For most of us, social distancing has become the new norm. We hunker down in our homes, attend work meetings on Zoom and diligently follow the news, while eagerly awaiting the end of the pandemic so we can all return to normalcy.
But as the global fight against the infection stretches into its fifth month, there’s a heavy toll on our collective mental health; a survey of 18,000 Chinese citizens published in February found that 42.6% suffered from anxiety related to the Coronavirus outbreak. Since then, many organizations have put out guidelines on how to combat the stress of social distancing.
While many of these guidelines offer short-term fixes to dealing with stress, Dr. Daniel Amen, a distinguished fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, believes that brain health is key to all health and success. His clinics have performed over 160,000 brain scans on patients of all ages, ranging from 9 months to 105 years, and his conclusion is simple – when your brain works right, you work right.
Based on all of his research, Dr. Amen compiled 11 fundamental principles of brain health bundled into one simple acronym – BRIGHT MINDS. By following these brain tips, you’ll be in good hands to maintain your overall health and wellness in this pandemic and well beyond.
1. B for Blood Flow
Dr. Amen’s SPECT scans essentially look for blood flow to the brain, and low blood flow is the number one imaging predictor for Alzheimer’s disease. It’s also associated with schizophrenia, depression, and ADHD.
Healthy blood flow to the brain is critical, as it provides nutrients and flushes toxins from your cerebral system. Without it, your brain is at a higher risk of suffering from diseases and complications.
So how do you know if you’re getting enough blood to the brain without a scan?
According to Dr. Amen, look for markers; if you’re having problems with blood flow anywhere – such as erectile dysfunction for example – then it’s most likely everywhere. That’s a concerning fact, considering that one study estimated that 18 million American males suffer from erectile dysfunction.
The best way of dealing with this is by practicing a healthy lifestyle; regular exercise, a balanced diet, and cutting out substances that affect blood flow such as caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine could do wonders for your brain’s health. In fact, caffeine – one of the most consumed beverages in the world – has been shown to reduce cerebral blood flow by an average of 27%!
So if you want a healthier brain, skip the morning coffee and go for a run instead.
2. R for Retirement and Aging
Just like your muscles, your brain decays without regular use and proper care. It’s important to keep your brain healthy and young through constant ‘exercise’ (learning) and proper care for your overall health.
Dr. Amen recommends checking your ferritin levels. Ferritin is a protein in your blood that stores iron – a critical ingredient for your nerves and brain. Low levels of ferritin have been associated with fatigue, brain fog, as well as anxiety, so if you find yourself constantly anxious, it’s a good idea to get your ferritin levels checked.
But beyond that, keeping your mind active is physiologically good for your brain health. Studies show that learning something new or practicing a new skill increases the density of myelin or white matter found in the deeper tissues of your brain. That’s the stuff that helps send signals from one nerve cell to the next, and damaged myelin can lead to numerous health conditions including multiple sclerosis.
So whether it’s an app that exercises your mind, playing a video game, or even learning a new language, continuous learning ensures that your brain stays young and healthy.
3. I for Inflammation
Inflammation comes from the Latin root word inflammare, which means ‘to set on fire’ – an apt description for the disorder. Dr. Amen believes that inflammation inside your body is like having a low-level fire that’s slowly destroying your organs, and the condition has been associated with diseases such as arthritis and cancer.
What’s less known is that inflammation has also been linked to depression, dementia, and even autism, because of its effects on the brain. If you suspect you have inflammation, Dr. Amen suggests heading to the doctor’s office to do a blood test to confirm it.
Regardless, it might be wise to simply assume you have some form of mild inflammation – Dr. Amen says that up to 90% of the U.S. population are low in omega-3 fatty acids, which is a critical ingredient in the body that helps combat inflammation.
The best source for this is clean, sustainable fish. Studies have shown that people who have grilled or baked fish once a week actually have more gray matter in their brain, which is the part responsible for memory, emotions, speech, decision making, and self-control. So if you want to improve any of these skills, it’s a good idea to start adding fish to your weekly diet.
