Your Brain and Your Health

Or is it your health and your brain?  Is it the affect, or the effect?  Or both?  While how we live and what we do directly affects the health of our brain, the health and condition and training of our brain affects the choices we make about the things that will affect the health of our brain—and our entire being, and we live with the effects.  In many ways we can choose life paths that cause either ease, or disease.

Quality of Life

It’s a quality of life thing.  All of our perceptions of what we call ‘life’ are experienced via our brain circuitry, and everything we do is processed within that delicate little mass that holds our ears apart.  Every part of our body is wired directly into the brain, and our whole being responds to the commands and cues the brain sends out—and behind it all is that mysterious bit of us called the will, the place where we ultimately decide.

It’s hard to have a high quality life experience when the brain doesn’t function correctly. If we’re depressed, angry, in pain, cold, hot, tired, stressed-out—or in any one of a number of other mental or physical states, it diminishes our sense of well-being, joy, peace of mind and happiness.  The health of our brain is no small matter!

Basic Function

Our brain is divided into a number of different areas that serve different functions.  Basically it runs the automatic things that need to happen so we can live, like respiration, temperature, blood sugar levels, heart rate, etc., the stuff we never think about until it doesn’t work right.  This is called the Autonomic Nervous System and is located at the base of the brain.  Then there is the limbic system which is the centre of our emotions and includes systems that control our drives and integrates the hormonal aspects of our function with the nervous aspects.  There are other areas that serve as the main frame computer, doing the memory stuff, calculations, processing, creating, and myriad different things that include feedback from the other areas.  Each of our five senses have a spot that is dedicated to this vital feedback from the outside world.  Then there is the front brain, the place that above all makes us human.  This is the area where the will, reason and moral judgment reside—this is the area where we have a special place that we can have filled with the presence of and communicate with the Creator if we so choose.

Since our brain can only function properly within certain perimeters, how we choose to live, which includes what we eat, how much sleep we get, how much water we drink, the kinds of media we view and everything else that concerns us, impacts our mental health. Since all life is based in chemical/electrical activity that takes place in a water medium, having the right stuff in the chemical soup we call the blood is vital to make it all happen and this affects our sense of well being, along with all other aspects of what we call life.  Being able to be relaxed and experience enjoyment and fun is also vital for our happiness and well being, along with protecting our brain from physical harm, for the brain damages easily.  As human beings, we have the capacity to actually change both the function and structure of our brain by our choices, habits and lifestyle.

This is no small thing, for whether we end up being a murder in prison or an altruistic saint resides in the power of choice that is at the heart of who we are and how our life experience will come out.  We have three dimensions—physical, mental/emotional and spiritual, and these are all impacted and developed by our choices about how we maintain and use our mind.  At the end of the day it’s up to us.  The unconscious brain, or ‘heart’ as it has been figuratively called from antiquity, is really the centre of who we really are and how we relate to life, and this aspect of our being is made up of the sum of experiences we have had and how we have chosen to relate to them, along with how we are currently programming ourselves.  The most exciting part of this is that our brains are dynamic—always changing.  We have the capacity, with God’s help, to overcome past adversity and move continually into a more positive reality.  We can also, by continuous life choices, move ourselves into a more negative and destructive reality as well—again, it’s up to us!

Diet and the Brain

The good news is that a diet that is good for heart health, lowering our blood pressure and preventing cancer is also good for our brain.  One of the things that has been found in recent years is that foods high in the Omega-3 fatty acids are very good for us, including our brains.  These types of fatty acids can be found in a number of foods such as flax seed, pumpkin seeds, rape seed, walnuts, soy beans (tofu) and the good news is they are easy to get into our diet on a daily basis.  Stores like Kilos in Waterford city centre and Tesco stock ground seed mix that can be added to foods, like breakfast cereals, or used in other various ways in the diet.  The vitamins, minerals and other micro nutrients that are present in the unrefined fruits, grains, nuts and vegetables are vital for the brain chemistry to function correctly.

