Rewire your brain for a happy life
Staying healthy in your mind is a matter of five simple changes, writes Shane Cochrane
Dr John Arden, a California-based psychologist and neuropsychologist, is the creator of a type of therapy that combines the latest findings from brain research with psychotherapy.
It's used by therapists around the world to treat those suffering from anxiety and depression.
Though his work is used to inform psychotherapists, Dr Arden believes that the keys to good mental health are in our own hands, that we can help ourselves deal with anxiety and depression, and make changes in our lives to help prevent these conditions.
So, in 2010, he published 'Rewire Your Brain', outlining his therapy in a way the rest of us could understand and use.
"I wrote 'Rewire Your Brain' because I thought the general public needed to have a practical, down-to-earth description of how to make sense of what we know about the brain – so they could take care of their brains better and suffer less from anxiety and depression," he says.
'The Brain Bible', his next book, will be published in February 2014.
It's a companion to 'Rewire Your Brain' and Arden describes it as a "manual for how to take care of your brain."
The principles of Dr Arden's therapy are quite simple: he doesn't want us to pop pills; he wants us to plant SEEDS.
"If you plant SEEDS, and cultivate them on a regular basis, then, as you get older, your brain will last longer. You'll have less stress and better memory capacity."
These SEEDS are Social interaction, Exercise, Education, Diet and Sleep.
In advance of his book, Dr Arden outlines how each of these factors contribute to healthy brains.
"We know now that those who are lonely or socially isolated get dementia symptoms sooner than people who have robust social support," Dr Arden says.
A recent Dutch study followed 2,000 elderly people – all of whom lived alone – for three years.
They found that those who reported feeling lonely were 2.5 times more likely to develop dementia than those who lived alone but didn't feel lonely. People who have limited social interaction can also experience accelerated ageing.
But, as Dr Arden points out, bad relationships can be destructive to the brain.
A number of studies have found that exercise is an effective and efficient way to help alleviate the symptoms of depression. It's affordable and easily accessible, unlike psychotherapy; and has none of the side-effects of antidepressants.
And unlike antidepressants, which can take weeks to be effective, exercise can provide immediate relief.
"Up until about 11,000 years ago, all humans were hunter-gatherers and moved about 10 miles a day.
"Today, it's extraordinarily rare for any of us to move 10 miles a day.
"But we have the same bodies, and our bodies have evolved to move. But, unfortunately, we're not doing that right now.
"But exercise – and I'm talking about aerobic exercise, meaning get your heart rate up and sweat a little – is one of the best antidepressants we have. It's as good as any antidepressant medication and psychotherapy combined."
Exercise isn't just an effective treatment for depression, it's also a preventative.
A study by the Southern Methodist University found that those who exercise are less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. But there's more, says Dr Arden.
"There's a wonderful substance called brain-derived neurotrophic factor. Most people can't remember that, so I just call it miracle grow."
It promotes growth of new cells in the hippocampus. The hippocampus plays an important role in memory formation, but it's also the part of the brain affected by the ageing process, chronic stress, and alcohol consumption.
"Miracle grow gets released under certain conditions, and aerobic exercise is one of those conditions."
"Every brain has 100 billion brain cells. Each cell is connected to 10,000 other brain cells. And those connections get more plentiful, and more robust, as we learn more things," explains Dr Arden.
"It's pretty evident that people with higher levels of education, or people who are constantly challenging themselves to learn more, build more neural networks in the brain."
Swedish researchers have been able to measure the brain's physical effects brought about by learning. They found that learning a second language causes observable changes in the hippocampus and parts of the cerebral cortex.
"Fried food is very destructive to the brain, so trans fats should be avoided," Dr Arden said.
Simple carbohydrates, such as sugar, white flour and white rice, should also be avoided because "they're like poison to the brain."
A Finnish study of 2,000 middle-aged men, carried out over three years, found that those who had a diet rich in vegetables, fruit, poultry and fish had a low prevalence of depressive symptoms compared to those who consumed a lot of processed meats and high-sugar snacks and drinks.
But there may be a more serious reason for getting our diet right.
"Do you know what some neurologists are now calling Alzheimer's disease?" he asks. "Diabetes type 3. So, if you want to get Alzheimer's quickly, get diabetes."
"There's an architecture to sleep," says John. "The most important stage is called stage 4 sleep – that's the deepest sleep. Good quality sleep is critical for your ability to think clearly the next day.
"We know that people who take sleeping pills or drink alcohol at night get bad quality sleep, and they don't get as much stage 4 sleep. So they wake up the next morning and they have more stress hormones, like cortisol, pumping through their systems, and they can't think as clearly."
But good sleep is also critical for the physical integrity of the brain.
Deep sleep promotes myelin production, the substance that coats our brain cells and is essential to their proper functioning. Damage to the myelin surrounding brain cells is associated with conditions like multiple sclerosis.
It's Never Too Late
The SEEDS of good mental health can be planted at any age.
"The sooner the better, but it's never too late," he says. "Some people make the mistake of thinking, 'I missed my opportunity, so why even try?'
"But, if you're not practising these five factors on a regular basis then you're impairing your brain's longevity.
"We now know so much more about what anxiety and depression look like in the brain. And it is really exciting to know that we can help ourselves to feel more joy in our lives, get more out of it, and not be bogged down by brain fog."
Dr Arden will be giving a talk at the Brooks Hotel, Dublin, on November 5. It's called Sharpen Your Brain. www.seminars.ie for details.