As a psychiatrist and neuroscience researcher, I have spent 27 years studying the surprising connections between our mental health, physical health, and brain health.
I also learned a lot from my personal journey. In my 20s, I was diagnosed with metabolic syndrome, a combination of disorders that increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
But by making some lifestyle changes, I was able to overcome it in just a few months. To stay fit, energetic and healthy, here are six things I never do:
1. I never load up on high carb foods.
Diet plays a role in obesity, diabetes, and heart health, but most people don’t realize that it also has profound effects on the brain.
I reversed my metabolic syndrome by committing to a low carb diet. In general, low-carb diets eliminate or reduce grains, baked goods, sweets, and fruits that are high in sugar or starch.
I usually have eggs for breakfast. Throughout the day I eat vegetables, fruit and a good amount of meat, fish and poultry. This has helped me maintain a healthy weight and keep my blood sugar low.
2. I never take more than 2 days off from exercise.
For me, the optimal workout is 45 minutes, three to five times a week. In addition to stretching and core exercises, I lift weights, run, bike, swim and take brisk walks.
I don’t force myself to exercise every day, but I also never take more than two days off from aerobic activities.
3. I never sleep less than 7 hours a night.
Poor sleep can lead to cognitive impairment, which can lead to a greater risk of Alzheimer’s disease over time. It can also affect mood and contribute to depression.
When you sleep, your body enters a state of “rest and recovery.” The brain undergoes many changes in the neurons that play a role in learning and memory consolidation. Without sleep, cells can malfunction and begin to malfunction.
The amount of sleep people need varies, but I always get at least seven hours of sleep a night. I’m usually in bed by 8:00 or 9:00 p.m. and wake up at 4:00 a.m. The early to bed, early to rise routine makes me more alert and focused throughout the day.
4. I never drink alcohol.
I used to drink regularly and sometimes have a glass of wine in the evening to relax.
But in June 2020 I decided to give it up for a month. Within weeks, I noticed improvements in my sleep and productivity, so I decided to stop drinking altogether. Shockingly, I don’t miss it at all.
This does not mean that you should completely give up drinking, but the benefits we once thought alcohol provided are now being questioned. In a study of more than 36,000 people, consumption of even one or two drinks a day was linked to brain atrophy, or shrinkage.
5. I’m never done growing myself.
Exploring your emotional health through psychotherapy can change your life. It can help you figure out who you are and what you want from life, which will strengthen your sense of purpose.
Psychotherapy that focuses on empathy, relationships, social skills, or improving cognitive abilities can strengthen brain circuits that have been underdeveloped.
People are driven to have a sense of purpose. I believe it is hardwired into our brains. When people lack a sense of purpose, it can cause a chronic stress response and lead to poor cognitive function.
Remember that purpose is multifaceted. This includes relationships with other people, yourself and your community. We should all strive to have at least one role in society that allows us to contribute and feel valued.
This can be as simple as a chore or take the form of a student, employee, carer, volunteer or mentor.
Christopher Palmer, Ph.D is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the author of “Brain Energy: A Breakthrough in Understanding Mental Health.” For the past 27 years, he has been an academic physician in administrative, research, educational and clinical roles. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisPalmerMD.
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