurogenesis.
Must do's for a healthy brain include a focus on diet, intense exercise, strong relationships, cultivating a positive mood, reducing stress and consistently finding mental challenges.
Dont's for brain health include anything that may alter your brains natural chemical balance e.g. frequent drug taking.
Improving our brain health creates positive feedback loops in our life; as our brain health improves we are further compelled to continue the activities which help us thrive.
Once we master our brain health, mastering other aspects of life becomes easier. By working on this all important organ we simultaneously enhance our cognitive abilities, our mood, our relationships, our creativity and more.
WHAT’S THE BIG IDEA?
When we think of our mental wellbeing, a lot of what we think about concerns our subjective experiences such as thoughts, feelings and emotions. However, it’s important to understand that these subjective experiences are an emergent property of how our underlying nervous system and in particular, our brain, is functioning. The activity within our brain is responsible for producing our moment to moment subjective reality. The quality of thoughts that arise in our mind, the way we perceive each moment through our senses, the nature of our emotions or feelings and even the actions we take are determined by the quality of the physical structures within our brain. Our whole experience of life is born out of this all-important organ.
As our subjective experience is so intertwined with this underlying objective/physical reality, we need to tackle matters of human experience from both a subjective and objective lens. This article directly tackles the objective side of the equation. We will demonstrate how fundamental cultivating a healthy brain is to living the life we want, as well as give you the tools to make this possible. When our habits don’t support a healthy brain, life becomes unnecessarily difficult and we struggle to cope with everyday situations from a psychological, cognitive, behavioural and emotional perspective. However, as we will demonstrate, when the brain is supported to work optimally, both being and feeling our best becomes all the more natural.
WHATS THE EVIDENCE?
Let’s take look at the evidence that shows us why it’s so important to consider the physical side of the brain when it comes to mental wellness and explore what we mean when we talk about brain health.
Brain health interventions
Dr. Daniel Amen (1) is a psychotherapist who considers himself rather unconventional. He states that he “finds it incredibly odd that psychologists are the only physicians who don’t look directly at the organ they are treating”. What he’s getting at here is that the quest for psychological health is often done completely at an intellectual and not a physical level. At the level of intellect, we are may be able to recognise and treat the subjective aspects of our mental ailments through dialogue or other forms of therapy but we could be ignoring underlying physical causes if we don’t look directly at the brain. Dr. Amen’s work uses brain scans known as SPECT imaging scans to directly assess the condition of his patients’ brains including tissue health, blood flow and overall activity in the brain. The brain scans highlight areas of the brain that 1. Work well 2. Work too hard and 3. Aren’t working hard enough. Through this work he has directly linked many common issues in life such as depression, anxiety, excess stress, anger issues, PTSD, memory loss and more to the physical health of the brain.
Follow this link for more- https://www.amenclinics.com/gallery/
This isn’t a shocking revelation on its own but his work gets really interesting if we look at what happens after the initial diagnosis.
Once a physical anomaly has been identified, Dr. Amen recommends a series of targeted lifestyle changes to his patients, a range of new healthy brain habits that are specific to their condition. His work has shown that through these interventions, as brain health improves, psychological conditions improve in tandem. This brain first approach has a success rate of over 85% in improving quality of life and relieving a range of mental conditions, from common issues such as brain fog, lack of energy and the ability to concentrate to the most severe conditions such as such as PTSD (1). We will highlight some of his recommended brain habits below.
It’s important to note that this isn’t just beneficial for people that are in a state of ill health. Perfectly healthy people experience huge benefits from focusing on the same positive brain habits. Poor brain health also impacts us all more than we may think. Brain health has been labelled a public health epidemic in the U.S, 3/5 Americans develop a brain disease in their lifetime. Unfortunately, the odds are stacked against us in modern society as so many brain health detractors are becoming infused into our everyday life (sedentary jobs, processed foods, pollution etc.) Also note that the brain shows signs of cognitive decline and degeneration as soon as we enter our 20’s so it’s important that we all make this a priority (2).
Components of brain health
So, what do we actually mean by brain health? Supporting your brain to be at its best must include a focus on both the condition of the brain’s physical structures (i.e. the health of brain tissue, the generation and regeneration of neurons, and our dominant neural pathways) and the promotion of optimally balanced brain chemistry (the balance of neurotransmitters).
Maintaining and building better brain structures
We often think the physical structure within our brain is fixed but it is actually influenced and shaped by every choice we make. Our daily actions and experiences directly impact what kind of brain we are creating for ourselves. Neuroscience shows that with proper interventions we are able to strengthen and change the neural connections in our brain (neuroplasticity) and develop new neural cells (neurogenesis). The habits we will focus on later in this blog utilise these two concepts to build brain structures that are conducive to improved cognition, emotional balance and more.
