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Build a Better Brain for Better Mental Health

Three simple ways to take your mental health into your own hands.

If you knew of a method for enhancing your brain’s health and function would you make that system part of your daily health routine? For me, the answer to that question is a no-brainer. It’s a resounding YES!

Today’s post shows you a way scientists say strengthens the health of our brain, body, and mental well being. Thanks to research advancements in the mind and body connection, over the past three decades, the brain and psychological sciences began to look more at the role of brain health to mental stability and well being in conditions like major depression, bipolar disorder, the anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorders, attention deficit disorders, post traumatic stressschizophrenia, autism, and epilepsy.

What questions did these researchers ask themselves? What are the features of a healthy brain? How do these factors promote brain health and what is their relationship to physical and mental disease?

It seems that brain health rests on the brain’s ability to repair and renew its nerves and their connections to each other throughout the body. The brain copes with wear and tear on the body caused by stress, poor lifestyle habits, genetics, or a combination of all three, through regenerating its nerves. This is how we are able to keep our physical and mental health.

A breakdown in the brain’s ability to renew itself can lead to cellular inflammation and degeneration, body organ wear and tear, and negative changes in the way our genes were meant to express themselves in our body. If the brain didn’t have this remarkable capacity, we would have no buffers against physical and mental illness.

But, fortunately, the brain does, if our lifestyle habits support it. One of science’s more interesting findings of the past few decades has to do with a brain protein called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).

BDNF: Fertilizer To Our Brains

The Brain’s Miracle Grow

BDNF is fertilizer to the brain’s neurons. This powerful neurotrophin growth factor is a secreted protein that is critical to the functioning of the adult brain. BDNF supports the survival of existing neurons and also initiates the growth and differentiation of new nerves and their connections through a process called neurogenesis.

BDNF seems to be very active in the brain’s hippocampus region that is responsible for memory formation and oscillation of excitatory and inhibitory brain wave activity. This has significant implications for disorders of movement, inhibition, and memory disturbances like in epilepsy, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease and also in disorders of mood, attention and learning.

There is also a higher level of BDNF activity in the brain’s frontal lobe region that is responsible for higher order thinking processes that include reasoning, goal direction, problem solving, anticipation of consequences, imagination and future planning. Low BDNF levels in the frontal lobe region can result in thinking and learning impairments and in the regulation of mood, self-control and ability to learn from one’s actions.

BDNF and Mental Health Conditions

It’s easier to see the negative effects of stress on our behavior than it is on the actual workings of the brain. Stress increases the stress hormone corticosterone that decreases BDNF in the brain. BDNF has been shown to be low in people who are in a state of chronic stress, which can be a trigger for many psychiatric disorders (Resilience to Chronic Stress Is Mediated by Hippocampal Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor) that include major depression (BDNF and Depression, The National Center for Behavioral Information ; BDNF and Depression), bipolar disorder (The Role of BDNF as a Mediator of Neuroplasticity in Bipolar Disorder), schizophrenia, epilepsy, autism, and childhood and adult ADHD (Decreased serum levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor in adults with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.  Animal studies show that manipulation of BDNF levels can produce impairments in behavior that mimic depression and also disrupt movement and ability to learn. But, once BDNF levels are restored to a normal level these impairments go away. This has huge implications for advancements in the treatment of psychiatric disorders.

The Good News:

You CAN Build A Better Brain for Better Mental Health

There is a lot you can do to raise BDNF levels in the brain. There is an abundance of research that shows that exercise, food, and prescribed medications raise the brain’s BDNF levels that improves cognitive function, mood stability, and general well being.

Exercise: Thanks to brain-imaging studies in humans and neurochemical studies in animals, scientists have found evidence that exercise actually makes a stronger brain. “Physical exertion induces the cells in the brain to reinforce old connections between neurons and to forge new connections (increases BDNF level). This denser neuron network is better able to process and store information, essentially resulting in a smarter brain” (Sweating Makes You Smarter, PsychologyToday.com).

What is more, we don’t have to exercise 24/7 to get this benefit. Even a moderate program of exercise has been shown to boost brain function, help us to heal faster from injuries, and also to reduce depression. Harvard University’s Dr. John Ratey recommends that “everyone should participate in a minimum of five sessions of moderate intensity aerobic exercise lasting at least 30 minutes each week to maximize the benefits of exercise on neurotrophin production (Livestrong.com). Thus, if you wish to build a better brain and to strengthen your mental health, just start to move.

Diet: The positive effects of nutrients on brain function are well known. For example, dietary deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids in humans has been associated with increased risk of several mental disorders, including attention-deficit disorder, dyslexia, dementia, depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Studies have shown that different dietary factors can affect the brain’s ability to repair and renew its nerve networks and also lower inflammation throughout the brain. Diets, like the classic Mediterranean diet that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, colorful fruits and vegetables (high in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties), nuts (rich in monounsaturated (almonds) and polyunsaturated (walnuts) fatty acids), beans, olive oil, whole grains and fish and low in dairy products, meat, and alcohol intake) increase the brain’s BDNF level that improves cognitive function, mood, lowers brain inflammation and promotes cellular growth. In contrast, diets rich in saturated fatty acids or high in total fat content actually lowers BDNF level and are associated with impaired memory, brain atrophy and mood disorders. (Can the Mediterranean Diet Treat Depression, PsychologyToday.com).

Also, eating too much (excess calories) can over-oxidize brain and body cells beyond their ability to protect themselves and lowers BDNF levels in the brain. By reducing daily caloric intake to a moderate level, we can increase BDNF in the brain. Moderate caloric restriction not only protects the brain against oxidative damage but also assures its regeneration of nerve cells.

Prescribed Medications: If you have to take a prescribed medication to manage a mental health condition, do not despair. BDNF and serotonin (one of the nerve transmitters involved in mood regulation) play central roles in regulating mood, especially in major depression. BDNF promotes the survival and differentiation of serotonin neurons. Conversely, administration of antidepressant selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) enhances the positive expression of the BDNF gene in the brain (Interaction between BDNF and serotonin: role in mood disorders). Hence, counter to popular thinking, prescribed medications, like the SSRIs actually strengthen the brain and mental health. Animal studies show that if an animal is treated with a drug like Prozac (SSRI) for a few weeks, long enough to get a clinical effect in humans, there is new nerve growth in the brain’s hippocampus associated with an increased level of BDNF in the brain.

Too, BDNF level seems to be a marker for mood stability, especially in major depression disorder (MDD) and bipolar disorder (BPD). Studies show that blood stream levels of BDNF are significantly lower in persons with these disorders, especially during manic, depressed and mixed state episodes (BDNF as a Biomarker for Mood Disorders) and that BDNF level is associated with severity of symptoms. But, the good news is that antidepressant and mood stabilizing medications, like Depakote, lithium, and  Lamictal restore BDNF to normal levels.

There’s little doubt that we can improve the health of our brains and thus our mental health. All we have to do is take our health into our own hands. Now that you know of a method for enhancing your brain’s health and function are you willing to make that system part of your daily health routine?

I hope you liked today’s post and found its ideas and information helpful to your life. If you did, please let me know by selecting the Like icon that immediately follows. You can also Tweet and Google+1 today’s article to let your friends know about it. Take good care and do what you can to live the best life possible. Warmly Deborah.


Deborah Khoshaba, Psy.D., is a Clinical Psychologist and Director of Training and Development for the Hardiness Institute, Inc., Irvine, California, since 1989.

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