Keeping our brain happy can go a long way in having better mental health. While we generally associate our mental health with our brain, the reality is our brain is just another part of our body. It’s an important part, one of the single most influential parts of our body, but it is still just part of the overall machine that makes us work. So, taking care of that central core processor is a good idea, and since our brain is part of our body, what it needs to be happy is pretty simple because it goes hand-in-hand with what our body needs.
Fuel: If you put the wrong type of gasoline in your car, it breaks down. Not immediately necessarily, but over time that wrong fuel causes all sorts of problems. If you put just any old liquid in your gas tank, let’s say soda for fun, that breakdown happens even quicker. Our body is the same way. If all of our fuel is sorta, kinda what we need, we don’t break down immediately, but over time that incorrect fuel starts to have detrimental effects. A healthy diet goes a long way in having your brain not only stave off breakdowns, but also in working more effectively. Your brain uses glucose as fuel, so healthy options like fruit and veggies provide natural power to your brain, while overly-processed foods full of trans fats can’t break down into simple sugar that your brain needs. Snacking on nuts or berries can be a small change to move away from that processed food that gums things up in your brain. Also, hydrate! Good sleep (we’ll get to that) and proper hydration work wonders for most people. If you aren’t hydrating well, your body has to draw resources just to survive, and so higher-level functions like problem-solving and communication take a hit. Give your brain the fuel it needs with proper hydration and clean eating.
Rest: Our brain runs a lot of systems at once. While we are awake we are taking in constant stimuli, and our brain is running analysis on all of it, then sending out signals to our body on how to respond. We process insane amounts of information each second, and our brain has to decide in real-time how to manage all of our resources to handle all that information. But our brain needs to do other things too, like decide which stimuli to store or discard, it needs to devote resources to healing our bodies on a cellular level, and it needs to be able to have time to clean itself and get rid of toxins and other by-products it builds up during the day. Sleep is when all that cool stuff happens, but our brain needs to not be taking in new stimuli to do that. Processing stimuli takes up so, so much of our brain’s resources and sleep allows the brain to finally have time to focus on these other necessary tasks. So, next time you want to stay up late for one more episode, or go out late for drinks, really think about how much time your brain needs to feel recovered from the day and decide if a fun time or recovery is the best option. Sleep isn’t the most important thing, we can recover from staying up late, but if we habitually shortchange our rest, then our brain cannot function at a high level.
Exercise: I’m cheating here, because I’m using exercise to mean two different things. First, our brain needs to stretch and grow and expand with novel stimuli. Playing problem-solving games, creating something new, interacting with others socially, all of these things are good exercises for our brain. Depending on your upbringing and other biological factors, what your brain likes for exercise will vary, some of you may like to read books or dive into a podcast, while some of you will be more on the social side and craving interactions with people rather than ideas. Whichever your brain prefers, we need to shake out the cobwebs and let our brain flex on a regular basis. Our brain also needs our body to experience physical exercise. Exercise checks a lot of boxes for our brain, but the two big things it accomplishes are helping to regulate a lot of automatic systems and stress relief. We usually think of circadian rhythm as a sleep issue, but our body has all sorts of rhythms it runs on, and regular exercise helps the brain know when to devote resources where.
Shocking conclusion here, but these three items all relate to energy flow. How we fuel, where we spend energy, and how we recover. The body as a machine, and the brain as the central processing unit, means that being intentional with our energy flow helps out our brain. I just glossed over these items, kind of a wide lens view, but each one of them can be tricky in its own way. Thinking about brain health can help motivate us to form new habits or stick with the healthy ones we already have.