by Haley Scellick, ARNP
“Our brain’s performance is being gravely manipulated, resulting in behaviors that leave us more lonely, anxious, depressed, distrustful, illness-prone, and overweight than ever before. At the same time, we feel disconnected from ourselves, from others and from the world at large.”
What if I told you that your day-to-day decisions are being influenced by more than just the breakfast that you ate, the amount of time you spent on social media, the personal interactions with your loved ones? Participating in our modern consumerist existence is physically changing our brains, the highly evolved part of the brain that makes well-thought-out decisions. While paradoxically strengthening the pathways that make us impulsive, anxious, fearful, and constantly craving a fix. Dr. Perlmutter, the author of “Brain Wash” describes this state of separation from sustainable happiness as, disconnection syndrome.
The quote at the start of this article is from Drs. David Permutter and Andrew Perlm-utter. In their book, “Brain Wash,” they list 8 core elements to health. Eight ways to break out of this downward vicious spiral of a lifestyle that is ruining our health in all aspects; mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. These 8 pillars are well known to our members at Empowered Health. In fact, they are the basis of our health action plans and will be disclosed in this discussion further.
Our day-to-day choices are changing our brain structure. The brain is a marvelous, complex organ. Its neurons are in constant communication with the rest of the body. We even know that the brain can regenerate and make new connections this is called neuroplasticity. The brain enhances and protects its connections through an important protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and is active at the connections of neurons.
We know that people who do not have enough BDNF suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and scientists are looking for ways to increase BDNF to optimize our brain health, preserving our thinking and intellect is critical. It turns out that our lifestyle choices are highly attributed to forming new connections and targeted at our prefrontal cortex of our brain. This is the part of the brain that helps you make good, conscious decisions, based on past experiences and what to expect in the future.
Another important part of the brain to discuss is the amygdala. This is the control center of the threat-response and threat-interpretation system. Research is showing that the relationship between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex is sabotaged by chronic stress and poor lifestyle choices including unhealthy digital exposure, nature deprivation, poor diet, and lack of exercise and sleep. The chronic exposure to stress, activates and strengthens the amygdala’s stress pathways which impair prefrontal cortex regulation. In other words, our brains response patterns switch from slow, thoughtful prefrontal cortex to the reflexive and rapid emotional responses of the amygdala.
Researchers have mapped this with functional MRIs showing increased size and pathways along with inflammation. We know that chronic inflammation affects the entire body and is strongly tied to diseases such as depression and dementia along with day-to-day function of our decision-making and advanced thinking processes. We have been brain washed into believing that the way to lasting happiness is to double down on the very things that are making us miserable. Let’s discuss some of these things in more detail along with ways to overcome and incorporate them into our lives.
"Technology is a useful servant but a dangerous master." -Christian Lous Lange, Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize
Technology is highly useful and facilitates a wide range of conveniences to make our lives better- from medicine to manufacturing. Technology has allowed humans to thrive in ways that were previously unimaginable. We all know technology has a dark side that distracts us, activates our reward circuitry in the brain and promote mindless behavior that sets our minds adrift for hours on end. Science is still figuring out how spending time on these mindless pursuits affects our mental health. The early concluding research is not ideal and a new official diagnosis has been placed in the standard psychiatric diagnostic manual termed internet addiction and treated as a real problem. The effects on young children and teenagers is alarming. The overuse of modern technology also correlates with the presence of mental health issues. We are social creatures, we need one another to survive, this is why we gravitate toward social media, but this comes at a cost. It serves us far better when we use it with purpose. Striking the balance between healthful use and unhealthful use is a fine balance. Using the acronym of T.I.M.E helps track screen time and avoid smart phone addiction:
Time restricted-set a timer to prevent aimless scrolling through shopping sites, or social media, continue tweaking the clock and stick to it.
Intentional-becoming more intentional in our use of digital products puts the power back in our hands.
Mindful-bringing awareness to the way you’re using technologies and awareness of the way they are affecting you.
Enriching-ask yourself whether what you’re taking in is enriching, does it add to your knowledge, betterment as a person, contentment and bring optimism or just distracting?
Nature gives the brain a chance to reset from the hectic pace of the modern world. It may improve memory, cognitive flexibility, attention, along with improved thinking patterns. A recent survey of 2,000 American adults revealed an incredible fact that over their lifetime, the average US adult will spend the equivalent of 44 years looking at a screen: 4.5 hours watching TV, 5 hours on computers, and over 3 hours on gaming devices per day. Our urban lifestyles have changed our work environments, but research has shown that we are ingrained from our evolutionary roots and require nature to heal. A study in 2011, with postoperative patients in hospitals with patient rooms facing a brick wall versus a window with trees revealed that the patients in rooms facing the trees were discharged earlier and required less pain medication. The health benefits of nature are striking including; boosting immune system functioning, reduced blood pressure, improved mood, increased mindfulness, improved sleep, increased energy, and the list goes on. See if you can wake up to natural sunlight, open your windows, buy a plant for your office, plan to be out in nature at least 30 minutes per week minimum, and aim to exercise outside as much as possible, your health depends on it.
