7 ways to boost your brain energy and mental health

7 ways to boost your brain energy and mental health

The best book I read in 2023 was The Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros (completely irrelevant to this post but it’s a brilliant YA dragon fantasy sh*gfest). The second-best book I read was “Brain Energy: A revolutionary breakthrough in understanding mental health – and improving treatment for anxiety, depression, OCD, PTSD, and more” by Christopher M. Palmer, MD, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

I’d heard him talk on several podcasts and I jumped on his book like a seagull on a chip. It could be the most important book I’ve ever read. However, it’s very sciencey and not for everyone.

So I’m going to summarise the key points from the book below and what YOU can do to maximise your metabolic and mitochondrial functioning to boost your brain energy and have great mental health.

You can also listen to this as a podcast

We’ve been doing mental health wrong in the Western world

For centuries we’ve separated diseases of the mind and body. But they are linked.

We’ve diagnosed mental illnesses based on symptoms, even though these symptoms overlap and people with the same disorder experience those symptoms very differently.

We’ve relied up on medications and magic pills to make us happier/thinner/calmer. And whilst they are ESSENTIAL for those of us suffering horribly from mental illness, they do not work for everyone and are a bandaid at best. They alleviate, but do not cure, the underlying causes of our lack of brain energy and poor mental health.

We need to focus on the biological, social and psychological treatments that affect our metabolism. Because as Chris Palmer clearly states:

“mental disorders are metabolic disorders of the brain.” Chris Palmer

  

What is mental illness?

“A mental illness is when the brain is not working properly over a period of time, and causes mental symptoms, which lead to suffering or impairment in functioning.” Chris Palmer

 It could be that the normal brain functions are underactive, overactive or absent

Just like the porridge in Goldilocks, you could have too much brain energy (overactive brain functions), or too little (underactive) or none (absent). Here are some examples:

  • Underactive e.g. ADHD (a reduction in the activity of norepinephrine neurons which help people focus, plan, stay on task etc); or depression (the slowing down of activity in the default mode network which slows or results in disorganised brain function);
  • Overactive e.g. fear and anxiety – hyperexcitability of the amgydala;
  • Absence e.g. Autism – absence of neurons or connections between neurons.

 For optimum mental health, what we’re looking for is the porridge (brain energy) to be ‘just right’ (for you).

 

It’s hard to measure mental health

What you may not realise is that unlike physical illnesses where we can objectively measure signs of ill-health with medical tests; mental illness is all about symptoms subjectively reported by the person suffering.

This means that clinicians that diagnose are listening to your subjective symptoms and trying to classify what disorder you have.  Which is why sometimes people’s diagnosis changes over time as your symptoms change.

Humans like to pigeon-hole and classify things. This car is different to that car because … x, y, z. This mental illness is different to that one because of x, y, z.

However, the truth of the matter is that there is significant overlap of symptoms between the different mental illnesses. 

“mental disorders are not distinct entities. This includes diagnoses like depression, anxiety, PTSD, OCD, ADHD, alcoholism, opioid addiction, eating disorders, autism, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. There is tremendous overlap in symptoms for different disorders, and many people are diagnosed with more than one. And even among disorders with symptoms that are very different, the underlying biological, psychological, and social factors overlap significantly.” Chris Palmer.

Mental health symptoms are also bidirectional (meaning having one symptom is likely to cause you to have another. E.g. having pain would make feel depressed, and depression can cause you to move less resulting in body pain.

And there’s also what we call comorbidity (having more than one symptom). E.g. people with anxiety often also suffer from depression and vice versa.

 

The underlying pathway of ALL mental illness is metabolic disorder and mitochondrial dysfunction

“Metabolism is how our body creates and uses energy. And we can think of problems with metabolism as energy imbalances” (Chris Palmer) and this then flows on to impact how all the cells in the body function, including the cells in your brain.

In school we are taught that mitochondria are the little energy batteries of your cells. But they are much more than that. They are the common pathway to ALL mental and metabolic disorders.

They have key functions including but not limited to:

  •       They are the master regulators of our metabolism
  •       They produce and regulate neurotransmitters
  •       They regulate hormones including our stress hormones
  •       They regulate our immune system

 

“When mitochondria don’t function properly, neither does the brain. When brain metabolism is not properly controlled, the brain doesn’t work properly. Symptoms can be highly variable, but mitochondrial dysfunction is both necessary and sufficient to explain all the symptoms of mental illness.” Chris Palmer

 

So what causes metabolic disorder and mitchochondrial dysfunction?

