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5 Biggest Brain Health Risk Factors, Impact On Mental Health & Simple Habits With Big Benefits

Written by: Shae Goodell, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

 

Dr. Daniel Amen, founder of Amen Clinics has scanned over 170,000 brains and counting. As an award-winning international psychiatrist, he says “we don’t have a mental health crisis, we have a brain health crisis.”

human brain concept in blue and purple.

In this article, we will look at the seven biggest risk factors to brain health based on recent research and how you can take action every day to mitigate these risk factors. We’ll look at why brain health has an impact on mental health. We will also give you one thing you can start doing right now that doesn’t cost anything, as well as small, daily habits that can lead to a healthier brain and in turn, healthier well-being on all levels.


Nature, Nurture, and Neuroplasticity


Your brain is responsible for everything you say, feel, and do.


It has unlimited storage capacity and develops from the back forward so the prefrontal cortex develops last typically around the age of 25 ‒ which is why teenagers tend to make a lot of questionable choices. It weighs, on average, about three pounds but has millions of neurons and synapses that drive communication between mind and body through the nervous system and spinal cord. It processed nearly 70,000 thoughts a day. It is the most complex organ in the universe.


Each side of the brain is responsible for different activities. The left side of the brain is responsible for logic, reason, math, science, and critical thinking. The right side of the brain is responsible for creativity, visualization, intuition, and emotion.


And that is just scratching the surface of the intricate inner working of your amazing brain.


The study of neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to form and reorganize synaptic connections, reminds us of the potential to heal. The brain is capable of changing despite earlier beliefs about its hard wiring and assumed development endpoints. But your brain's potential and the effectiveness of neuroplasticity are only as good as how you care for it.


Your brain’s health is directly affected by both “nature” and “nurture” principles. Nature refers to genetics, biology, and physiology, and nurture refers to qualities such as what you eat, who you spend time with, how you move your body, where you work, and what activities you enjoy. In her article, “On the Brain: We’re Not As Hardwired As We Think” Professor Gina Ripin she shares that:


The discovery of lifelong “experience-dependent plasticity” has drawn attention to the crucial role that the outside world—the lives we live, the jobs we do, and the sports we play—will have on our brains. It’s no longer a question of our brains being a product of either nature or nurture but realizing how entangled the “nature” of our brains is with the brain-changing “nurture” provided by our life experiences.


The fact that our brains have this unlimited potential, and are impacted by both nature and even more by “nurture”, should inspire us to give even more attention to the importance of brain health, to understand what is within our control to impact our brain health, and, through proper brain health practices positively impact all areas of our well-being.


Your Brain is Under Attack


Without being too “doomsday” here, there are qualities and conditions within modern society that pose a direct threat to brain health, and as a result our mental health and overall well-being.


Based on research from Harvard University, the University of California and the Brain Health Project here is a list of the top seven lifestyle factors that impact brain health.

  1. Too much sitting

  2. Lack of socializing

  3. Inadequate sleep

  4. Chronic stress

  5. Nutrition Quality

We see correlations between these risk factors and those developed as part of a program called The Brain Warrior's Way, a brain health coaching system developed by Amen Clinics using a mnemonic acronym called BRIGHT MINDS. They are:


B – Blood Flow

R – Retirement/Aging

I – Inflammation

G – Genetics

H – Head Trauma

T – Toxins


M – Mental Health

I – Immunity/Infection Issues

N – Neurohormone Deficiencies

D – Diabesity

S – Sleep Issues


The biggest correlation between these risk factors is: sleep, nutrition and movement. These three factors are so important because they influence nearly all the other brain health indicators. This includes inflammation, toxins, “diabesity”, blood flow, cognitive decline in retirement, and aging, and can play a role in turning on or off genetic indicators for health conditions. Not to mention, the brain is the most energy-hungry organ in the body, consuming nearly 25% of the body’s energy requirements every day. You need sleep and nutrition to be able to provide that energy. With the prevalence and normalization of sleep disorders and conditions, and low-quality nutrition solutions such as fast food, soda, alcohol, and packaged and processed food, this is becoming even more of a risk factor for nutrient deficiency, inflammation, and increasing allergies and food sensitivities.


As we look at the risk factors for Brain Health, we can’t avoid the elephant in the room ‒ technology and social media. While these were not addressed specifically, they warrant attention. As with all things in life, technology and social media has both negative and positive qualities everyone should be aware of. After all, social media may have brought you to this article and you need your technology and device to read it. The real harm to the brain though comes in our behaviors, habits, and simple addictions which are developing around their usage.