Manipulating brain chemistry
Our internal world is ruled by a few key chemicals; dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins and cortisol. This cocktail of chemicals is responsible for a large portion of our brain activity and thus our thoughts, feelings and behaviour. To improve brain health, it is essential we understand these chemicals and balance them in a way that promotes optimal functioning. Once we understand how our lifestyle can be altered to influence these chemicals we open the door to our own personal alchemy and we are better able to engineer a lifestyle that is conducive to a stable and advantageous composition of chemicals.
MAKE THE CHANGE
Many factors of our brain health are more under our control than we may realise. As neuroplasticity suggests, a sustained change in our behaviour allows us to change our neural pathways. Changing our behaviour and these pathways can also alter how chemicals are released in the brain and depending on the nature of the new behaviour we adopt, this could also influence the generation of new neurons or regeneration of old neurons. Let’s see an example of how this process and how we can become the masters of our internal world.
Dopamine is stimulated when we see a cookie, the expectation and anticipation of a reward releases this chemical. In response to this, the brain activates neurons that are well connected through past habitual behaviour and this pattern of neural activity causes us to eat the cookie. It is very difficult to feel this same rush of dopamine and choose to respond with a different behaviour but it is possible. To build a new neural pathway and a healthy relationship with dopamine we can set a small, incremental goal to change the actions we take in response to this chemical release. For example, we could set ourselves a goal of only having x number of cookies a week. Progress towards goals and the expectation of their achievement will release dopamine. Therefore, if the goal is powerful enough and has enough meaning to us, then we will feel a release of dopamine as we realise we are on target for the weak instead of when you eat the cookie. As dopamine flows through the brain in a new way, new neurons wire together and this new behaviour becomes reinforced. The release of dopamine and serotonin that comes from goal setting is a more stable chemical balance compared to the high and subsequent crash of the cookie craving. We have shown how we can change our behaviour in a way that carves out new neural pathways and puts us in control of how chemicals in the brain are released.
You can see how this process would benefit other areas of the brain health as well, such as if we choose to implement and reinforce a behaviour that is conducive to growing healthy brain tissue through neurogenesis. For example, by implementing a new habit such as meditation (a habit which grows grey matter in the brain) and steering away from bad habits such as excessive alcohol consumption (a habit which breaks down multiple important structures in the brain) we can alter our brains physical make-up for the better.
More on the chemistry: We can also manage other chemicals like cortisol, oxytocin and serotonin through consciously altering our thoughts or behaviour. Serotonin, by using gratitude practices or writing out affirmations; oxytocin, by working on our relationships (specifically engaging in activities that enhance the level of trust we feel towards others); and cortisol, through countless relaxation techniques such as meditation, breath work, yoga etc. It takes time till these new habits or patterns of mind become our default. We need to be patient and consistent, new circuitry will be formed after ~45 days of repeating any new behaviours (3). It is worth it if we feel our chemistry is under our control.
So now we know we can change our brain, let’s explore exactly what we can we do to make this a reality every day.
Before we dive into how to improve, it’s useful to know where we are starting from and establish a baseline level of brain health. If we can measure our current level of brain health and monitor our progress, this process will be more rewarding and we will be more likely to adhere to the habits/routine. You can take a free brain health assessment from Dr. Amen’s website here (https://brainhealthassessment.com/). This assessment will define you as one of 16 brain types and give you a “brain fitness” score, the assessment also provides you with some customised tips.
Brain health habit 1: A brain boosting diet
The importance of nutrition in our lives can never be understated and this is especially true when it comes to the brain. Everything we put in our body directly impacts the functioning of our brain to some degree. The quality of the fuel we give our brain makes a huge difference to our cognition, mood and the longevity. Brain function essentially relies on three factors: 1. Glucose being available in the blood 2. Glucose being transported into the mitochondria of cells and 3. Those mitochondria producing ATP (a chemical which is responsible for storing and transporting energy in cells). Nutrition is key at every step of the way along this process and for many other supporting brain functions.
Here’s a rundown of what an optimal brain health diet looks like;
Healthy fats: the brain is made of fat, consuming high quality fat results in high quality brain function. Focus on foods high in omega 3 fatty acids; Avocado, fish, nuts, seeds and high-quality olive or see oils. We also need to avoid bad fat. Trans-fats, low-quality saturated fats and omega 6 fatty acids can actually break down the plasticity of brain cells and cause inefficient information processing (4). Some saturated fats are still considered healthy for us, those that come with high quality protein in beef or chicken and natural oils like coconut oil.