All of the following can cause metabolic disorder and mitochondrial dysfunction:

  • Stress
  • Trauma
  • Interrupted sleep
  • Heartbreak
  • Inflammation
  • Hormones
  • Neurotransmitter imbalances
  • Use of alcohol and drugs
  • Poor nutrition and dehydration
  • Loneliness
  • Lack of meaning or purpose in life
  • Genetics and epigenetics

 

Let’s talk about stress as an example

When your body responds to a stressor the stress response requires energy and metabolic resources. These resources are being diverted from other cells throughout the brain and body, and these other cells can suffer.  []  The stress response is taking energy that could otherwise be used for brain functions like focus, learning, and memory.” (Chris Palmer)

Now imagine that this stress response is chronic i.e it continues for a long time. That takes a big metabolic toll and it can lead to mental illness.

Trauma has an enormous metabolic impact. It is a major stressor on your metabolism and can push people over the edge into a mental health disorder.

 

How can you improve your brain energy and mental health?

We need to focus on the biological, social and psychological treatments that affect your metabolism.

We need to look at your entire lifestyle and environment.

Imagine you’re a plant. Are you flowering and thriving? If you’re missing certain vital inputs into your environment, you’re not going to thrive.

You are unique. Your genetic makeup, your environment, your personality. So you need a unique solution for you. Here are some suggestions.

 

Seven non-medical interventions to boost your brain energy and mental health 

 

Here are seven lifestyle interventions that might help you tweak your metabolism and boost your brain energy and mental health:

 

Social Connection

Loneliness kills. Social connection, physical and mental health are intrinsically linked.

Research shows that neglect, abuse and social deprivation can cause metabolic changes in children’s brains.

Social isolation is a stressor, which as I mentioned above, has a huge metabolic drain on the brain. This is because it is taking energy that could instead be used for normal brain functions like memory, focus and learning.

Good social connection is associated with:

  • A 50% increase in chance of longevity (i.e. the likelihood of a long life)
  • A strengthened immune system and better recovery from illness (I’ve written about the link between chronic stress, depression and lowered immune system).
  • A decrease in levels of depression, anxiety
  • Higher levels of self-esteem
  • Connection also leads to a positive feedback loop where you start to feel better about yourself and about others, feeling that you can trust people and feel empathy for them, which in turn improves your social connectedness.

To find some suggestions on how to increase your social connection READ MORE HERE

 

Positive mindset, your life purpose and meaning

Having a sense of life purpose “has been highly associated with both metabolic and mental health. When people lack a sense of purpose, it appears to induce a chronic stress response and can lead to many poor health outcomes.” (Chris Palmer)

As a first step in finding your way to living a life of meaning and purpose, perhaps take one of the Character Strengths Tests – see the links in this article.

If someone had told me to ‘cheer up’ when I was depressed, I think I would have smacked them around the face with a wet fish (If I’d had the energy…)  I’m not suggesting you can ‘think’ your way out of depression, but there is significant evidence that practicing gratitude journalling can help train your brain to look for the positive.

I’d also like to suggest that you focus on the glimmers of joy in life, rather than searching for that elusive state of ‘happiness’. Think micro rather than macro.

In addition, the stories we tell ourselves – i.e. the thoughts that we have – depend on the state of our nervous system and thankfully there is a lot you can do to change your nervous system stateREAD MORE HERE and READ Five ways to get out of a funk.

Fun and Play

Being an adult female is highly overrated. Way too much responsibility and not nearly enough fun.

Again, it’s the impact that stress has on our metabolism that impacts out mental health and brain energy.

Apathy and boredom are key signs of midlife crisis for women. Lady if there was ever a time to press the big red f*ck it button and play, it’s now! 

Playing, especially with your most important people, will have a positive impact on your stress levels, and therefore your metabolism. Read 5 reasons why getting more play and fun in your life is going to boost your happiness and even your autoimmune system!

READ MORE about the importance of play for adults.

 

Food and nutrition

“Diet plays a powerful role in metabolism and mitochondrial health.” Chris Palmer

During a period of chronic stress in my 30s I was reliant on sugar in the form of TimTams to give me energy. Starved of nutrients, my metabolism was up the proverbial creek. 

You are what you eat, and what you eat affects your metabolism, and hence your brain energy and mental health. (Sadly, a tray of TimTams does not qualify as a nutritionally balanced meal. Double sh*t)

We all know this, right? (I know this myself but sometimes I need a kick up the bum.) Focus on Real Food. Avoid the additives and preservatives and ultra-processed food. Feed your microbiome. And avoid the weird fad diets that F up your metabolism. (I’m looking at you liquid diets).