In a June 2022 Article, a University of California research team looked into brain health and both the benefits and consequences of digital technology. Research shows that frequent use of technology devices interferes with emotional intelligence, social intelligence, and social isolation, contributes to addictive behaviors, heightens symptoms associated with ADHD, and directly interferes with brain development and normal, healthy sleep patterns. This research also acknowledged that when used wisely technology can help improve cognitive functioning, reduce anxiety, improve restful sleep, and activate neural circuitry when used in specific programs and online tools. Today, it is almost impossible to exist without a device especially considering the increase in work-from-home and hybrid work environments, reliance on cell phones, and other digital technology like smartwatches. This brain health risk factor can only be managed by consciousness awareness and making educated choices about how we engage with it.


Social Media, a byproduct of the technology age, is here to stay when you consider there are 4.74 BILLION users of social media in the world. Studies show a similar negative impact on brain health and mental health. Examples include, but are not limited to, increased ADHD symptoms, lack of focus and concentration and staying on task, higher rates of Anxiety, Depression, FOMO (fear of missing out), and cognitive bias. Surprisingly, studies show that despite the impression that social media leads to greater “connection” it actually does just the opposite and leads to more feelings of social isolation These findings are especially true for younger generations, and young girls, in particular, all of whom are starting to engage with social media as young as ten years old.


We could dive into each of these risk factors in so much more detail, but for now, the purpose of sharing them is to raise awareness and invite readers to explore the resources included at the end of this article. With awareness, comes greater consciousness, choice, and more informed action.


Brain Health & Mental Health


Mental Health has certainly been at the top of many people’s minds. From local, national and international leaders, schools, hospitals, politicians, and support groups and organizations who share a goal to improve the health of populations.


Numerous studies are reporting the decline in mental health since the start of the Pandemic, but mental health was already declining over the last two decades especially in younger populations, with some sources indicating that tackling the mental health crisis has been nearly stalled, even when considering the inclusion of popular pharmaceutical drugs. Much like a dry forest ignites from a simple spark, so to has the collective mental health crisis been inflamed.


Could this be due to a decline in brain health? There is a large body of research out there exploring this.


As an integrative therapist, coach and mentor, I bring Neuroscience and Brain Health Coaching to my practice. I pair this with Body-Based Therapy, Energy Medicine, and Ayurveda. Sometimes the brain health and neuroscience piece is the missing link to helping people find a new way to live with their mental health condition. Why? Because no one has ever educated them about their brain, how it works, and why it functions the way it does. They have also never been educated about things they can do to take care of their brain – you are not stuck with the brain you have.


Learning about brain health can create an opportunity for grace and self-compassion. It also puts the power back into the hands of the client because it is possible, in many situations, to reverse or minimize mental health symptoms by taking clear, decisive brain health-supportive actions so someone can avoid long-term therapy and/or reliance on pharmaceuticals.


Small Habits, Big Change


Now that we see the connection between brain health and mental health and the top risk factors for brain health, you may be asking yourself so what can I do? The good news is you can take small, decisive action steps each day toward a healthier brain by doing these five things every day: move, meditate, monitor social media and technology usage, and fuel properly. Read on for more information on each recommendation. These are general recommendations and you should always consult with the appropriate practitioners based on your health and personal needs.


Move


Movement is one of the most important aspects of brain health and mental health. So how much movement do you need, what types of movement is best and why does it help?


What you can start doing today


Move your body for 10 minutes today. Dance, walk, hike, bike ‒ anything that makes you feel good! Slowly add one minute a day until you get up to 30 minutes (you can add more time if you want, but slow and consistent is always going to lead to more sustainable change).


Long-term recommendations:

  • Minimum recommendations suggest that you move your body 150 minutes a week, and this can vary depending on age and condition (i.e. pregnancy).

  • Blending more intense cardiovascular activity like HITT or cycling with more moderate activity like walking and yoga, is great for overall health but it also directly impacts blood flow and supports optimal brain health.

  • If you sit at a desk for work, get up and move every 30-60 minutes to improve overall health and it also triggers the release of a protein known as a brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This key molecule encourages the growth of new brain cells and this directly affects specific parts of the brain like the hippocampus which tends to be smaller or distorted in people with depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia.