Complex carbohydrates: the right kind of carbs and sugars help us remain focused and motivated. Focus on natural/unprocessed carbohydrates with a low-glycaemic index and high fibre content. This includes wholegrains such as brown rice, quinoa and oats. The key idea is that these carbs give our brain a more stable source of energy. When our blood sugar levels are stable the brain has a consistent supply of glucose but when we eat a fast digesting carb (e.g any sugar/carb divorced from fibre such as white bread or pasta) our blood sugar spikes and then dips, this leaves us mentally lethargic and slows down our brains natural processes as we are starved of glucose.
Hydration: our brain is mostly water and thus hydration is crucial for all of its functions. The benefits of good hydration include, increasing blood flow and oxygen delivery to the brain, enhancing concentration and cognition and greater emotional balance. Even mild dehydration, a loss of fluids equivalent to just 1-3% of body weight, can have a detrimental effect on our brains functioning. There is no definitive guide to how much to drink but stick to an amount over 2L per day. As a guide we should never be thirsty (this is dehydration) and ensure our urine remains clear or very light yellow.
High quality protein: to operate at its peak our brain also requires high quality protein sources. Quality protein increases the level of amino acids in your system which encourages the production of all of the neurochemicals your brain needs to function. For protein quality look towards wild fish, chicken, turkey, eggs, kangaroo meat and legumes.
Calorie restriction: controlling calorie consumption is essential for developing a healthy brain. Overeating throughout life is associated with mild cognitive impairment and memory loss in later years (6). On the other hand, calorie restriction has been shown to slow a number of age-related brain changes. Incorporating a moderate fasting period into your eating patterns is quickly becoming known as one of the best things we can do for our brain health and function. Fasting can enhance your cells natural autophagy processes. This is a process of restriction and restoration, it removes waste and broken mitochondria from cells and also dampens cell growth for a short period so the body can consolidate resources. It is believed that this initial restriction during autophagy triggers a period of enhanced growth when we feed again, resulting in a greater overall generation of new synapses. Science is starting to prove that these cycles of metabolic change and the switch from the autophagy phase to subsequent feeding and growth phases enhances neuroplasticity, resilience and cognition.
Brain health habit 2: Movement
Cardiovascular exercise floods our brain with blood and delivers fresh oxygen and nutrients to our brain cells, this enhances our cognitive function and can even increase our overall brain volume. While this occurs, our body also produces Brain Derived Nootropic Factor (BDNF). This chemical is capable of crossing the blood/brain barrier and once present in the brain it significantly enhances our cognition, mood and neuroplasticity. Intensity during exercise is the key to release BDNF, so HIIT is highly effective.
We also need to consider how we can incorporate new and complex movement patterns into our workouts in order to kickstart new brain development. Activities involving significant coordination, balance or a combination of complex motor functions can create significant new connections within the brain, especially within the first 3-6 months of training when everything is novel and non-habitual. These activities can also create greater connections between your left and right brain, this improves our proficiency in solving complex problems and increases physical coordination.
Brain health habit 3: Build a solid community and support network
We are undeniably social creatures. Our brains have evolved to participate in collaborative activities and the health of our brain is cultivated by connection and conversation. Engaging in rich social relationships and deep conversation has been proven to enhance our cognitive sharpness, improve our memory, enhance the brains longevity and optimise brain chemistry. Social connection also buffers us against so many brain diseases including mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, as well as dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Ideas for building a community and deepening relationships:
Take stock of your current friendships and think about which relationships you could be giving more attention to, work on those you find valuable with more frequent catch ups. The strength of a relationship comes down to the frequency and depth of connection you make with the individual. Remember to give yourself permission to be selective, a single unproductive friendship can outweigh the benefits of a few healthy ones.
Deepen your conversation and connection with people by quickly getting beyond surface level conversation. Move from the facts (the what, when, where) and move into the personal and emotional realm. Ask them the why’s and how’s, try to deeply engage with their personal preferences, passions, beliefs and values. As far as topics go, if a subject is considered somewhat off limits in typical conservative/polite society (e.g. religion, politics, fears, dreams, strong emotions), if you can dance your way there with people then you will be getting somewhere.
Expand your existing circle by reaching out to new people, ask distant mutual friends out for a one on one catch up, make an effort with the people you usually don’t speak to when you’re out, join a class/society and make sure you stay after for a chat or suggest a social dinner/lunch with the group, use a friend finding app (these are becoming increasingly mainstream with great success).