It’s also important to eat enough fruits and vegetables. A study on the effects of an anti-inflammatory diet on irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) showed that 60% of the participants managed to alleviate their symptoms and reduce their medication after one month on the diet.
By eating right, you’re improving the health of your brain and you save on medication costs.
4. G for Genetics
When it comes to genetics, it’s helpful to think of it like a gun; genes may load the gun, but it’s our behavior that pulls the trigger. In other words, you may be genetically vulnerable to certain diseases, but it’s your behavior that determines the outcome.
Dr. Amen tells the story of his friend Leeza Gibbons, whose mother and grandmother died of Alzheimer’s. At age 50, Leeza was going through a period of depression after a breakup. Dr. Amen scanned her brain, everything indicated that she was headed in the same direction as her mother and grandmother.
So he advised her on how to maintain her brain health, despite her genetic disposition. 10 years later when Leeza had her brain scanned again, the results showed that her brain was fuller, fatter, and healthier.
This shows that whatever your genetics might have in store for you, you can change the outcome through preventative behavior.
The first step is actually knowing what your risk factors are. Studying your family history will give you a good indication of what you might be susceptible to, and then you can act accordingly to prevent that.
5. H for Head Trauma
Many of Dr. Amen’s patients don’t realize that previous head trauma – even a mild one – can have lasting negative effects. Most of his patients deny it at first, but after diving deeper into their history he discovers there was always an old forgotten head injury.
The statistics concur; across the United States, it’s estimated that more than one million traumatic brain injuries (TBI) occur every year. About 80% of them consist of mild cases, but even minor concussions can have a huge impact on your brain health. Long-term effects of mild TBI include persistent headaches, cognitive impairment, and even depression and anxiety.
Many who suffer from these symptoms make an appointment to see a psychiatrist, but the problem is that most psychiatrists don’t factor in your overall brain health. If you recognize any of these symptoms and/or have suffered a head injury before, it’s a good idea to get a brain scan to make sure that it’s healthy.
6. T for Toxins
Toxins refer to harmful substances that can compromise cognitive function, which surprisingly include everyday items such as alcohol and marijuana.
Recent studies have linked marijuana use with higher incidences of psychosis, depression, and suicide among youth groups. The jury is still out on whether marijuana actually causes psychosis, but Dr. Amen believes that its link is enough to cause for concern.
Other sources of toxicity include environmental hazards such as heavy metal toxicity. Dr. Amen’s patients include airplane pilots and professional racers, whose brain scans have shown damage after years of breathing in gasoline fumes.
If you want to detoxify your body, skip the short-term solutions; Dr. Amen doesn’t recommend doing anything like a two-week detox. Instead, work on making lasting lifestyle changes that support your natural detoxification systems. Eating high-fiber foods from the brassica family (like Brussel sprouts and kale) will help your kidney and digestive systems naturally get rid of toxins.
Sweating, either through exercise or at a sauna, will also help expel toxins through the skin. In fact, a 2016 study on Finnish men showed that the more saunas they visited per week, the lower their risk of dementia, showing a strong link between saunas and overall brain health.
7. M for Mental Health
Developing a healthy and positive mental state is crucial to combat mental illness, especially during isolation in this pandemic. Dr. Amen tells us to watch out for ANTS – the “automatic negative thoughts” that steal your mind. If left untreated, negative thoughts could lead to depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Dr. Amen recommends a simple technique to train and manage your thoughts: whenever you feel sad, angry, or anxious, write your thoughts down. Then read them back to yourself and ask if they are true – oftentimes, you’ll realize they’re not.
After practicing this several times, it’ll be easier to evaluate and assess your mind objectively. And once you start noticing the pattern, you may be able to break the cycle. This is especially important if you’re stuck at home alone without access to your social circles.
However, if you feel like your negative thoughts are severe and beyond your control, Dr. Amen recommends seeking professional help.
8. I for Immunity and Infections
Most people have heard of autoimmune infections, a condition where the body attacks itself; however, Dr. Amen says there’s a link between autoimmune patients suffering from a higher incidence of brain health, mental health issues, and depression – and studies seem to confirm it.
