For most other body organs, it is straightforward to understand the relationship between the physical organ and the diseases that impact it. For example, when fluid fills the lungs, the fluid can become infected, and we call this pneumonia. The medical workup to diagnose pneumonia is pretty standard, as are the treatment options. So why is the relationship between brain health and mental health so murky?
Our current understanding of mental illnesses is that they are conditions that negatively affect a person’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors and cause them distress and difficulty in functioning. As a result, mental illnesses make it difficult for people to thrive in the world as we know it.
The brain is a complicated organ. Researchers have found connections between changes in brain structure and brain chemical levels and mental illnesses, but not the cause-and-effect relationship we see between fluid in the lung, infection, and pneumonia. This does not mean that mental illnesses are not a result of physical changes in the brain, only that more research is needed to better understand mental illness. A better understanding of brain structure and function has led many to replace the term ‘mental health’ with ‘brain health.’ Doing so emphasizes that mental illnesses are physical illnesses that are treatable, just like illnesses that involve the lungs.
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The brain is made up of billions of nerve cells called neurons that communicate with each other using chemicals called neurotransmitters. Brain cells control bodily functions such as breathing, body temperature, heartbeat, hormone levels, and movement, but they also allow us to think, reason, react to internal and external stimuli, make decisions, and even think about ourselves as a person.
It would seem reasonable to think that chemical imbalances between neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, cause mental illness. However, there is a lot of evidence that refutes this premise. The relationship between brain health and mental health seems to be much more complex than a chemical imbalance and is why medications to restore chemicals in the brain do not lead to a cure like antibiotics can cure bacterial pneumonia, though these medications that increase neurotransmitter levels can and do relieve symptoms.
Neuroplasticity is the ability of your brain to change in response to experiences, behaviors, thought patterns, and responses to internal and external stimuli. Connections between brain cells, called synapses, are not static—as learning occurs, some connections are strengthened while others are eliminated. Neuroplasticity is one reason why the brain and lungs are different. Your thoughts, experiences, and emotions can change your brain’s structure and function. This neuroplasticity allows the brain to adapt but makes investigating how the brain works more difficult.
Brain health, sometimes called cognitive health, refers to the structure and function of brain cells and neurotransmitters. To maintain brain health, it is important to protect brain cells and provide them with the nutrients needed to produce the chemicals and energy they need to function. It is also important to protect them from internal and external toxins.
The brain has the remarkable capacity to create new connections and reorganize circuits in the brain so that damaged ones can be replaced. During periods of rapid growth, i.e., childhood and adolescence, the brain has more plasticity to respond to experiences. However, adult brains can still adapt and change in response to learning.
Mental illness is a manifestation of symptoms due to changes in the brain, similar to the cough and shortness of breath that may occur when a person’s lungs fill with excess fluid. In addition to changes in neurotransmitter levels, other changes that may cause mental health symptoms include:
The term “mental health” has traditionally had stigma and negative connotations attached to it, as though a person with mental illness could somehow control whether they have it. However, as with every illness, some factors that affect brain/mental health are within your control, and others are not. Revisiting the example of pneumonia, if you smoke, you increase your risk for pneumonia, but you cannot cure your pneumonia without antibiotics, just like someone who does not smoke.
We don’t separate lung illnesses from lung health; perhaps, if we did not separate mental health from brain health, people with mental illnesses may be more comfortable seeking the treatment they need.
Because the brain has plasticity, cognitive-behavioral therapy can help you train your brain to develop new, more-helpful thought patterns. Other therapies that can change the way your brain responds to stimuli include:
Brain stimulation uses electricity to increase or decrease stimulation to specific brain areas. A wide range of medications is also available to treat psychiatric conditions, including:
Medications also treat symptoms associated with dementia and other cognitive conditions.
There are many ways to protect or sometimes even improve brain and mental health, including:
Physical factors that put your brain at risk include high blood pressure, high blood sugar, overweight and obesity, excess exposure to UV light (vision) or loud noises (hearing), injuries, some medications, and lack of restful sleep. Changes in the health of other body organs can also affect brain health.
Many of these risk factors are modifiable, meaning what you do today can affect brain health well into your future. When you talk to your doctor about your physical health, body composition, and blood pressure, bring up brain health as well. Ask about any lifestyle modifications, screening tests, or medications that may improve your brain/mental health.
Mental health and physical health are intertwined. Poor mental health (brain health) can lead to physical health problems, and poor physical health can cause mental illness. Taking care of your mental health is essential if you want to age well.
Other ways to improve your physical, brain, and mental health include:
Many older adults find that they do not have the energy they once had. Low energy can make socializing, getting outdoors, and exercising difficult. However, maintaining relationships and overall good physical health is essential to maintaining good mental/brain health.
Many people also take vitamins and supplements to help with sleep problems, low energy, or changes in body composition that are common with aging and limit their ability to exercise. Antioxidants such as coenzyme Q 10, NAD+, and glutathione can help protect cells from oxidative stress. Nootropics are vitamins and nutrients that support cognitive health. There has been an explosion of new research in the last decade, and hundreds of clinical trials are underway to determine the safety and effectiveness of supplements that may delay the aging process.
Brain health tends to be neglected during routine medical appointments. However, it is important to bring up any signs or symptoms of brain or mental illnesses you may be experiencing. Some of these signs might include memory loss, brain fog, confusion, stroke symptoms, depression or anxiety, feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, inability to cope, suicidal thoughts, excessive stress, and so on. Many of these signs and symptoms may be caused by a treatable medical condition.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five US adults experienced a mental illness in 2020, and 1 in 20 was diagnosed with a serious mental illness. In addition, one in 15 Americans struggle with substance use disorder and mental illness, and over 12 million people have serious thoughts of suicide.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached 24 hours daily at 800-273-8255.
Check with your doctor if you are experiencing new or persistent symptoms to see if a medical evaluation is warranted before self-diagnosing or attributing your symptoms to ‘getting older.’
If you are interested in brain and health protective supplements, contact the experts at Invigor Medical to learn more about how these supplements can promote healthy aging and support overall wellness.
While we strive to always provide accurate, current, and safe advice in all of our articles and guides, it’s important to stress that they are no substitute for medical advice from a doctor or healthcare provider. You should always consult a practicing professional who can diagnose your specific case. The content we’ve included in this guide is merely meant to be informational and does not constitute medical advice.