Oct 18

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Holistic Brain Health: Mental Health Edition

Taking a holistic approach to brain health is important to overall wellness! This holistic brain health post focuses specifically on mental health.

Holistic Brain Health: Mental Health Edition


Exercise for your mind, is just as critical as exercise for the body. Think of it as a muscle that will shrink and lose its strength when it is not being used and trained.

The brain is a dynamic organ, learning, thinking and using it help to improve its functioning and promotes new neuron growth, which incidentally helps prevent dementia from developing and keeps it strong and vital.

Build Your Cognitive Reserve 

Harvard Medical School reports that one of the key concepts in understanding cognitive health is cognitive reserve. Cognitive reserve is the brain’s ability to improvise and identify alternate ways of getting something done. This phenomenon allows the brain to change how it operates with available recourses aiding in dealing with challenges.

The concept of cognitive reserve dates back to the 1980s, when researchers noted people who lacked any dementia symptoms but whose brains at autopsy showed brain changes seen with advanced Alzheimer’s disease. These people showed no symptoms because they had a big enough cognitive reserve, which helped to offset the typical damage done by Alzheimer’s and therefore their brains continued to function normally.

Since that time, research has shown that those who have a greater cognitive reserve are less likely to develop degenerative brain changes, such as those seen with dementia, stroke, and Parkinson’s disease.

A strong cognitive reserve also promotes better functioning through taxing situations, such as stressful situations, a car accident, or even environmental toxins. These types of scenarios are more taxing to the brain and require extra effort, and when the brain lacks in coping skills, confusion, delirium and signs of disease can occur.

Cognitive reserve begins to develop in childhood but gest stronger as you age into adulthood. One of the most important tasks in maintaining a high level of brain and mental health is to sustain and support cognitive reserve.

It is developed and improved through a lifetime of curiosity, education, learning, embracing new activities, and developing new skills, all of which help the brain deal much more effectively with any and all failures and declines it may face.

“Use it or lose it” has never been truer.

Key ways to build your cognitive reserve include:

  • Challenge the mind with new never before done activities. Shlomo Breznitz, Ph.D., founder of Cognifit, and co-author of Maximum Brainpower: Challenging the Brain for Health and Wisdom believes that searching out new ways to engage your mind is the best way to stave off mental decline because it builds cognitive reserve.
  • Learn a new skill that requires higher functioning, such as problem-solving, for example, learn to plumb your sink or build something from scratch. The more confusing the skill the better, as it provides a higher challenge for the mind and forces your brain out of novelty and into variety, making it respond to new and challenging information and stimuli.
  • Critical thinking challenges the brain, a college English writing class is a great way to challenge yourself in this area
  • Challenge weaknesses – Battle brain routine and engage yourself in activities where you have weakness. If for example, you have never done any home improvement, choose a project and get started. If writing has challenged you in the past, start writing your life story.
  • Start using your nondominant hand – if you’re right-handed, use your left hand, and vice versa.
  • Get a degree
  • Travel to new and never before seen places
  • Learn a new language
  • Learn a musical instrument
  • Paint or sculpt

In short, do things you have never done before, the experience, and learning process will stimulate cognitive reserve. Breznitz says, “Challenging the brain helps maintain cognitive vigor and capacity. And maintaining our cognitive health maintains our quality of life.”



Meditation just maybe one of the most significant and miraculous activities for the health of your brain and overall mental fitness.


In 2015, researchers from UCLA published findings in Frontiers in Psychology that fund aging subjects who meditated had better-preserved brains than those who never mediated. Specifically, those who subjects who engaged in meditation for about 20 years actually had a widespread increase in volumes of gray matter in the brain.

The study’s author, Florian Kurth, notes, “We expected rather small and distinct effects located in some of the regions that had previously been associated with meditating. Instead, what we actually observed was a widespread effect of meditation that encompassed regions throughout the entire brain.”

Actual Brain Structure Changes

A 2011 Harvard study (Lazar, et al) found that mindfulness meditation actually changes brain structure. Specifically, the model subjects used was eight weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR, developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts’ Center for Mindfulness), which increased cortical thickness in the hippocampus, an area of the brain that controls memory, and learning. The study’s senior author Sara Lazar notes, “This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.”

Additionally, decreases in brain cell volumes in the amygdala were seen, and since the amygdala controls stress, anxiety, and fear reactions, this means significant benefits for brain, physical, emotional, and mental health.

The changes observed by researchers were confirmed by study subjects who reported changes in stress levels. In a follow-up study with the same subjects, positive changes in areas of the brain linked to mood and arousal were observed after meditation training, with study subjects reporting improvements in psychological well-being.

Britta Hölzel, first author of the paper and a research fellow at MGH and Giessen University in Germany says, “It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life.”

Improved Focus, Concentration, and Attention

Better focus, attention, and concentration skills are central to meditation and may be its greatest gifts. Numerous studies have shown meditation to have significant effects on these three key areas of mental wellness and brain health.

Typically, these effects show very quickly and after just a few sessions of meditation, exemplifying how meditation is an effective form of brain training that’s cognitive benefits are seen long after any specific meditation is over.


Stops Mind Wandering

Yale University discovered that mindfulness meditation reduces activity in the DMN (default mode network), the area responsible for mind wandering.

Mind wandering is associated with excessive worry, and dampening of overall happiness. This is the difference between a quiet and calm mind, and one that is frenzied and filled with worry. In fact, numerous studies have shown meditation to be incredibly effective at quieting the mind, and therefore reducing activity in the DMN.



Meditation has effects that are similar to medications used for both anxiety and depression.

A 2014 review study conducted by Johns Hopkins examined the relationship between mindfulness meditation and its effect on anxiety and depression. The findings concluded that mediation, which is an active form of brain training, is a key tool in managing depression.  


Reduces Anxiety

Numerous studies have shown, and many meditators will attest to meditation’s positive effects on anxiety levels. MBSR has been shown effective in this regard with significant and long-lasting changes.

Research has also shown mindfulness meditation, as opposed to breath meditation practices, to also greatly reduce anxiety. In this proactive, brain changes are mediated through regions that regulate “me-centered) thoughts.


Getting Started

Meditation offers numerous benefits for the brain and mental health, but in order to maintain these, you must practice daily, and be vigilant or else the brain can easily revert to its old ways. Whenever possible, it is best to get a meditation mentor or trainer to benefit from this amazing ancient practice.


There you have it, some ways to focus on your mental health to benefit your overall brain health! To learn more about holistic brain health be sure to read these articles for body, mind, spirit and lifestyle!

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