"The food you eat can be either the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison." -Ann Wigmore
Our diet is such a huge topic that is so important at preventing or creating problems in our health. As consumers we should be asking the questions surrounding “health food stores” as we seem to accept them as such, but what are the other food stores selling? In our modern-day world with big agriculture in play, we accept the processed items for face value and eat empty calories daily that often lead to craving more and more sugar.
The move away from real food does more than cause diseases such as diabetes and heart failure, it is taking over our brains decision making and emotional regulation. A pediatric endocrinologist, Dr. Robert Lustig said in a research paper in 2017, “processed food is an experiment that failed.” Every bit of the food we consume changes the expression of our genes, meaning the way our DNA is turned into messages and building blocks for our bodies. We have the ability to alter, for better or worse, the activity of our DNA!
This is called epigenetics. More than 90% of the genetic switches in our DNA that are associated with longevity are influenced by our lifestyle choices, including the food we eat. Foods rich in refined carbohydrates decreases the activity of the gene that makes the brain-protective BDNF. Although, when we eat a diet rich in healthful fats and proteins, the activity of the gene pathway increases the production of BDNF. Furthermore, the happy chemical serotonin, once thought of being only in our brains is actually approximated 90% found in our gut.
Healthy gut bacteria helps us produce serotonin from the amino acid, tryptophan (an essential amino acid). All of the tryptophan in our bodies has to come from the foods we eat. Inflammation also plays a large role in this conversion pathway that alters turning tryptophan into serotonin.
Similarly stress and increased levels of cortisol interfere in the same way. Therein lies the connection between diet and mood. At Empowered Health, our individual food plans target healthful eating tailored to the individual patient and what their bodies need to optimize health. Whether there is insulin resistance, inflammation, increased cholesterol; a individual plan is made for our patient to target the problem area. Dr. Perlmutter would agree that eating a Mediterranean diet that is low in carbohydrates, rich in plant based foods with lean meats, olive oil, nuts and seeds is the most research based way of eating to date.
Like our food choices, adequate sleep, directly influences the expression of our DNA. Researchers in early 2013, found that a week of sleep deprivation altered the function of 711 genes, including some involved in stress, inflammation, immunity and metabolism which are all uniquely tied to the brain. Furthermore, sleep deficits create issues throughout the whole body. Logging fewer than six hours of sleep a night is associated with a 44% increase risk of developing diabetes, obesity, dementia, lowered immune function, cancer, and the list goes on.
Sleep provides a physical “brain washing” that essentially is a cleansing mechanism for removing molecular build up during our waking hours as part of the brain’s normal metabolism. To reset your brain and put your prefrontal cortex back on top there are 3 ways to prepare for successful sleep: create a sleep sanctuary-making your room as quiet, peaceful and sleep-friendly as possible.
Set up for slumber by removing caffeine after 2:00 pm, having an established bedtime routine, limit/block exposure to bright light or use blue-light-blocking glasses. Lastly, wind down prior to sleep; consider taking a warm bath, shower, listen to calming music or reading a book.
Exercise. No secret that this assists in so many aspects of our lives. What is least known is that exercise rewires and restructures the brain for better functioning and higher-ordered thinking. We often don’t consider exercise effecting the way we think, behave, make decisions and relate to people. Just like sleep and food, exercise is a fundamental component that directly manipulates DNA expression while restoring our connection to our prefrontal cortex.
By becoming sedentary, research has shown that disconnection syndrome is worsened and the prefrontal cortex of our brain is suppressed. Sadly, around 8% of adolescents get the recommended sixty minutes of exercise daily, and only 3-5% of adults get the recommended thirty minutes. Studies show that physical activity lowers the risk of many types of cancer, colon, breast, endometrial and a type of brain tumor. Likely, in part, through exercise’s controlling effect on inflammation. Less chronic inflammation lowers the chance that the cells go rogue and turn into cancer.
It is never too late to begin exercising. Set small goals and be realistic, the goal is sustainable movement. Remove barriers: don’t find time, make time. Strive for 30 minutes per day, five days per week. Make exercise fun by switching up your routine, try a new activity to stay motivated and exercise with others.
Exercising empathy, mindfulness and meditation
Incorporating mindfulness, meditation, empathy and investing in relationships are the last key elements in Dr. Perlmutter’s 10 day Brain Wash. These components are crucial to fulfilling mind-body practice and tying all the pieces of health together.
At Empowered Health, we spend a great deal of time teaching these very essential components. Similarly with Dr. Perlmutter, we encourage reflecting on positive aspects of your lives and the people you care about by keeping a gratitude journal along with mindfulness practices such as deep breathing exercises.
Research has shown that mindfulness in general can empower us all with the ability to change our brains, lower our blood pressure, improve the function of our immune system, reduce systemwide inflammation and decrease cognitive decline.
Meditation helps reprogram our brains for well-being, empathy and gratitude. It also acts as a shield against the ongoing efforts to hijack our brains, strengthening our ability to resist. Studies have shown that just twelve minutes per day spent in meditating or mindfulness practice is beneficial for our overall health.
Perlmutter, D, & Perlmutter, A. (2020). Brain Wash: Detox your mind for clearer thinking,deeper relationships, and lasting happiness. Little, Brown Spark.