Brain health habit 4: Reduce stress
Stress has been and always will be a necessary part of being human, it’s a powerful motivator and actions us towards safety and other important activities. However, chronic stress and the variety of stress hormones released within the stress response can damage our brain over the long-term. Cortisol, a key stress hormone, is known to reduce cognitive flexibility in the short term if it gets out of our control; stress narrows our thinking and creates negative feedback loops. In the long-term stress can do much worse, it is capable of damaging brain cells if it persists over long periods, particularly in the areas of the brain associated with memory such as the hippocampus (5).
Our baseline level of stress and anxiety can be reduced through the regular practice of relaxation techniques. States of calm are not our birth right, the opposite is closer to our default state. Therefore, we need to make a deliberate and consistent effort to shift our nervous system into a parasympathetic state (one that promotes rest & relaxation) otherwise we are predisposition to suffer high levels of stress. Making a daily habit of breathwork, yoga, meditation or progressive muscle relaxation will all help shift the dial down on our physical and mental stress.
We also recommend you make this process tangible by monitoring the level of stress present in your nervous system using a heart rate variability (HRV) device. Assessing your HRV will give you an indication of the level of stress your system is dealing with and where you are functioning between the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous states. Keeping a close eye on this balance will allow you to adjust your behaviour in order to keep yourself in a healthy and advantageous state of arousal. This will result in an optimal neurobiology for our brain to grow and develop its full emotional and cognitive capabilities.
Brain health habit 5: Improve your mood
The unfortunate thing about sadness is that it does more harm to us than the just cause an unpleasant subjective experience in our mind. Sadness and depression are actually harmful to the physical brain. The increased levels of cortisol and decreased levels of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine that are associated with mood disorders have been shown to decrease neuron growth in useful areas of the brain such as the hippocampus (this can lead to memory problems) and increase growth in other areas of the brain such as the amygdala (this area is associated with strong emotional responses, this growth can trigger sleeping problems, adverse hormonal effects and negative changes in behaviour). Depression itself is also associated with higher levels of inflammation in the brain. Excess inflammation interferes with learning and memory while also further impacting the neurotransmitters that regulate mood. Many conditions like depression also result in hypoxia of the brain (a lack of oxygen), this further accelerates inflammation and can also result in the death of many neurons, stunting our cognitive abilities (7).
As you can see it can be a slippery downhill slope but it doesn’t have to be. Many studies show that there are a wealth of habits and practices that allow us to enhance our mood, although these interventions may not solve your problem completely they are sure to help.
Goal setting: experiencing progress towards our goals produces serotonin and achieving our goals big or small, releases dopamine.
Positive affirmations: an incredibly powerful way to challenge your internal dialogue and create more uplifting and self-esteem building patterns of thought.
Meditation: mindfulness techniques have been shown to be as effective as serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SRRI’s) in many studies.
Getting into the sunlight everyday: low levels of vitamin D are correlated with mood and behaviour issues.
8 hours of sleep: multiple mechanisms during sleep help to improve the quality of our waking state.
Gratitude practices: training our brains to appreciate the big and little things, for example “I’m grateful for this coffee” all to the way to “I’m grateful to be alive and healthy”.
Breathing exercises: help regulate the activity of the autonomic nervous system and results in a more stable neurochemistry.
Exercise: releases endorphins that are overwhelmingly effective in stabilising mood, also as effect as SSRI’s in many cases.
Therapy: of course, if problems persist and interfere with your enjoyment of life, talking to a professional is the best step we can take towards optimal health.
Brain health habit number 6: Flex your cognition
Use it, or you’ll lose it. This statement is a negative way of framing the phenomenon of neuroplasticity. Yes, if we don’t use it, we can become rigid in our cognition and atrophy will occur in latent neural pathways. However, if we do use it, instead of losing part of our mental infrastructure we can build up new and enhance existing connections within it. We can be incredibly effective in exercising parts of our brain through; engaging our mind with new stimuli (such as particular brain and memory games), exploring challenging motor patterns that involve coordination and complex movement, adopting new perspectives and mental models, learning new skills, and exposing your mind to new environments.
What we should be doing is regularly looking at our calendar and thinking “am I challenging my mind’. We must frequently stand in opposition to our “usual” way of life and ask ourselves how much of our scheduled activity is useful routine vs a boring and stale use of our time. Then we must challenge ourselves to determine what we can do to introduce valuable change, novelty and variety into our days, weeks and months.
Ideas to mix things up and keep our minds fresh.
Try a class in something new: the best options combine complex motor and cognitive challenges. Undertake sports involving balance such as surfing, martial arts or yoga.
Learn new skill: a language, an instrument, a creative pursuit such as painting or pottery. Anything which forces you to connect new patterns or alter the way you think.
