The past several years have really brought to light the importance of integrating positive mental health practices into our daily lives. Just as we pay attention to our diet and nutrition, to our daily activity levels and exercise, and to annual physical health exams, we need to do the same for our overall mental well being.
The field of personal growth and “self-help” has exploded with resources and tools that we can incorporate into our daily routines to better support our mental health. Breakthroughs in neuroscience, neurobiology, and psychology in recent years are providing research, data and protocols that will have profound impacts on treatment plans for mental health, addiction, chronic health issues and brain related diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Just as we can take proactive steps to minimize our risk of heart disease, high cholesterol and diabetes, we can also use proactive daily practices to improve our overall mental health and wellbeing.
What has been so fascinating to me is the intersection of neuroscience, psychology and general medicine focused on the body. It was the pandemic that really brought to light how our physical health and our mental health are inextricably linked.
It seems rather obvious that healthy people most likely have stronger immune systems and lower risk factors — but all too often our sole focus was on the physical body. Weight, nutrition and exercise got the majority of our attention. We missed the boat on connecting the dots to how our brains and our mental health were impacting our physical health and overall quality of life.
Midway through the pandemic, I was happily surprised to see that my family doctor’s practice was now including mental health questions on their intake forms. Clearly the awareness that many folks were struggling with higher anxiety and stress was getting some attention. Yet, we often fall too easily into the “quick fix” approach. Did you know that anxiety and depression medications are often doled out to patients with only a 6 minute doctor visit?
We can do better…..and we should. We need to become our own advocates for our mental health and well being just as we are for our physical health. This is precisely where the breakthroughs in neuroscience and neurobiology are intersecting with our physical health. We are learning so much about how our brains operate, how we can take better care of our brains and how we can tap into the little known circuitry to supercharge our brain’s functions. Most of these transformational benefits come from simple changes in our lifestyle — not prescriptions.
First and foremost is consistent, high quality sleep. This is the foundation for a healthy, highly functioning brain.
Think about how religiously you charge your devices and install the upgrades. This is what sleep does for our brains.
Sleep is essential for optimizing brain functions, building strong immune systems, maximizing our daytime functioning, hormone regulation — and it is the starting point for improved mental health. There are zero to low-cost strategies that we can put into practice to dramatically improve the quality and duration of our sleep.
Andrew Huberman, Ph.D, Stamford University, is an excellent resource for a deeper dive into the many benefits of sleep — and daily strategies that will enhance consistent, high quality sleep. Simple things like getting 30-60 minutes of natural sunlight every morning, avoiding caffeine for 8-10 hours before bedtime, waking up at the same time each day and going to bed when you first start feeling sleepy at night, limiting daytime naps to 90 minutes, or best yet, don’t nap at all. Did you know that drinking alcohol messes up your sleep as do most sleep medications. Here’s a surprise – melatonin is not good for us to be taking! (Check out the link below in Recommended Resources to learn more at the Huberman Lab Podcast)
Without good sleep, we are asking our brains to process a lot of information, emotions, experiences and environments without the viable resources needed to do so effectively. No wonder it is so hard to learn new things, break old habits, maintain emotional stability and navigate the complexity of our relationships.
Yet I have never had an annual checkup where the doctor asked me about my sleep. Have you?
If sleep medications can mess up our quality sleep, we should be looking for the root cause of our sleep disturbances. Perhaps something as simple as a better bedtime routine could be the long-term, healthier solution. (Please note that Dr. Huberman advises consulting with your doctor before stopping or changing any sleep medications you are currently taking).
At the same time, it is part of self-advocacy to know what might be contributing to poor sleep quality. Some of it we can control and some of it may be due to grief, anxiety, depression or environment. Taking stock of all the factors that may be inhibiting a good night’s sleep should be part of the conversation with our medical providers.
It is incredibly hard to function at our best when we are exhausted. We know this from personal experience: jet lag from traveling, pulling a few all nighters with a new baby or a work deadline, being in a different time zone. Yet we often fail to realize that during our normal daily — and nightly — routines, we have a lot of room for improvement to take care of our brains, our physical and mental health and our immune system.
Personal growth work supports our mental health as well. The more self-awareness we cultivate, the easier it becomes to acknowledge and addresses the changes we want to make. One of the problems with changing long-standing habits and behavioral patterns is the synapses in our brains that often operate on auto pilot. If we are sleep deprived, it is so much harder to cultivate self-awareness and disrupt an old pattern. We will be much more successful with personal growth work when we are on our A game, and our brains are well rested and restored.
It is the neuroplasticity of our brains that helps us evolve. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to modify, change and adapt both structure and function throughout life and in response to experience. Dr. Rick Hanson shares that “neurons that fire together, wire together”. Sleep reenergizes our body’s cells, clears toxins and waste from the brain and supports learning and memory.
The best advice we might be getting right now from neuroscience research is “to sleep on it.”
Think about it — we have the most incredible processing device on the planet in our head. We really don’t know all there is to know about the brain ….but we are learning more every day. Most importantly, we are discovering how to proactively care for our brains. The first giant step in assuring our integrated good health and well being is to sleep well.
HUBERMAN LAB RESOURCES NEWSLETTER: Toolkit for Sleep
Andrew Huberman YouTube Conversation with Lewis Howes: Do This Everyday to Master Your Sleep & Be More Focused