Blood Chemistry and the Brain

Since everything else is based on the good circulation of the blood, keeping our blood vessels in good shape is a must. The red blood cells must pass one at a time through the tiny capillaries in the brain, so a diet that sludges up the blood and creates the life threatening deposits within our blood vessels is not helping our brain function either.  Alcohol kills brain cells and caffeine and nicotine reduce the blood flow to the brain, as well as having a negative chemical affect on the nerve cells themselves.  While some substances create an illusion of enjoyment, if they are doing ongoing damage this illusion is eventually over-turned by the physical reality of the physiological effects.

Too much sugar has a disastrous affect on brain function, making it hard for the brain to function in a normal manner.  When the higher powers of the brain are shut down, we tend to be controlled by the lower, or more animal, aspects of our brain function.  This is clearly evident in children who are sent to school with little to eat but high sugar foods and caffeinated beverages—little learning can go on in brains fed like this, and the poor teacher can hardly reason with or control these children.  Many of the children who are put on psycho-active drugs could be helped more by good nutrition, drinking enough water and getting enough sleep.

Emotions

Another big aspect of our being is our emotional nature.  While emotions are important and certainly contribute to the enjoyment of our existence, when they become out of control they have the potential to destroy both us and those around us.  These aspects of our being need to be under the control of the front brain, but for that to happen that part of our brain needs to be healthy and functioning.  We need to protect our emotional centre from damage as well.  Choices we make can create long-term damage to aspects of our emotional brains that will hinder our well being.  Uncommitted sexual activity is disastrous, damaging the sensitive bonding mechanism.  There are actually physical changes that happen in the brain when we engage in sexual activity with someone, and for the highest quality of joy a man and woman should commit to each other for life.  The pain and disillusionment associated with broken relationships of this nature makes up a large part of humanities music, poetry and literature.  Not taking this physical bonding seriously causes pain that greatly affects one’s well being.  Here again we see that what we choose affects our mental health, and our mental health affects what we choose.  How important it is for parents to correctly train their young children in healthful life habits and give them proper tools to use in making future life decisions.  At the end of the day, we each experience our own joy and sorrow.

Stress Management, Pain Relief

Learning how to relax is another important aspect of brain health.  In our hyped-up world many habitually get too little sleep.  To be healthy and happy, we really need about eight hours a night.  We can exist on less, but again the quality of life diminishes.  The way we choose to think impacts our mental health.  We can focus on the negative, or the positive.  Saying the glass is half full is as true as saying it is half empty.  When we focus on negative, catastrophic thoughts, we generate stress hormones.  These hormones, while important in emergency circumstances, fill our lives with unnecessary tension and anxiety, which usually produces pain.  Thus, we habituate a cycle that feeds itself and our quality of life diminishes.  The constant secretion of the stress chemicals will eventually cause serious physical problems, and may be the death of us.

On the other hand, when we train ourselves to fill our minds with positive, life-giving things, the chemicals our body feeds our brain (neurotransmitters like dopamine and other endorphins) actually act as natural pain killers and ‘feel good’ agents, even creating a natural sense of euphoria.  Exercise also stimulates the release of these brain chemicals.  These natural ‘feel good’ chemicals are non addicting and good for us, unlike the agents mankind uses to try to produce these effects artificially, things like alcohol, cocaine, heroine and the other drugs we take to try to create an artificial ‘feel good’.   These natural substances that we produce within our body help us to relax and the quality of our life increases as well-being and healing take the place of the pain and inflammation that our body uses to respond to the assaults of negative chemicals.  Perhaps one of the most classic examples of this is the story of Norman Cousins:

Told that he had a disease that would shortly take his life he decided to take matters into his own hands.  He checked himself out of the hospital, as he maintained the tense atmosphere with its interruption of normal sleep patterns was no place to get well.  He checked himself into a hotel room and set up a movie projector and started watching old comedy films, abandoning himself to laughter.  These are his own words: ‘I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep,’ he reported. ‘When the pain-killing effect of the laughter wore off, we would switch on the motion picture projector again and not infrequently, it would lead to another pain-free interval.’  He recovered and returned to work.

