Brain Health

Dr Thanh-Tam Pham - 25/07/2021

The brain is like a supercomputer with both hardware and software. The brain’s biology is like the hardware.

The brain is an organ linked to the rest of the body, When the body is unhealthy, so too is the brain.

1-Blood flow:

Blood flow is critical for life. It transports nutrients, oxygen to every cell in the body and flushes away toxins. The brain made up 2 percent of body weight but it uses 20% of the oxygen and blood flow in the body. Anything that damages the blood vessels or impairs blood flow will hurt the brain. Risk factors are insulin resistance and diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, stroke, sedentary lifestyle, smoking, excessive alcohol use, excessive consumption of coffee as caffeine constricts blood vessels, sleep apnea.

Strategies to support healthy blood flow:

         ●    Avoid anything that decrease blood flow such as nicotine, smoking marijuana, excess caffeine, stress, sedentary lifestyle.

         ●    Regular exercise to increase blood flow to the brain. Exercise improves mood, anxiety and depression and even cognitive health. Exercise was found to increase the size of the hippocampus (memory and mood centre), stimulates the production of growth factors such as BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factors) which improves neuroplasticity.

Many types of exercise: high intensity interval training, strength training, coordination activities such as dancing, table tennis, mindful exercise such as Yoga, pilates, Tai chi.

         ●    Supplements to help maintain blood flow: Gingko biloba, cocoa flavanols, omega 3 fatty acids, green tea catechins, resveratrol.

2- Lifestyle Factors:

         ●    Ongoing learning to increase the brain reserve. The best mental exercises involve acquiring new knowledge and doing things you have not done before. Whenever the brain repeats an activity over and over, it uses less energy each time to do it.

         ●    Purpose and social contribution across the lifespan reduce the risk of mental illnesses.

         ●    Social connectivity has a positive effect on the cognitive, emotional and physical wellbeing. Loneliness or social isolation can have negative consequences such as depression, social anxiety, addictions and even hoarding. Research shows that caring for others increase the life expectancy.

         ●    Intermittent fasting: fasting helps the brain to stay healthy because it cleans out the buildup of toxic proteins that damage neurons, reducing inflammation and slowing down aging.

         ●    At retirement age, continue working or volunteering or find a new hobby, a new interest.

         ●    Maintain a youthful outlook on life. Having an “old mind set” is a risk factor for mental illness such as thinking: I am too old for that, I don’t have the energy for that, I just want to be left alone, I cannot change my habits…

         ●    Avoid watching a lot of televisions, movies that focus on violence to breed anger, greed, fear and sadness. Avoid spending hours on social media which increases the risk of depression and obesity.

         ●    Maintain a peaceful mind by practicing mindfulness and enjoy the present moment.

         ●    Regular exercise.

3- Reduce inflammation:

Inflammation risks factors: low levels vitamin D, environmental toxins, smoking, excessive alcohol, gum disease, chronic stress, obesity, insomnia, Pro-inflammatory foods such as sugar, trans fats, excessive omega 6 fatty acids from corn, soy and vegetable oils, artificial sweeteners, gluten.

         ●    The Gut-Inflammation-Brain Connection

The gastrointestinal tract is often called the second brain because it is lined with about 100 million neurons. That is more neurons than in the spinal cord or in the peripheral nervous system. The gut lining is only a single cell layer thick. Anything that causes the cell junctions to widen or become porous allows toxins into the body that can cause inflammation.

Leaky gut is associated with brain problems, including mood and anxiety disorders, ADHD, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Leaky gut is also linked to chronic inflammation and autoimmune diseases, digestive issues to seasonal allergies and skin problems (acne and rosacea).

The health of the gut is tightly linked to the health of the brain and mind and keeping the gut microbiome in good balance is essential to mental health. Antibiotics caused decreased gut bacteria and chronic use of antibiotics in childhood can affect the rest of their life.

         ●    Omega3 fatty acids lower inflammation and boost brain health/mental health.

Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found low levels of omega 3 fatty acids are also linked to depression and bipolar disorder, suicidal behaviour, ADHD, cognitive impairment and dementia, obesity and heart disease.

         ●    Chronic stress is linked to inflammation and mental health.

4- Genetics:

There is an increase risk of mental health if there is a family history of brain health problems such as anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, addictions, attention deficit disorder (ADHD), dementia…

Although genes may increase your vulnerability to mental health, behaviour, dietary and environment are important factors to modify the expression of the genes (epigenetics).

5- Head trauma:

The brain needs to be protected from potential injuries so it is better to avoid activities such as children hitting soccer balls with their head, contact sports with concussions or engaging in high risks activities. Head trauma is a major cause of psychiatric illnesses.

6- Toxins:

The brain is the most metabolically active organ in the body. As such, it is vulnerable to damage from toxins. Toxins are cigarette, recreational drugs, marijuana, carbon monoxide, air pollution, pesticides, mercury contaminated fish, excess alcohol, artificial sweeteners as aspartame, sucralose (Splenda), saccharin…

7- Neurohormones that influence brain health:

         ●    Thyroid hormones: thyroid dysfunction (hypo or hyperthyroid) can cause anxiety, depression and cognitive impairment.

         ●    Cortisol: chronic stress is linked to high cortisol levels causing disruptive changes in the brain and increase the likelihood of developing lasting psychiatric conditions such as anxiety, depression or posttraumatic stress disorder. Chronic stress hormones can kill cells in the hippocampus, the memory centre.

         ●    Oestrogen and progesterone imbalance can cause mood changes, irritability, anxiety, depression, sleeplessness… It is more critical during menopause to take brain health seriously as the reserve in the brain has declined.

         ●    Testosterone: in both men and women, testosterone helps protect the nervous system and wards off depression, cognitive impairment and also seems to protect cells from inflammation. Optimal levels of testosterone promote brain health, energy, strength, motivation and sex drive.

8- insulin Resistance, Diabetes and Obesity.

Insulin resistance and diabetes are associated with blood vessels disease and increased inflammation leading to heart disease, hypertension, strokes, Alzheimer’s and accelerated aging. Eating sugar or refined carbohydrates causes blood sugar levels to spike and subsequently causes them to crash. This roller coaster effect can impact moods and mental wellbeing. Eliminating sugar and other refined carbohydrates can help regulate the body’s production of insulin, stabilize blood sugar levels and facilitate the fat breakdown process.

9- Sleep:

During sleep, the brain cleans itself by eliminating cellular debris and toxins that build up during the day, consolidate learning and memory and prepares for the following day. A sleepless night can make you feel angry, irritable, sad or stressed the next day and lower your ability to concentrate and impair your judgement. Sleep apnea increases the risk of depression and dementia and makes it hard to lose weight. The brain is so dependent on oxygen so untreated sleep apnea kills brain cells.


The End of Mental Illness by Daniel G Amen. M.D.