Cultivating Mental Wellness
By Henry Gerson, MD
Our brain determines our
mental life, and it requires nutrition and care to perform optimally. We can
enhance our mental and emotional functioning by supporting the brain through
smart behavioral choices and healthy lifestyle practices.
How do we support brain
health and mental wellness?
The basic building blocks
of brain health and mental wellness are adequate nutrition, exercise, mental
challenges, and good rest and relaxation.
A sensible, well balanced
diet provides the metabolic energy the brain needs. It also supports a fit and
healthy body, which in turn provides the brain with proper levels of hormones
and correctly regulates its supply of glucose and other vital factors.
Physical activity with complex movement and aerobic exercise supports brain
function and brain tissue health. When we move, the brain is challenged to
coordinate the activity. This challenge fortifies the connections among
various parts of the brain. Stronger connections means better performance both
in physical and mental activity.
Mental exercises work
similarly, challenging the various parts of the brain to work together
effectively and improve over time.
Finally good rest allows
the brain to balance its activities and neurotransmitter levels. Rest is more
than just sleep. We should have intervals throughout the day in which we relax
and reverse the effects of stress.
What role does vigorous
exercise play in mental wellness?
Intense aerobic exercise
is important because it appears to stimulate growth and repair in the brain. For
a long time it was widely accepted that in adults, new brain cells are not
formed. Recent research has demonstrated that vigorous exercise promotes the
growth of new brain cells in the hippocampus, an area essential for memory and
learning. In intense aerobic exercise, our muscles release growth factors that
cross the blood-brain barrier and promote brain health. The muscles actually can’t
supply these factors, which work like “brain fertilizers,” when the body is at
rest or during less vigorous exercise. Of course, before increasing the intensity
of your exercise, be sensible – plan to work up to it slowly, and consult a
physician, trainer or exercise specialist as appropriate.
What about mental
Challenges stimulate the
brain. Mental exercise such as calculations, abstract thinking, and problem
solving create stronger connections and new pathways within the brain. Situations
that produce mild anxiety and mental stress also challenge us and, if we master
them, will expand the brain’s capability to function optimally. The notion
that challenges make us stronger is really true.
It’s also important to
recognize when to take a break and to skillfully manage “down time” so it is as
refreshing and restful as possible.
Are there tips to skillful
Relaxation is universal,
but getting to it is an individual concept. What works for one person may not
work for another. You will know you have achieved relaxation when your muscle
tension disappears and your anxiety goes away. Common approaches to achieve
relaxation include walking, hobbies, reading, music, and, for some, household chores.
Practices like yoga, meditation, tai chi, and self-hypnosis have also been
gaining popularity. You can learn to elicit the relaxation response through a
focused exercise developed by Dr. Herbert Benson at Harvard University
(www.mbmi.org). We teach the relaxation response in our stress management
classes at the Center for Healthy Living.
How do I start working on
my mental wellness?
To promote mental wellness
work towards establishing a daily routine that meets the brain’s needs for
nutrition, exercise, mental challenges, relaxation, and sleep. Your schedule
and habits should eventually reflect this approach. A routine like this
reinforces itself: you begin to feel better and better over time, and this
positive state of mind leads to more good practices.
Dr. Gerson is an attending
psychiatrist and member of the medical staff at Cayuga Medical Center at
Ithaca. Healthy lifestyle and mental wellness programming is developed through the
Cayuga Center for Healthy Living, located at the Island Health & Fitness Center.