EXERCISING A HEALTHY BRAIN: BRAIN AWARENESS WEEK
This week is Brain Awareness Week, a week to increase awareness around the importance of brain health and the benefits of brain research. Mental Health is one of the three pillars of Happywhenfit health programs, as without the foundations of positive mental health, we realise that all other areas of health are compromised. What you feed your mind is equally, if not more important than what you feed your stomach. So how can we exercise our brains for good mental health that filters into all aspects of our life?
Brain health is largely affected by our lifestyle and self care. So it’s time to be honest! Have a look at this self care scorecard and give yourself a score across each of the essential areas for positive mental health. This isn’t about perfect scores. Your evaluation of these areas will and should change week to week depending on what is happening in your life. The important thing is the awareness you bring to each of the areas so that you can find small ways to improve and be resilient when the scores might be asking you to ‘phone a friend’ (by the way, phoning a friend is always a good strategy)!
Now that you’ve had a look at where you’re at, here are some strategies to consider for each of the areas:
Our bodies are designed to move! The benefits of exercise on the brain deserve their own blog post, however, let’s look at some of the short term immediate benefits. Increased levels of mood boosting neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, noradrenaline; increased ability to shift and focus attention; and increased reaction times. Check out this incredible Ted Talk by Neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki on ‘The Brain Changing Benefits of Exercise’ where she discusses these short term effects, as well as the long lasting effects on brain anatomy, physiology and function. Wendy explains that to achieve these benefits, we only need 30 minutes a day of getting our heart rate up! I also love that she shares that this can be achieved in so many ways, regardless of your budget or time commitments. Daily chores such as cleaning the house, or taking the dog for a walk, choosing the stairs over the lift, or going for a walk along the beach with friends all count towards that 30 minutes and it’s free!
Exercise also comes with the potential benefits of getting us outdoors, socialising and creating healthy routines, all of which have huge positive benefits for our mental health!
“You can go to the gym, drink water and take your vitamins, but if you don’t deal with what’s going on in your head, you’ll never be healthy” (Unknown). Stress is actually our bodies natural response to danger, allowing us to ‘fight or take flight’. The problem with this is that evolution has dramatically changed what our bodies perceive as stress. Where once a stress response might be to a life threatening situation such as being chased by a lion, now stress is more commonly caused by money, work, societal expectations (body image and perfectionism are a huge cause of stress now thanks to social media!), and other long term causes that prolong the bodies ability to release the excess cortisol. Excessive cortisol causes havoc with our hormones, increases blood pressure and risk for heart disease, decreases cognitive function, and has a negative snow ball effect on all other vital systems of our bodies. This eventually compromises our bodies immune system which can lead to illness and disease. Needless to say that finding ways to deal with and prevent ongoing stress is so important!
To know what stress busting strategies will work best for you, consider what the biggest causes of stress are in your life. I think to prevent being overwhelmed in knowing where to start, it can help to consider which areas are in your power to improve quickly such as nutrition, quality and adequate water, and getting enough sleep. Approach each area one step at a time, rather than all at once - every small step to improving will ultimately have a positive effect on your stress levels and overall health. It might also be beneficial to consider your stress management from a ‘do more of/do less of’ mindset. What do you need more of in your life to prevent stress and what do you need less of or not at all to create a healthy mind space? Writing this down will help provide you with an action plan and give you some control over your mental health. For example, you might have a high energy demanding job that is difficult to ‘switch off’ from at the end of the day. Adding more time for quiet reflection, meditation, yoga or journaling, may be important in assisting you to mentally de-load your day so you can be more present with your loved ones.
It can also be valuable to get educated on the types of resources available now to assist us in preventative health measures. Something as easy as wearing a pair of blue blocking glasses when using devices can assist in protecting your eyes against increased use of technology, which can be extremely disruptive to our sleeping patterns. I use Baxter Blue glasses everyday now and can’t recommend them enough! Check them out at the link provided and use the code HWF01 below to receive free express shipping. I will go into the topic of technology in my next blog post where I am excited to be talking to Aaron from Baxter Blue about eye health!
Paul Chek is a huge inspiration for me personally in the holistic health world. He provides valuable advice in recommending the balance of Yin and Yang energy. Yin being the restore and repair state (working in) and Yang being the active, “get the job done” catabolic state (Working Out). We need both in our lives for our health to flourish, however, an excessive amount of either can cause a state of stress. It is very common in the busyness of Western Culture for us to have an excessive amount of Yang energy. Finding ways to balance this, like those suggestions mentioned above, are important in coping with the demands of everyday life.
Act, Belong, Commit also provide a powerful message around the ways we can keep mentally and physically active to prevent mental illnesses often caused by stress. Check out their website for upcoming events near you, activity suggestions to keep mentally healthy, and lots of educational resources to arm you with the tools you need to make your mental health a priority.