“Even if you are following a perfectly healthy diet, your metabolism and mitochondria can become impaired. This can be due to non-dietary factors such as genetics, epigenetics, inflammation, stress, sleep problems, hormones, medications, toxins etc.  Even in cases like these, dietary interventions can still play a role in treatment.  For example, intermittant fasting and the ketogenic diet can both stimulate autophagy and mitophagy, regardless of what caused the problem in the first place. They can also provide ketones as a rescue fuel source to insulin-resistant cells”. Chris Palmer

READ MORE about how food affects your mood.

 

Rest

It’s pretty self-explanatory. And I’m pretty sure we all dream of it. But how many people (probably women) do you know that are on the go 24-7, unable to rest?

If we are unable to rest, we are going to be stressing our nervous system. And as I’ve already pointed out, stress is a huge metabolic disruptor.

People we need to prioritize this so that we have enough energy for ourselves and others. Get a robot vacuum and put those feet up STAT!

READ MORE about 7 different types of rest here.

 

Movement

Movement not only improves your physical health, it improves your mental health by releasing anti-depressant substances called myokines, which science bods have called ‘hope molecules’. HUZZAH for myokines!

Even better, if you move with others, your body will release endorphins and endocanabinoids – bonding hormones – meaning you’ll feel more connected or bonded to those people. Yay!! READ MORE here.

For many of us, exercise has a highly beneficial impact on our metabolism and mitochondria. “Exercise is good for health. Many studies show that people who exercise are less likely to develop metabolic disorders, such as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.” Chris Palmer.

Sadly, however, a stroll around the block with your nose in your phone won’t do it. “To improve metabolic capacity, people need to push themselves. They must work towards getting faster, stronger, more flexible and doing more reps, or achieving some other metric of increased capacity. We know that thwn this happens, the number  of mitochondria in their muscle and brain cells increase, and the health of those mitochondria improve as well.” Chris Palmer.

Dr Palmer points out that movement isn’t a magic bullet for everyone. Some psychiatric medicines may reduce the impact of exercise on mitochondrial functioning. Insulin resistance  can also block the benefits of exercise.

Rather than trying to suddenly run 5K, what if you just incorporated a little bit more movement in your day. A five minute walk to Woolies or randomly doing squats in the office (NO do not do that one…they already think you’re a bit of a wierdo).

 

Sleep

Most of us know that proper sleep will improve our metabolism and let our brain do it’s self-repair functions over night. (But Bridgerton is just soooooooo gooooood and I really NEED to watch the next episode).

Light, sleep and circadian rhythms all affect mitochondrial function. Getting adequate sleep, getting daylight on the back of your eyes, and following a good circadian rhythms will play a “powerful role in metabolism, mitochondrial function, mental health and metabolic health.” Chris Palmer.

Did you know that even one sleepless night can increase our anxiety levels up to a whopping 30%?  READ MORE about the link between anxiety and poor sleep.

And even 1 hour less than the baseline 7 hours of sleep a night results in poorer mental processes the next day. (B*gger)

And the doomy truth is that the less you sleep, the earlier you are likely to die.   

Sh*t. Well there’s a good reason to switch off the Netflix and get the F to bed …

 

Medical intervention can be a lifesaver

Last, but definitely least, medication.  As I mentioned above, whilst it may not cure the metabolic disorder or mitochondrial dysfunction, which you now know is the underlying cause of mental illness, medical intervention for mental illness can be a lifesaver for many. 

Some people are suffering horribly in ways that I hope never to experience.  In cases of severe mental illness medication is essential to save the life of that person. I 100% advocate for this.

I’ve seen people with severe anxiety respond fantastically to medication and get on with their lives, weaning off the meds when they were no longer needed.

I’ve also seen people with severe depression try their best with naturopathic supplements and really suffer, but get their functioning back when they go on antidepressants. And they’ll probably be on them for a long time and are happy with that.

I’m also a HUGE believer in HRT for perimenopause and menopause. Pre-menopause our brains run on estrogen and when that stuff runs out, some of you will suffer appalling mental health. Thankfully we have HRT.  To find out more, have a look at this page:

Please talk to your GP or psychiatrist about what’s best for you. If you don’t like the answer, get a second opinion.

If you are suffering from severe mental illness, please add the lifestyle tweaks in addition to your medication, not as a replacement, and always in consultation with your medical professional. 

 

Want to learn more about Chris Palmer, Brain Energy and mental health?

You can find Chris Palmer all over the interwebs but here are some suggestions:

Watch him being interviewed on Diary of a CEO Podcast

 

His interview with my favorite podcaster Dr Rangan Chatterjee on Spotify

 

His website

 

Three easy ways to reduce your anxiety:

movement, breathing and your senses.

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