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Published on: March 6, 2015
by Daphne Howland for The Dallas Morning News:
They say laughter is the best medicine. When it comes to your brain, you might add sleep, eating right, exercise or even changing your mind.
Scientists are finding that behaviors affect our neurology — our brain chemistry and brain activity — in profound ways that can replace or supplement pharmacological treatments of even serious mental and physical disorders.
This isn’t about thinking happy thoughts or eating a particular superfood to boost your memory, but experts say there are many specific choices we can make that will physically affect our brains and our mental health.
“Every time you have a thought, there’s a change in your brain,” says Judith Beck, president of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy in Philadelphia.
Beck and her father, Aaron T. Beck, established the Beck Institute based on the methods he first developed in the 1960s. In cognitive behavior therapy, patients work on habits of behavior and thinking that are giving them false and sometimes debilitating perceptions of their capabilities and circumstances, which can contribute to such conditions.
In recent years, randomized trials and brain imaging have demonstrated real changes in the brain brought on by this therapeutic approach, she says.
“It’s the power of realistic thinking,” Beck says. “Cognitive therapy produces brain changes just as medication does, but it has a much more lasting impact. It helps people see more clearly and set goals. Frequently, if a person is depressed, they’ll have thoughts that interfere with making changes to their behavior and to solving problems.”
Cognitive behavior therapy is not always a replacement for pharmaceutical therapies, although it can be and may work alongside them, Beck says.
“When people are depressed, they see all their experience through these dark lenses,” says Beck. “In therapy, we try to scrape away the black paint and see the world for what it is.”
Healthy choices successfully interrupt bad effects, both physical and mental, from the stress hormones that can save us in perilous moments but take their toll if they become chronic, says Dr. Diana R. Kerwin, director of the Texas Alzheimer’s and Memory Disorders unit at Texas Health Presbyterian Dallas.
Even for people not undergoing therapy, the lesson is that our conscious choices shape our emotions and our minds at a biological level. Nutrients from food, the restoration from sleep, the body’s reactions from exercise and the biological consequences of our own thoughts all build and nurture — or break down and sap — the very functions in our brain that add or subtract from our well-being.
It’s been several years since researchers at Duke University and elsewhere found that exercise — 30 minutes of brisk exercise three times a week — can work as well as medication to help people with depression and can keep depression at bay. Further studies have shed light on why it works, showing regular exercise for 12 weeks or longer can regenerate neurons in the hippocampus, which in depressed people is often smaller, said Madhukar H. Trivedi, professor of psychiatry and the Betty Jo Hay distinguished chair in mental health at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
“The runner’s high, that immediate effect, that’s not an antidepressant,” Trivedi says. “The antidepressive effect takes several weeks to work. Even if you don’t want to take medications, though, you have to do this under the care of a physician because it doesn’t work the same way for everyone, and depression is a very serious illness.”
Research does show that people who exercise regularly are less prone to depression. In addition to the effect on the brain’s hippocampus, which is integral to memory, inhibition and spatial navigation, exercise boosts levels of serotonin, which provides feelings of well-being and happiness, Trivedi says. Further, studies show that for people with depression who don’t otherwise respond well to medication, exercise can make their medication more effective, he said.
Research is showing exactly how foods chemically affect the brain to the detriment or benefit of our mental health.
Omega-3 fatty acids, for example, are important to membranes and transmitters in the brain that affect depression and other conditions, says Fernando Gómez-Pinilla, a professor of neurosurgery and physiological science at the University of California, Los Angeles Neuro-Life Lab. Sugars, which in the right doses provide the body and brain with energy, can easily upset our systems when we have too much.
Sweetener alternatives are turning out to be no better, Gómez-Pinilla says.
“There are several studies lately that some sweeteners may not be good because they also create a lot of metabolic problems and effects on the brain,” he says. “So to me, now the safest is cane sugar in low amounts.”
Exercise and food work together, too, Gómez-Pinilla says.
“We cannot separate the effects of food from the effects of exercise,” he says. “They act on the same pathways in the brain. We have found, for example, that exercise seems to do good in terms of the action of omega-3, which also seems to reduce some of the negative effects of food. It’s a reminder that we cannot do just one thing. It’s not just eating well.”
While the notion that eating affects our brain chemistry may be logical and has turned out to be fairly easy to show, sleep is another matter. “We know the profile of what happens during sleep physiologically. We know that it serves a restorative purpose, but we don’t know why,” says David Schnyer, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Texas in Austin.
But for mental health? “Oh, it’s critical. Most every mental illness sign is associated with some disruption in sleep.”
Schnyer says there’s something of a chicken-and-egg question here — does disruption in sleep contribute to mental illness or vice versa? “But any health care provider will work very hard to get a patient’s sleep regulated, and it has been demonstrated that you can correct a lot of problems directly, so it’s a worthwhile endeavor. In many ways, it’s one of those nice things that reflects the complexity of the human organism, it’s a systemwide activity.”
Schnyer cited a recent study that found that sleep can affect post-traumatic stress disorder. “While poor sleep may contribute to the development and progression of PTSD, improving the quantity and quality of sleep (particularly REM) may increase resilience and protect against the development of PTSD when confronted by trauma,” said the study, published last month in the Journal of Neuroscience. “Conversely, impaired sleep before trauma may limit one’s capacity to manage stressors, thus reducing resilience and increasing the likelihood of PTSD.”
While sleep needs vary greatly from person to person, the National Sleep Foundation, bolstered by a research review by scientists at UT Southwestern, released new guidelines in January. According to the NSF, newborns should get 14 to 17 hours of sleep, infants 12 to 15 hours, toddlers 11 to 14 hours, preschoolers 10 to 13 hours, schoolchildren 9 to 11 hours, teenagers eight to 10 hours, young adults and adults seven to nine hours, and older adults seven to eight hours.
“There’s pretty clear documentation that the average amount of sleep has declined from the 1900s on. We are more sleep-deprived,” Schnyer says. “But it’s as important as eating and as important as exercise. You can’t put together healthy eating and healthy exercise, and forget about sleeping and expect to function well.”
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