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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Holmén

Did You Create Your Brain Health? How Our Choices Impact Our Mental Health - Take the Quiz!


By Deborah Holmen, M.Ed., NBCT


Young people making lifestyle choices by staying out late and partying can affect their mental health.


As a health and wellness writer, I’m not an expert, but I am constantly updated on the latest research on brain health. I’ve learned a lot over the past ten years by interviewing scientists, doctors, and researchers, and here’s a message to remember: lifestyle and diet can impact your mental wellness.


Many people tend to separate the brain from the rest of their body. Mental health is often believed to be solely related to the brain when, in reality, most of our health issues originate in the gut, which can lead to an imbalance in the brain and its functions.


Over the years, I have seen many students improve their ADHD, Oppositional defiant disorders, as well as Autism after their parents made a complete 180-degree change in their child’s diet and lifestyle. This shows we can positively impact our brain function by improving our overall wellness at any age.


The Brain-Mental Health Connection: Unveiling the Science


Our brain is the command center for every thought, emotion, and action. Maintaining its health is crucial for overall mental well-being. Recent studies reveal some surprising insights about how our lifestyle and diet impact brain health. Here are some lesser-known findings that might just blow your mind!


The Power of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

A study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that omega-3 fatty acids, particularly EPA and DHA, significantly reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety (1).


These fatty acids are essential for brain function and have anti-inflammatory properties, which may contribute to their potential benefits in reducing these symptoms. Omega-3 fatty acids are known to modulate neurotransmitter pathways and have been linked to improved neuronal communication and function by helping to reboot the body’s response to stress, a critical factor in mood disorders.


To boost your intake of omega-3s, consume fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, or sardines at least twice you’re. If you’re not a fan of fish, consider taking a high-quality fish oil supplement. The recommended dosage is 1,000-2,000 mg combined EPA and DHA daily.


Gut-Brain Axis

Emerging research shows a strong connection between gut health and brain function. The gut microbiome produces neurotransmitters like serotonin, influencing mood and cognitive function (2).


Improve your gut health by incorporating probiotic-rich foods like yogurt, kefir, raw sauerkraut, and kimchi into your diet. You can also take a probiotic supplement; look for one with multiple strains and at least 10 billion CFUs (colony-forming units).


Sleep and Cognitive Function

A study from Nature Communications highlights that inadequate sleep can lead to a build-up of beta-amyloid plaques in the brain, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease (3).


Recent studies have shown that the gut microbiome follows a circadian rhythm influenced by exposure to light and the body’s sleep-wake cycle. When this cycle is disrupted, such as during shift work or late-night screen bingeing, it can significantly impact the composition and function of gut microbes.


A study published in the journal Cell in 2020, conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois, found that simulated night shift work in participants led to changes in the diversity and composition of gut bacteria, potentially contributing to health problems such as obesity and metabolic disorders. This emphasizes the importance of maintaining proper sleep following the Sun’s circadian cycle to support a healthy gut microbiome (4).


Prioritize getting 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night. Establish a regular sleep schedule, create a relaxing bedtime routine, and avoid screens an hour before bed. Consider using blackout curtains and a white noise machine to improve sleep quality.


Physical Exercise

Regular physical activity increases the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which supports neuron growth and cognitive function (5).


Regular physical activity has been shown to increase the production of BDNF, which in turn contributes to improved brain health. BDNF promotes the growth and differentiation of new neurons and synapses, essential for learning, memory, and overall cognitive function.


Consequently, maintaining adequate levels of BDNF through activities such as exercise can positively impact brain health and overall well-being.


Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic weekly exercise, such as brisk walking, swimming, or cycling. To further boost brain health, incorporate strength training exercises twice a week.




Foods and Lifestyle Choices That Harm Your Brain


Let’s face it; we’ve all been guilty of indulging in habits that aren’t exactly brain-friendly. Unfortunately, indulging in poor food choices can significantly impact gut health.


Eating unhealthy food regularly can lead to imbalances in the gut microbiota, causing inflammation and affecting overall digestive function. It’s important to prioritize a balanced and nutritious diet to maintain a healthy gut. Here’s a rundown of the usual suspects:


Dietary Culprits

Sugary Beverages

High sugar intake is linked to impaired brain function and an increased risk of dementia, and it’s not just sugar cane (6).


Several studies have investigated the potential health risks of consuming artificial sweeteners. Relevant studies include research published in journals like JAMA Internal Medicine, Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism, and Nutrition Reviews.


These studies have explored the possible links between consuming artificial sweeteners and adverse health effects such as metabolic disorders, changes in gut bacteria, and impacts on appetite regulation.


And this one was a shocker! Some studies in Diabetes Care and Stroke have suggested associations between artificial sweetener consumption and increased risks of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.


Reduce your consumption of sugary drinks like soda, energy drinks, and sweetened teas. Instead, opt for water, herbal teas, or infused water with fruits and herbs.


Processed Foods

Diets high in trans fats and refined carbs can negatively affect brain function and memory (7).