It’s also good to realise that there is absolutely no shame in talking to someone! The stigma around help seeking behaviours often makes it difficult to want to ask for external support in fear of judgement from others. Seeking a professional to talk to can help you to create an action plan to cope with your stress, especially if it is leading to mental health problems such as depression and anxiety that can make it extremely difficult to make decisions or to recognise what the actual causes of your stress are. A counselor or psychologist bring no bias or judgement to the table when listening and that can be an advantage they have over our loved ones. I have used counselors in the past during some tough times and I wouldn’t hesitate to use them again if I needed to. Just the process of having someone listen and a space where I felt safe to talk was an invaluable service. The process of removing the stigma around help seeking behaviours is to openly talk about it. There is no weakness in being smart and strong enough to recognise where you might be able to improve your quality of life by talking to someone, only huge potential for self development and growth.
“Let food be medicine and medicine be thy food” (Hippocrates). Good nutrition can be the best preventative health strategy you have that will save you time, money, stress and issues in the long run. Sticking mostly to a whole food diet that limits processed and refined foods is always a good start. The artificial ingredients in packaged foods are foreign to our bodies and can cause and aggravate existing health issues short and long term, including mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression, behavioural disorders such as ADHD and autism; and physical symptoms such as skin irritations and acne.
Unfortunately, there is a myriad of diets and health fads out there that can encourage us to move away from what truly should be so basic - JERF: Just Eat Real Foods. If it is grown in the ground, if it is ethically and organically raised, if it comes from Mother Nature, if it is locally grown and eaten in season, then most of the time it’s a food choice that will provide nourishment to your body and mind. If it has ingredient names in it that you don’t recognise, or a list of numbers, then it’s probably going to need to go through one of your detoxification pathways to get out of the body. Everyone is different, but that may show up as acne, irregular moods or lethargy, and that’s just the short term effects. Food truly is a powerful tool!
So, what foods are nutrient dense for our brain? Again, it comes back to a wholefood diet that has a good balance of carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats, however, here are a few foods known to specifically help areas of our brain such as memory, concentration and function, including:
Fish Oil and Cold Water Fish- The Omega 3s found in oily fish, nuts and seeds, avocado and other sources of healthy fats, are hugely beneficial to the cell membranes of our bodies and brains! Increased cognitive function is just one of the numerous benefits of including healthy omega 3 into your diet. Cold water fish such as Mackerel, Salmon, Sardines and Trout also contain DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). DHA is good for the brain and the body, some studies showing a reduction in cardiovascular disease risk. Note: Fats are a calorie dense source. Portions of these foods should always be reflective of the amount of energy your lifestyle demands! You will still get all of the health benefits in amounts suited to your energy needs .
Nuts and seeds - Particularly those high in Vitamin E such as Sunflower seeds. Vitamin E protects the brain against oxidative stress
Dark Chocolate (at least 70+% cacao derived) - High in flavonoid antioxidants that protect our brains against oxidative stress, reduce inflammation in the body, and delay the onset of age related neurodegenerative diseases (I like Organic brands such as Alter Ego)
Dark Berries - Generally the darker the skin, the higher the antioxidants. Blueberries, Mulberries, Blackcurrants, Blackberries and Chokeberries are all great examples of these potent health promoting berries that reduce cognitive decline
Dark Leafy Green Vegetables - Cruciferous and leafy green vegetables such as Broccoli, Spinach, Kale, Chard and other greens are rich in vitamins E, A and C, all of which assist in brain function and repair
Turmeric - Turmeric is a potent anti-inflammatory root used as a spice in many Indian inspired recipes. It contains a compound called Curcumin, which Brain HQ says Turmeric has been shown to have significant neuroprotective, anti-inflammatory, and anti-alzeimers affects. Check out their link provided above for more information on Brain Healthy Foods and recipes!
PURPOSE AND CONNECTION
I have recently finished reading an incredible book called ‘Lost Connections’ by Johann Hari (I highly recommend reading this!). In it he covers the 7 areas of ‘lost connections’ in modern day life including connection with nature, purpose, and community. Humans are social creatures. We need to feel loved, accepted and valued to thrive. Making time for quality relationships and spending some time considering what matters most to you (your purpose, your why, what makes you happy) are important steps in creating a life that is full of meaning and happiness, as well as protecting you against mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. I ask you to reflect on this: What matters most to you? Your time and energy should be focused on making these answers a priority. Then make an effort to connect with like minded people and build a sense of community around the things you value the most. It’s no surprise that religious groups, fitness groups such as CrossFit and F45, and other mass group interest/value/belief groups have such a huge following. What they all have in common is the ability to bring like minded people together and help them feel that in some way they are contributing to something of meaning. Defining your skills, values and interests will help you to find ‘your people’ and the places that you can give back to a cause bigger than yourself.
Brain health affects every aspect of our health. Make time to evaluate your self care strategies, because there is no time like the present to start taking action on being the healthiest and happiest version of yourself and living a life of meaning and purpose. If your community group, school or workplace would like to take some actionable steps to making selfcare and healthy choices a priority, then please get in touch with Happywhenfit to book your session!
For more information on Brain Health Awareness Week or to donate to research please visit: https://www.dana.org/baw/about/