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Mindfulness Leads to a Happier Brain

Neuroscience has found that mindfulness literally changes the structure of your brain. We have two networks in the brain and mindfulness enables these two networks to become more balanced (unbalance usually results in depression or anxiety disorders).

What is mindfulness?

When we think of mindfulness, we tend to think of an idea that has been around for thousands of years thanks to Buddhism and eastern philosophy. Many Buddhist researchers are doing great things showing how mindfulness can impact the human experience. Being mindful is simply a different state of mind. It’s more a psychological approach than having anything to do with religion. Mindfulness can simply be thought as the opposite of mindlessness – a state of mind that can cause a tremendous amount of suffering.

When we speak about mindfulness, people might be more receptive to the idea if we mention the neuroscience of how mindfulness actually affects the brain. This way, many skeptics will be able to explore the idea to see how it actually benefits their life.

The neuroscience of mindfulness

A 2007 study called “Mindfulness meditation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference” by Norman Farb at the University of Toronto, broke new ground in our understanding of mindfulness from a neuroscience perspective.

They found that people have two different sets of networks in their brain for dealing with the world. One network for experiencing your experience is what’s called “the default network”. This network is activated when not much is happening and you begin thinking about yourself.

The default network

It’s the network involved in planning, daydreaming and ruminating. It tends to hold together some sort of narrative. When the default network is active, you are thinking about your history and future and all the people you know, and how this giant web of information weaves together.

The default network is active for many of your waking moments and doesn’t take much effort to operate. There’s nothing wrong with this network, the point here is you don’t want to limit yourself to only experiencing the world through this network.

Direct experience network

When the direct experience network is active, it becomes a whole other way of experiencing experience. When this network is activated, you are not thinking intently about the past or future, other people, or even yourself. Rather, you are experiencing information coming into your senses.

For example, if you are in the shower, you can focus on the warmth of the water hitting your body.

This interesting thing is that both these networks are inversely correlated. If you have an upcoming meeting while washing dishes, you are less likely to notice a cut on your hand, because the network involved in direct experience is less active. You don’t feel your senses as much. Fortunately, this works both ways. When you intentionally focus your attention on incoming sensory data, such as the feeling of the water on your hands while you wash, it reduces activation of the narrative circuitry.

This is why meditation breathing exercises can work when you’re stressed, because you focus your attention on the sensory experience of your breathe. Your senses become more alive at that moment.

Why mindfulness is important

The researcher in this study sums it up best:” Mindfulness is a habit, it’s something the more one does, the more likely one is to be in that mode with less and less effort… it’s a skill that can be learned. It’s accessing something we already have. Mindfulness isn’t difficult. What’s difficult is to remember to be mindful.”

Mindfulness isn’t difficult: the hard part is remembering to do it.  You don’t need to meditate to do it. The ultimate key to mindfulness is just to practice focusing your attention onto a direct sense, and to do it often. You can practice mindfulness while you’re eating, walking, talking, doing just about anything. It doesn’t mean you have to sit still for 15 minutes a day and focus on your breath. Instead, every now and then, even for 10 seconds, just focus on a sensory experience and you will activate your direct experience network (NICABM, National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioural Medicine, https://www.nicabm.com/products/next/order.php)

 

Alcohol, mental health and co-occurring disorders

It’s not unusual to have alcohol dependence and co-occuring mental health problems. For example, you could have depression, general anxiety or social anxiety disorder, to name but a few, and an alcohol dependence or substance misuse disorder.  This is what is understood as co-occurring disorders.

Self-medication

Some people with an untreated mental health disorder start using alcohol as a way to self-medicate. Others develop the symptoms of a mental health disorder only after alcohol misuse. This suggests that excessive alcohol use can trigger or make the symptoms of a mental health disorder worse1,2.

 

Co-occurring disorders

The relationship between alcohol use and mental health problems is rather complex. Co-occurring disorders affect and interact with each other. When a mental health problem is left untreated, the drinking problem usually gets worse as well. And it also goes the other way around; when an alcohol problem increases, it can make mental health problems worse3.

Help is available

If you experience a drinking problem and/or a mental health problem, it is important to talk to a healthcare professional. There are treatments, support options and self-help strategies that can help you overcome co-occurring disorders.  Contact us by using our Request a Call Back Form or emailing us at info@getyourmeasure.ie

Change your drinking habits, change your life

Cutting back or quitting drinking is one of the most important steps you can take take to improve your health.  And there are lots of benefits associated with reducing your alcohol intake.  The most important benefit is the reduced risk of harm to your health, but there are also other benefits that may help improve your general well-being and happiness.