A study published in the journal Neurology found that diets high in trans fats and refined carbs are associated with higher levels of cognitive decline and an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.


The study followed more than 6,000 people over the age of 65 for 10 years. Those who consumed diets high in trans fats and refined carbs showed a faster rate of cognitive decline compared to those who followed healthier diets.


The findings suggest that dietary modifications to reduce trans fats and refined carbs could potentially help preserve brain function and memory as we age.


Limit your intake of processed snacks, fast food, and packaged baked goods. If you can’t identify the raw nature of the food, put it back. Focus on whole foods like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains—shop the perimeter of the grocery store.


Alcohol

Excessive alcohol consumption can lead to neurodegeneration and cognitive decline, causing damage to brain cells, disrupting neurotransmitter levels, and reducing the brain’s ability to form new neurons (8).


This can lead to the deterioration of cognitive function, including impaired memory, decreased executive function, and difficulty with learning and problem-solving. Daily and excessive alcohol consumption can also lead to structural and functional changes in the brain, resulting in long-term cognitive impairments.


Let’s face it, alcohol is a poison to the body, and it has to counteract its damaging effects each time you drink, so we need to consider if it’s worth the health risks.


Remember this: If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. Red wine, whiskey, tequila, and hard kombucha are healthier choices than beer and sugary drinks. In many health-oriented circles, it’s becoming popular to limit drinking to two days on the weekends or to abstain from alcohol on work nights.


For women, this means up to one drink per day. Choose red wine over other alcoholic beverages, as it contains antioxidants that can benefit brain health. Men should limit their daily limit to two drinks.




Lifestyle Choices


Poor Sleep Hygiene

Chronic sleep deprivation affects mood, memory, and cognitive function, as I mentioned above (9).


One of my favorite ways to retrain the brain to sleep is to listen to Binaural Beats while wearing headphones. Binaural beats are auditory sounds created when two tones of slightly different frequencies are presented separately to each ear.


When wearing headphones, the brain perceives a third tone, the binaural beat, which is the difference between the two frequencies. These beats are believed to assist with relaxation, meditation, and focus, directly influencing the brain waves!


Jody Hatton on YouTube has impressive collections of free binaural beats for any length of sleep, as well as focus, meditation, getting into the ‘creative groove,’ and more.


I often put on binaural beats for a quick 15 - 30-minute nap or to focus when I need to press through a project.


Good sleep is possible when you develop a consistent sleep routine, avoid caffeine and heavy meals close to bedtime, and create a restful sleep environment. Consider mindfulness or relaxation techniques before bed.


Excessive Screen Time

Prolonged exposure to screens can cause digital eye strain, sleep disturbances, and reduced gray matter in the brain (10).


Screen time, especially before bedtime, can disrupt circadian rhythms because the blue light emitted by screens can suppress the production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep-wake cycles.


This suppression can lead to difficulty falling asleep and reduced overall sleep quality, ultimately disrupting the body’s natural circadian rhythms.


Limit non-essential screen time, especially before bed. Take regular breaks using the 20-20-20 rule: every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds. Engage in offline activities like reading, walking, or socializing.


Toxic Environments and Relationships

Chronic stress from toxic environments or relationships increases cortisol levels, damaging brain cells and impairing cognitive functions (11).


One immediate way to know if cortisol is the culprit is to look at your midsection. If your waist has grown over the past year or more without significant dietary changes, you are likely not processing cortisol stress well.


Identify and minimize exposure to toxic relationships and environments. Practice stress management techniques such as mindfulness, deep breathing exercises, and seeking support from trusted friends, family, or a therapist.


10 Questions to Assess Your Brain’s Health


It’s quiz time! Sorry, it’s the teacher in me. Answer these questions to gauge your brain health. Rate each question on a scale from 1 (never) to 5 (always).


1. Do you eat fatty fish or take omega-3 supplements regularly?

2. Do you consume probiotic-rich foods like yogurt, kefir, raw sauerkraut, natto or fermented vegetables?

3. Do you sleep at least 7-8 hours each night?

4. Do you engage in physical exercise at least 3 times a week?

5. Do you limit your intake of sugary beverages and processed foods?

6. Do you practice stress-reducing activities like meditation or deep breathing?

7. Do you spend more than 2 hours a day on screens (outside of work)?

8. Do you avoid excessive alcohol consumption?

9. Do you have a supportive and positive social network?

10. Do you find yourself able to focus and remember things easily?


Scoring

  • 40-50: Your brain is in top shape! Keep up the great work, and continue to prioritize your brain health.

  • 30-39: You’re doing well, but there’s room for improvement. Focus on areas where you scored lower.

  • 20-29: Consider making some lifestyle changes to boost your brain health.

  • Below 20: It’s time for a brain health overhaul! Implement the tips above and consult with a healthcare professional if needed.


Now that you know where you stand, it’s time to take action. Incorporate more brain-friendly foods, prioritize sleep, reduce screen time, and cultivate positive relationships. Remember, your brain is a precious asset—treat it well, and it will reward you with sharper thinking, a better mood, and a more prosperous life.


Stay brainy, my friends!


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