What if I told you that your day-to-day decisions are being influenced by more than just the breakfast that you ate, the amount of time you spent on social media, the personal interactions with your loved ones?
Participating in our modern consumerist existence is physically changing our brains; specifically, the highly evolved part of the brain that makes well-thought-out decisions while paradoxically strengthening the pathways that make us impulsive, anxious, fearful, and constantly craving a fix.
Dr. David Perlmutter, the author of Brain Washdescribes this state of separation from sustainable happiness as disconnection syndrome.
“Our brain’s performance is being gravely manipulated, resulting in behaviors that leave us more lonely, anxious, depressed, distrustful, illness-prone, and overweight than ever before,” says Perlmutter. “At the same time, we feel disconnected from ourselves, from others and from the world at large.”
Our day-to-day choices are changing our brain structure. The brain has an ability to enhance and protect its various connections through an important protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) that is active at the connections of neurons.
It turns out that our lifestyle choices are highly attributed to forming new connections, and are targeted at the prefrontal cortex of our brain. This is the part of the brain that helps you make good, conscious decisions based on past experiences, and helps us know what to expect in the future.
Another important part of the brain to discuss is the amygdala. This is the control center of the threat-response and threat-interpretation system. Research is showing that the relationship between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex is sabotaged by chronic stress and poor lifestyle choices including unhealthy digital exposure, nature deprivation, poor diet, and lack of exercise and sleep. The chronic exposure to stress activates and strengthens the amygdala’s stress pathways which impair prefrontal cortex regulation.
In other words, our brain’s response patterns switch from slow, thoughtful prefrontal cortex regulation to the reflexive and rapid emotional responses of the amygdala.
Technology is highly useful and facilitates a wide range of conveniences to make our lives better, from medicine to manufacturing. Technology has allowed humans to thrive in ways that were previously unimaginable. We all know technology has a dark side that distracts us, activates our reward circuitry in the brain, and promotes mindless behavior that sets our minds adrift for hours on end. The effects on young children and teenagers is alarming. The overuse of modern technology also correlates with the presence of mental health issues.
Nature gives the brain a chance to reset from the hectic pace of the modern world. Spending time outdoors may improve memory, cognitive flexibility, and attention, along with improved thinking patterns. Our urban lifestyles have changed our work environments, but research has shown that we still have needs ingrained from our evolutionary roots and require nature to heal.
The health benefits of nature are striking, including: boosted immune system functioning, reduced blood pressure, improved mood, increased mindfulness, improved sleep, increased energy, and more.
Our diet is such a huge topic that is so important to preventing problems in our health. In our modern-day world with big agriculture in play, we accept processed foods at face value, and eat empty calories daily, which often leads to craving more and more sugar.
The move away from real food does more than cause diseases such as diabetes and heart failure—it is taking over our brains’ decision making and emotional regulation. Every bit of the food we consume changes the expression of our genes, meaning the way our DNA is turned into messages and building blocks for our bodies. We have the ability to alter, for better or worse, the activity of our DNA!
More than 90% of the genetic switches in our DNA that are associated with longevity are influenced by our lifestyle choices, including the food we eat. Foods rich in refined carbohydrates decreases the activity of the gene that makes the brain-protective BDNF. When, instead, we eat a diet rich in healthful fats and proteins, the activity of the gene pathway increases the production of BDNF.
Like our food choices, adequate sleep directly influences the expression of our DNA. Researchers in early 2013 found that a week of sleep deprivation altered the function of 711 genes, including some involved in stress, inflammation, immunity, and metabolism, which are all uniquely tied to the brain.
Sleep provides a physical ‘brain washing’ that essentially is a cleansing mechanism for removing molecular buildup accumulated during our waking hours as part of the brain’s normal metabolism.
Exercise. It’s no secret that this assists in so many aspects of our lives. What is lesser known is that exercise rewires and restructures the brain for better functioning and higher-ordered thinking. We often don’t consider exercise affecting the way we think, behave, make decisions, and relate to people. Just like sleep and food, exercise is a fundamental component that directly manipulates DNA expression while restoring the connection to our prefrontal cortex.
By becoming sedentary, research has shown that disconnection syndrome is worsened, and the prefrontal cortex of our brain is suppressed. Physical activity also lowers the risk of many types of cancer: colon, breast, endometrial, and a type of brain tumor.
Exercising empathy, mindfulness, and meditation
Incorporating mindfulness, meditation, and empathy into your life, and investing in relationships, are additional elements crucial to fulfilling mind-body practice and tying all the pieces of health together.
Research has shown that mindfulness in general can empower us all with the ability to change our brains, lower our blood pressure, improve the function of our immune system, reduce systemwide inflammation, and decrease cognitive decline.
Meditation helps reprogram our brains for wellbeing, empathy, and gratitude. It also acts as a shield against the ongoing efforts of social media and other outside stimuli to hijack our brains, strengthening our ability to resist distractions. Studies have shown that just twelve minutes per day spent in meditating or mindfulness practice is beneficial for our overall health.
Haley Scellick, ARNP
Haley Scellick is a board-certified Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioner. She has a wide berth of nursing experience that includes neurosurgery and orthopedics. She completed her Master’s of Science in Nursing at Gonzaga University and also has a Bachelor’s of Arts in Biology from Central Washington University.
Haley is passionate about treating each patient holistically and has pursued health and wellness in her own personal life. She is an avid outdoor enthusiast and has completed two marathons and the Seattle to Portland (STP) Bike Ride. Her hobbies also include spending time with her family, crafts and reading.
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