Brighter mood

Alcohol affects brain chemistry by interfering with neurotransmitters that balance mood, among other things. If you cut down on your drinking, you may start to feel happier and the risk of alcohol-related depression is reduced.

Better sleep

Alcohol affects the quality of your sleep. Although alcohol can help you get off to sleep faster, it can disrupt the normal sleep process and reduce your deep sleep. After a night of drinking, you are also more likely to wake up early and find it hard to fall back to sleep. When you reduce your drinking, your sleep will probably improve and you will feel more rested when you wake up, which can improve your mood and alertness the following day.

Better concentration

Regularly drinking more than the recommended limit affects your concentration and ability to work. When you drink less, it will most likely improve your ability to concentrate, causing you to work more focused and feel less stressed.

More energy

Alcohol affects your sleep and mood which can make you feel tired and slow-moving during the day. Alcohol can also affect your immune system, making it harder to fight off infectious diseases. When you reduce your drinking, you will probably notice that you have more energy and a stronger immune system.

Slimmer waist-line

Alcohol contains calories which can contribute to weight gain. When you drink less, you may stop gaining weight, or even lose some weight.

Better sex life

Alcohol inhibits sexual performance and functioning, and dulls sensation for both men and women. Since alcohol is linked to the reduction of the male hormone testosterone, it can be difficult for men to get and maintain an erection. When you drink less, you will probably notice that your sex life improves.

Healthier skin

Alcohol dehydrates the body which can make your skin appear dull and grey. When you cut back on your drinking, the condition of your skin is likely to improve and it shouldn’t take long before your skin starts to look healthier.

And then there are the long-term benefits

By quitting or cutting down on your drinking, you reduce the risk of a number of serious illnesses.

Drinking less means a decreased risk of:

Mental health problems: Depression, anxiety

Liver disease: Liver cirrhosis, liver cancer

Cancers: Colorectal cancer, breast cancer, cancers of mouth, oesophagus, pharynx, larynx

Heart disease: Stroke, cerebral haemorrhage, hypertension

 

 

Cutting back improved my sleep and wallet!

Dry January

Thousands of people are into their second week off booze for the month of January.  This is the annual ritual of skipping all alcohol for 30 days to improve your health.  But what happens if you manage to nail Dry January, then decide to keep going – for another two years?

Less stress, improved sleep

A New York designer did just that, and the results were genuinely surprising.  One of the big things that disappeared from his life? Gossip. There were also some other clear, big wins for both his body and his wallet: he says he saved $1,000 a month, his sleep quality improved, and he felt less stressed.  Living in New York, Tobias says it’s normal to have 1-2 drinks every day and found that by cutting out the occasional cocktail, he managed to accrue $1000 more in his bank account.

More cash

“Assume that I have 2–3 cocktails every other day (which are $10 each without tip), including some wine bottles every month for at home, I can easily spend $1000,” he added.  While his cash-flow increased, so did his sleep quality as Tobias afforded skipping that post-work beer for an improved night’s kip.  Irish Independent, 5 January, 2017.  

Nutrition plays a key role in mental health

It has long been known that optimal health depends upon…adequate nutrition. For more than a decade, research into nutrition has been playing a key role in mental health.  Essential vitamins and minerals are vital inputs for many processes in every cell in our bodies, so when one nutrient is deficient, it can cause problems in multiple body systems and lead to disease.

For example, if iron is low in your body, it will affect a whole range of metabolic processes. This can cause problems because two important neurotransmitters, serotonin and melatonin, can no longer be produced. Serotonin helps to keep our mood even and melatonin helps us to sleep restfully. This explains, in part, why iron deficiency leads to symptoms like feeling weak and tired, feeling grumpy, having headaches, and having a hard time concentrating or thinking. So you can see how a single nutrient deficiency can have a large effect on many systems of the body.

Some of the vital nutrients for the brain include proteins for healthy neurotransmitters and complex carbohydrates for brain power.  Vitamin B is good for eliminating stress and for boosting brain function, intelligence, memory and mood.  Vitamin C and magnesium are good for improving sleep, concentration, focus and mood.  The list is endless but suffice to say that nutrition researchers give compelling evidence for the critical role of nutrition in mental health and why this knowledge will revolutionize the way our society treats mental health.