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Brain Health vs. Mental Health: 11 Practices to Improve your Brain

Mar 01, 2024

Doesn't BRAIN HEALTH sound and feel better than MENTAL HEALTH? It has a nicer ring to it, I think. 

The term "mental health" has such a stigma around it, but "brain health" feels more open, expansive and welcoming. 

Introduced to me by Dr. Daniel Amen's books on brain health and mental well-being, a lightbulb went off in my head. THIS is how we should be viewing mental health or "illness". It felt different. It felt better. There's less shame and less judgment. 

It might be because when we think about the brain itself, there's a scientific emphasis.

Maybe it creates a feeling that invites a broader exploration of health.

Maybe it encourages an approach that considers how brain health affects cognitive functions, emotions, and overall physical health.

Our brain, much like the heart or lungs, has its own wellness wishlist. We wouldn't ignore chest pains, right? So why overlook brain signals like anxiety or insomnia? We shouldn't.

 I wish I had viewed it this way during my journey with severe anxiety, depression, and insomnia after COVID (read it here). Buttt, better late than never. 

I hope what I share here reaches you earlier in your journey than for me, but if not, I hope it helps you just as much (or someone you know). 

Viewing mental health through the lens of brain health, it's clear that nurturing our brain goes beyond addressing symptoms. It's about cultivating a foundation for optimal health and resilience. It’s about empowering ourselves to approach our mental health with less judgment, and most importantly, to open up a world of possibilities for healing and growth.

Like any other organ, our brains are not just in need of healing when we feel unwell; they require ongoing care to function at their best. Preventative care should be at the forefront of our minds when it comes to wellness of any part of the body. It starts with you. Don't wait to get sick to get help or start taking care of yourself. Begin creating a lifestyle that supports your brain's health, nourishing it so that it can work the way it should and take care of you. 

How to begin?

Medicine is complex, and anything with the brain (or any other organ system in the body) is diverse and complex. From the food we eat to the thoughts we nurture; every choice impacts our brain's health. Below are the key integrative practices that helped me during my journey, and may help you (or someone you know) with their brain health journey at a much lesser cost. I paid 10k to get better. It would make me so happy to know that these tips might help decrease that cost for others. *

This is not an exhaustive list, but a great starting point.*

11 PRACTICES TO ENHANCE BRAIN HEALTH:

1.NUTRITION

Nutrition plays a crucial role in brain health (well..ALL health really). Consuming a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and vitamins from whole foods can improve cognitive function and mood. Whole foods are foods that are as close to its truest form as possible. When shopping at the grocery store, shop the perimeter of the store. The middle aisles consist of mostly ultra-processed foods that have negative health consequences. Foods like fatty fish (look for wild caught, not farm raised), berries, nuts, and leafy greens are particularly beneficial for brain health. Growing your own veggies is best, organic from the store is next best, but life is expensive right now (especially groceries) so do your best and get what you can!  

2. SLEEP

Sleep is the best medicine for all physiological and psychological processes in the body. There's no question that poor sleep leaves us feeling groggy, grumpy, irritable, brain foggy and drained. Sleep allows the brain to rest, recover, and remove toxins. Quality sleep enhances learning, memory, and emotional well-being, while poor sleep patterns can exacerbate mental health issues.

I’ll post more about sleep and what helped me with insomnia later on, but for now, here’s a resource to help you start to improve sleep.

3. EXERCISE

Physical movement increases blood flow to the brain, improves neural connections, and releases endorphins, enhancing mood and cognitive functions (this is why exercise fanatics talk about the "runners high").

TIP: find something you enjoy. I enjoy practicing and teaching yoga and weight training so that’s what I stick with. Walking is a great option! Don't try to be a runner if you don't enjoy running. That's counterproductive mentally, and you likely won't be consistent with it.