Meditate


This is a bit of a buzzword right now but that is because it works. It has worked for thousands of years. When we are in a state of meditation we are turning off the busy thinking mind and engaging with the right brain which is where we experience intuition, bliss, joy, and our pure being. Meditation changes our brains, literally. For example, it contributes to a healthier prefrontal cortex and increased gray matter. Positive changes have been recorded in as little as 8 weeks. These guidelines are based on Heart Based Meditation.


What you can start doing today


At least 4-6 times throughout the day, close your eyes and take three breaths that feel deep to you. If you remember, focus your attention on the space between your shoulder blades and your sternum. Name how you are feeling at that moment.


Long-term recommendations:

  • Once you have mastered taking 3 deep breaths, move to one minute, then five minutes, then ten minutes – your practice will grow incrementally as you dedicate more time ‒

  • Work up to meditating twice a day for 20 minutes.

  • Use the same meditation technique every day ‒ While there are dozens of meditation styles available today, this technique is similar to transcendental meditation. It is evidence-based to validate its efficacy. Other meditation styles such as Body Scan, Breath Meditation, Metta Meditation, Japa Meditation, and Guided Visualizations are all useful but could be considered a supplement to your daily practice.

  • Never meditate just before bed as it can increase energy

  • Recommended to mediate no later than two hours before bed

There are many misconceptions about what meditation is and is not, which is why it can be valuable to work with a Meditation teacher to support you. Meditation has a cumulative effect and benefits can be seen in as little as eight weeks, so the more you do it the more you will feel an impact.


Fuel Properly


What you can start doing today


Drink a cup of warm herbal tea and eat an apple (especially good if you can make it a stewed apple at the start of your day). The herbal tea contributes to your daily water intake and the apple is a reminder to transition to more whole food-based snacks and foods when we might normally reach for a cookie, granola bar, chips, or another snack. And remember the acronym HALT ‒ never get too hungry, angry, lonely, or tired.


Long Term Recommendations


Fuel refers to what we put into our bodies. As a Certified Ayurvedic Health Counselor, I refer to Ayurveda principles that have worked for over 5,000 years.

  • Think freshly made food over prepackaged, pre-cooked, or leftovers.

  • Choose mostly fruit and vegetables, complex carbs, mostly vegetarian, and organic whenever possible

  • Drink at least 50% of your body weight in fresh water each day.

  • Avoid cannabis for the effect it has on your brain and excess alcohol usage which has a similar effect but can also be likened to giving yourself chemotherapy drugs every time you consume it.

  • Stick to a schedule with your meals, and eat slowly, in a relaxed space so you digest your food better, which will give us more energy.

  • Eat intuitively – Ayurveda is the original framework for intuitive living ‒ eat when you are hungry, drink when you are thirsty, and listen to your body.

There may be guidelines based on your specific health needs and this is where it helps to work with a Licensed Dietician, Nutritionist, or Ayurveda Health Practitioner.


Improve Sleep


Sleep is one of the four pillars of health in the Ayurvedic tradition. Your body keeps track of any sleep deficit and contrary to popular belief you can’t “make up” for lost sleep. Sleep quality before midnight is different after midnight. Every hour of sleep before midnight is equal to two hours, and every hour after midnight is equal to one.


What you can start doing today


Go to bed 15 minutes earlier than you did last night. Then continue to add 15 minutes until you are going to bed by 10 PM.


Long-Term Recommendations:

  • Turning off all devices one hour before bed.

  • No technology in the bedroom, use it for sex and sleep only.

  • No reading 30-60 before bed or in bed

  • Avoid liquids two hours before bed (to minimize having to get up to go to the bathroom) and caffeine after 10 AM.

  • Avoid Cannabis and alcohol, which do not support sleep, they are actually stimulants to the system and your body is not able to sleep as deeply and complete its necessary healing process with these substances in the system

  • Keep your room as dark and quiet as possible even if you have to use an eye pillow and earplugs

  • The time before bed is great for restorative yoga, breathing practices, taking a warm bath

  • Take 3/4 cup warm whole milk with 1 tsp ghee and 2 pinches of nutmeg and 1 pinch of cardamom powder (sorry folks non-dairy milk won’t have the same effect)

  • Avoid sleeping pills that will lead to long-term reliance, melatonin, and Ayurvedic remedies are a better solution

The best routine is to be in bed by 10 PM and up by 6 AM. The goal is to wake up on your own without an alarm clock. If you work the third shift this varies slightly and the suggestion is to maintain your routine even on the days you are not working to keep your body in a rhythm.