In fact, it’s not just autoimmune diseases, other types of infectious diseases may negatively affect your brain and mental health. Take for example Lyme disease— it’s one of the fastest spreading infectious diseases in the U.S. and has been linked with mental disorders such as panic, depression, and suicidal thoughts.
Since infectious diseases seem to affect overall health and mental health, Dr. Amen says the best defense is to strengthen your own immune system.
You can do this by getting sufficient levels of vitamin D which support your immune function and reduce inflammation. We naturally get vitamin D from sunlight (which we’ve been doing less of during this pandemic), but we also can get it from fatty fish like salmon and other types of seafood.
Also, pay attention to your gut; probiotic foods such as garlic, onions, mushrooms, and some types of cheese actually help promote healthy bacteria in your digestive system which strengthens your immunity.
Last but not least, Dr. Amen recommends an age-old ingredient – laughter. During this pandemic, he makes it a point to watch a comedy twice a week with his family, which he believes contributes to his health and well-being. And while it may sound far-fetched, laughter has been shown to reduce stress and has similar effects to a light workout.
9. N for Neurohormones
Our bodies consist of complex biological systems that rely on hormones. Hormones act as chemical messengers and help to regulate crucial processes like fertility, growth, and metabolism; but they also affect things like our mood, emotions, and behavior.
For example, testosterone, which is popularly associated with the male libido, is actually important for other aspects of our health such as mood, memory, motivation, and strength. One study showed that low levels of testosterone may actually cause clinical depression in older men, so it’s important to keep your hormones in balance.
As we grow older, we naturally produce less of these hormones, which is critical for keeping your brain healthy. Dr. Amen says that although there’s nothing we can do in terms of aging, there are other ways we can optimize our hormone levels – like managing our diet, for example.
The first thing he recommends is killing sugar. Studies have shown that consuming sugar can lower your testosterone levels by as much as 25%, which brings us to the next point.
10. D for Diabetes
The latest figures show that almost half of the U.S. population is overweight or obese, and an equal ratio is also diabetic or prediabetic. While that is concerning by itself, Dr. Amen adds another worrying fact: his experience of conducting thousands of scans showed that as you gain weight, the physical size and function of your brain decreases. One study which examined the link between obesity and cognitive function seems to confirm this.
However, the silver lining is that the reverse is true as well – that by losing weight, you also improve your cognitive function.
On top of all the previous dietary strategies, Dr. Amen adds one more requirement to the BRIGHT MINDS diet: avoid fast foods, or what he calls ‘fake foods’. While everyone knows how harmful fast food can be, one study found that people who eat fast food were also 51% more likely to develop depression, on top of an increased risk of cancer and coronary heart disease.
11. S for Sleep
Last but not least, get sufficient, good quality sleep. If you have conditions such as chronic insomnia or sleep apnea—or even if you find yourself dependent on sleeping pills just to go to sleep at night—you’re at a higher risk of developing mental health issues.
Sleep apnea, for example, increases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, and Dr. Amen has seen its damage on many of his patients’ scans. Studies have also shown that insufficient or poor-quality sleep impairs memory, disrupts hormone production, and can lead to depression and minor brain damage.
To avoid falling into this risk group, he recommends prioritizing sleep and practicing good sleep hygiene. Follow these tips for better sleep:
- Avoid screens and electronic devices before sleeping
- Make sure that your bedroom is dark and quiet and the temperature is set at a comfortable level
- Avoid coffee and alcohol before bedtime
- Exercise during the day to help you fall asleep at night
It’s clear that the health of your brain is directly related to your overall health; and in these unusual times, it’s important to care for both our physical and emotional wellbeing. By following the BRIGHT MINDS roadmap, you’ll develop a healthier brain that not only contributes to your overall health but also dramatically improves your quality of life.
Dr. Amen’s clinics apply brain imaging science to help people who struggle with mental health. His clinics are located in different areas across the U.S. and are available for telehealth and video therapy sessions. Find more information about his clinics here.