Power of Placebo

The wonderful thing about our human condition is that we can, by our choice, impact our destiny.  The effect of our body reacting to our mental state in a positive way is called ‘placebo’ and this is a very powerful aspect of our mental/physical nature.  Many people find physical healing in response to their mental belief that this will happen—the body reacts in the way they expect it will. People are sometimes given sugar pills by a doctor and told it will help their condition—and it does because they believe it will. Our immune system and all our body systems react to our mental state and this state is impacted by how we choose to think and live.  On the other side of the coin is a reaction called ‘nocebo.  While in Latin placebo means ‘I will please’, nocebo means ‘I will harm’.  If we believe we have problems, our body responds accordingly.  Actual physical symptoms and disease will develop.  How often does a doctor tell someone they have a certain length of time to live and they go home and set about dying?  On the other hand, there are other forces at work in this universe that we can tap into.  Along with the wonderful ability our bodies have of healing themselves when the proper environment is provided, there is a living Creator who is interested in helping when we call upon Him.  I remember one older gentleman that told us; ‘Once a doctor told me I had terminal cancer.  Thank the Lord for a 20 year term!’  He died at a advanced age of something unrelated to cancer.  He also used to say with a sparkle in his eye, ‘I know something good!’

Peace of Mind

This brings up the spiritual aspect of our nature.  We choose whether we include God as a part of our lives, or we choose to exclude Him.  The weight of evidence suggests that asking Him into our lives contributes to the health in ways that nothing else can.  There is a place in each of us that was made for His habitation, and asking Him into our lives fills the place we often try to fill with addictions, which is why we often call participating in these addictions  ‘getting high’.  Allowing God in and taking His laws of nature seriously (both moral and physical) lays the firmest foundation for the best health and the greatest happiness.  All of the great religious traditions have aspects of their teaching that relate to quieting the body and mind to be able to hear the voice of God, or get in  touch with that place in our being where interaction with Him takes place.

Parents Duty to Their Children

Helping our children to have healthy brains is an important part of good parenting.  It’s not only what they eat, but what they watch, listen too and do that creates their brain health.  When the mind is constantly filled with violent, immoral and frightening images, how can it produce the proper chemicals to function normally and produce a state of well being?  It’s of significant importance to understand that brains that are inundated in the negative stress chemicals that are produced by these kinds of music and entertainment become abnormal in their function.  This can be seen by modern brain imaging.  Perhaps a good example of the epidemic of brain dysfunction among young people can be seen from the occurrence recently in the United States where a group of young people stood around and watched a young girl being raped and beaten for several hours on a Friday night.  No one either tried to intervene or call for help.  The young girl was finally thrown under a bench like so much meat.  One questions if this kind of behaviour demonstrates the course of human evolution, or is it in fact the evidence of ignoring certain laws of nature that have predictable outcomes in the training of children?

Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, Etc.

Something else to consider as we think of the future we will give our children is Foetal Alcohol Syndrome and other drug related chromosomal abnormalities caused by the substances we take to try to escape our reality.

When we drink or use drugs while conceiving and carrying our children, we are damaging their brains and compromising their future.  While there are varying degrees of this, and some are affected less than others, it is never-the-less much too big a risk to take with the entire future of your child.  Alcohol has an adverse affect on the reproductive organs of both sexes, affecting the ability of men to father healthy children, and women to produce healthy children.  Besides the effects in the child from the damaged egg and sperm, when a mother drinks while pregnant the alcohol affects the unborn child directly.  Foetal alcohol syndrome is one of the leading known preventable causes of mental retardation and birth defects—a sobering thought.

Your ‘Brain Fingerprint’

Also very important is to understand your unique ‘brain fingerprint’.  No two brains are the same and understanding how yours functions will make a big difference in your ability to get the most out of your life.  Are you introverted, or extraverted?  Do you enjoy working with your hands?  Or are you at your best involved in abstract thought?  What kinds of music do you like?  These things, and the many others that make up who we are, need to be taken into consideration for every aspect of our lives, from who we may marry to what kind of job or profession we choose to spend our lives doing. While we may be able to adapt to things we really are not suited for, this produces high levels of stress and will not only sap our energy and well-being, but will send us to an early grave.

Keep Your Brain at its Best

Remember, at the end of the day, your brain is who you are—and you, in a large degree, choose who you are becoming by the way you are treating your brain.  Habits are actual physical pathways that are established in the brain, and the more we engage in something the deeper these pathways become.  It takes about a month to establish a new habit, but once it is in place it will take over, becoming part of who we are.  The bad habits will destroy us, the good ones will set us free.

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