Use a brain training practice: Games of strategy such as chess or brain games/apps can also work (if chosen carefully). The number one brain game backed by science is the dual-n-back method. This game forces us to use our spatial and auditory systems simultaneously to monitor and recall patterns. This has been shown to significantly increase our working memory, this is a component of cognition that is crucial to our IQ, our ability to problem solve and how articulate we are when conducting a speech or presentation.
Expose yourself to new environments: travel, attend different social events, explore a new area of your city. New environments invite in new stimulus and maintain the exploratory circuits in our brain, this is essential for our continued growth in adulthood.
Try adopt new perspectives and mental models: use your self-awareness to actively identify and challenge how you are thinking. Master the art of thoughtful disagreement by training yourself to hold the perspectives of others in your mind; this is also an effective way to train your empathy. Learn about and adopt new mental models to change the way you see, understand and interact with the world.
The quick don’ts:
As a general guide, anything that significantly alters the natural balance of chemicals in your brain should be used very sparingly and with caution. There is always the risk of triggering dramatic changes to our neurons, neurotransmitters and brain circuits. If you are artificially altering your brain chemistry time and time again, your brain will wire new pathways to balance out the system (for example if a drug is continually taken to induce a positive mood or relax, the pathways associated with these systems will atrophy and our ability to naturally feel this way will be greatly diminished over time). Be careful when messing with your brains programming, particularly if you are young (if under 25 your brain is still actively writing its own program and is particularly sensitive to external influence). The bottom line, avoid excessive marijuana, alcohol, hard drugs or anything else with a strong ability to alter your natural chemistry or hormonal balance.
LIVE YOUR NEW EXPERIENCE
Endeavouring to improve your brain health is fundamentally a life changing pursuit. Your brain is directly linked with your quality of life. The standard of your relationships, your mood, thoughts, intelligence, creativity and more is all defined by what’s happening in your brain. If we let the health of our most vital organ fall by the wayside, we can feel like we are pushing water uphill when performing everyday actions. When we look after our brain, the rest looks after itself.
A healthy brain makes life feel effortless. It allows us to experience sharper thinking, less mental fatigue and resilience against negative emotion and limbic hijack. All these effects compound to create positive feedback loops in our lives. For example, the clarity of mind that results from improved brain health enhances our ability to sense make and choice make in the world. These skills are crucial for a life well lived and also positively fuel our brain health. Better sense making means we have an improved ability to make meaning from our reality. When we are capable of understanding our world, we experience a flood of positive emotion and a huge reduction in generalised uncertainty/anxiety. This shifts the chemical balance in our head further in our favour and compounds the boost we get to our brain. An increased ability to choice make/make good choices has a similar result. Enhanced brain function allows us to us to exhibit more top down control over our decisions and actions, this means we make more rational and omni-considerate (all considerate) choices that are good for our body and brain. In this way, a healthy brain will compel us towards activities and decisions that support its own thriving.
Physiology: Brain health also keeps our bodies healthy. The brain is the executive system which controls the rest of our nervous system, endocrine system, immune system and digestive system (to name a few crucial ones). Therefore, it has a powerful influence on the health of our whole physical being. An unhealthy brain will result in the poor function of our critical life support systems, making the body vulnerable to chemical, hormonal and viral issues that detrimentally impact our physical health. The brain and body are so deeply connected that when we work on one side of this equation, we are simultaneously supporting the other.
Philosophy: A high functioning brain gives us the headspace and cognitive capacity we need to become truly deep thinkers. When our brain is low on energy we resort to default ways of thinking, feeling and behaving. Thinking deeply, contemplating innovative ways of being and breaking free of our most engrained habits, is mentally taxing work. If we can unlock extra reserves of mental energy, we can begin to use this brain power to reflect on what we are doing, increase our self-awareness and begin to explore new ways of thinking and being. This enables us to live more aligned to our chosen life philosophies or actually construct new philosophies.
To conclude, a little bit of effort when it comes to our brains goes a long way. We are sharper, more articulate, less anxious, less stressed, more satisfied with life and perform better. The best part is, when your brain is healthy and you are operating this way, we begin to crave the activities, nutrients and information that will allow to thrive even more. How are you going to shift the dial on your brain health this year, this week or today?
Read: The End of Mental Illness or Feel Better Fast and Make It Last by Dr. Daniel Amen.
Watch: The most important lesson from 83,000 brain scans - Dr. Daniel Amen Tedx Talk
Listen: In this podcast Dr. Rhonda Patrick and Tim Ferris explore the various nootropics, supplements, habbits, practices and diet athat impact our brain and cognition.