4. MINDFULNESS & MEDITATION 

Mindfulness was the most crucial part of my recovery process. Mindfulness and meditation reduce stress, anxiety, and symptoms of depression by enhancing present-moment awareness. Regular practice can lead to structural changes in the brain associated with improved emotional regulation and attention. We have meditation practices in my yoga classes every week. It's foundational to mental well-being- it's normal if it feels uncomfortable at first. STICK WITH IT. New learning is agitating to the brain, it takes times to rewire new neural circuits. 

There are many meditation videos and apps out there. Type it into google, you-tube or any online platform to listen for free. Headspace, Calm, and Insight Timer are all great apps to use as well.

I like NSDR/ Yoga Nidra meditations. These are GREAT to listen to when you’ve have poor sleep or are trying to fall asleep.

5. THERAPY

Nurture your thoughts. Become aware of them and process through them. Do it with a licensed professional to guide you, if needed. There are many types of therapy, but therapy generally speaking, it will help you identify and challenge negative thought patterns, fostering healthier thinking and behavior. It's incredibly effective, especially when used together with medication.

If you're looking for a therapist, click here.

6. SOCIAL CONNECTION

BE WITH YOUR PEOPLE. It will help you get out of your end if you're stuck. Call someone, visit someone, be with someone important to you. Maintaining strong social ties can boost mental health by providing emotional support, reducing stress, and enhancing feelings of belonging and purpose. Quality relationships are crucial for emotional resilience and brain health.

7. MANAGE STRESS. 

Techniques such as deep breathing exercises (inhale for 4, hold for 4, exhale for 8), progressive muscle relaxation, body scans, and biofeedback can help manage stress. This ties into meditation and mindfulness. Getting a massage once a month is great, but maintaining stress levels every day is ideal for cognitive functions and emotional well-being. Meditating for 5 minutes every day can be incredibly helpful.

I had to focus on slowing down and getting rid of things that were causing stress. You'd be surprised how much better you feel when you take a few things off your plate and focus on a few important ones for a while. 

I have a post I'm working on that talks about stress management in detail. Stay tuned. 

8.SUPPLEMENTS

Certain supplements, including NAC, probiotics, omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, vitamin D and B vitamins support brain health. However, it's important to consult with a healthcare provider before starting any new supplement. I get labs drawn to check my levels, ask your doctor to do this yearly so you can keep track (ask for a copy to refer back to!). Ask your provider about taking any of the above supplements for brain health.

9. HOBBIES

I never had hobbies before learning to garden. That sounds wild but it's true. I was too obsessed with school and work to think about what I would enjoy outside of those. Find your hobbies. Pursue something, get started somewhere. Engaging in creative activities such as painting, writing, or playing music can stimulate the brain, reduce stress, and provide a sense of accomplishment and joy.

10. NATURE

Spending time in natural settings can reduce stress, improve mood, and enhance cognitive functions. This doesn't have to be complicated. Sit in the yard, get into the garden, go for a walk, sit on the porch (especially with sunshine in your eyes in the morning! It helps with your circadian rhythm to improve sleep). 

11.  MEDICATION

There is NO shame when it comes to taking medication. Should it be the first resort? No, probably not. But most people don’t get help until it’s too late, and at that point, it’s necessary (it took me 5 hellish months to accept taking an antidepressant). Medications can be frustrating because of the time it may take to find the one that works for you. I had genetic testing done through Genomind, and I had no problem starting my medication. I highly recommend talking about that test with a provider educated to analyze it. It saved me from trying many of the SSRIs that weren’t compatible with my body.

 

Working on brain health is like signing up for a marathon, not a sprint. It can take months, maybe years. The rewards/shifts start to appear quickly though. Don’t let the “months or years” timeframe scare you. It becomes a lifelong lifestyle once you figure out what your goals for your brain are, and how you want to work toward those goals. The best part is that when you get started, theres a ripple effect within the rest of your body systems. That’s the BEST part about the body; all the systems work together. When you start to improve one, the others follow suit.

Best of luck & reach out if you need support on your journey!

Health, Longevity and Authentic Living in your Inbox

 

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