Technology


Because technology plays such an important and unique role in each person’s life, specific recommendations are going to vary, but we can all apply principles to our day to monitor our technology usage.


What you can start doing today


Turn on Do Not Disturb on your phone when you are working to be more focused and set do not disturb hours from 8 PM to 8 AM (or another 10-12 hour time period) to set the hours that you will not be accessible for your technology.


Long Term Recommendations

  • Establish a schedule for when you will use technology and understand your why. With the prevalence of apps available today you may be using your technology to track literally everything in your life – sleep, food, water intake, exercise, and meditation. But remember, we did all this for thousands of years without technology.

  • Make sure to give yourself technology breaks throughout the day. Harvard University suggests getting up every 30-60 minutes when sitting in front of a screen. Dr. Suzia Carmack of YogaMedCo has a great framework called Genius Breaks which can be used throughout the day to get in movement, mindfulness, and meaning.

  • Find activities that you can do without technology. I know there are loads of people who walk or run while listening to music or podcasts, but what would it be like if you didn’t?

  • Make sure there are no devices during a social time like meals and focus on the quality of your social interactions

  • Time block for checking emails, and text messages. Habit Expert, James Clear, says not to check emails before noon.

Social Media usage


You are in control of your social media usage, but you have very little control once you enter the vortex. You do not know what is going to show up, who is going to show up, or where your experience is going to take you. The best thing you can do is be prepared and have good self-awareness practices as you engage with this medium.


What you can Start Doing Today


Turn off notifications on your phone for social media, or set up notifications so you only receive them once a day.


Long Term Recommendations

  • Do not save passwords on your devices for your social media apps. This will slow down your access versus just being able to open up an app.

  • Set specific time aside for your social media time, ideally a block of no more than 10-15 minutes per day.

  • This turns off the constant barrage of notifications that interrupt your day and all the ways that impact your mental health and brain health. Fourth, and perhaps most importantly understand your “why”. Use a scale of 1-10 to start to self-reflect on your experience with social media engagement. Because social media can trigger symptoms associated with anxiety and depression, take a moment to notice how you feel after you engage with whatever platform(s) you use. Over time this can help drive more positive engagements with social media because you do it with awareness.

  • If working in social media is your job requires that your company purchase a separate phone for you for social media engagement so that you can keep your personal social media separate from work

When considering new habits to improve brain health, mental health, and overall well-being, there is little use in focusing on all the ways these things are bad for you. Studies show that rarely brings about lasting change. Instead, focus on all the things that you can do when you change your habits. Here are some examples:

  • If you eat better you can live longer and enjoy life more because you feel better. You avoid chronic disease so you can reduce medical bills.

  • If you sleep better you will have more energy to do the things that you love, show up with more creativity and energy at work, and improve relationships because you are more present instead of being tired.

  • If you minimize time on social media it can improve social interactions so you develop new friendships and relationships.

  • If you manage technology time you can enjoy the outdoors, read a book, and learn a new skill or habit which is great for your brain.

  • If you meditate you can develop self-awareness, learn to manage triggers, and become more resilient, and mindful to improve relationships, leadership, and more.

Make your habit changes enjoyable, celebrate when you complete a new habit and you (and your brain) will want to do it again and again.


Wrapping It All Up


Each one of us can take ownership of our brain health to prevent chronic disease, slow down cognitive decline, and mitigate the risk of mental and emotional health issues. We know the impact that mental health has on the individual who struggles, but also on their families, businesses, and society in general in terms of cost.


The good news is that with awareness, we can make more conscious decisions about who, where, and how we spend our time and what we fuel our brain and body with. This will help to mitigate the negative effect on brain health and the impact that has on other areas of well-being.


Now that you know some of the risk factors for brain health and its role in mental health, what is one thing you can do to support a healthier brain?


 

Shae Goodell, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Shae Goodell is an Integrative Therapist and Coach and the founder of True Evolution ™ a trauma-informed, soul-centered personal development system rooted in Body-Based Therapy, Somatics, Ayurveda, Energy Medicine, Brain Health, and Neuroscience, delivered in private, small group, and retreat experiences. She believes in a whole-person approach to care and is changing how we think, talk, access, and optimize our mental, physical and spiritual well-being. Shae is working to promote Inner Peace for all and raises money in support of equity and accessibility to services through the Bliss Warrior movement, an inspiring collection of apparel and merchandise.

 

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