Build a Better Brain

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Build a Better Brain

What do walking out your front door, hitting the pillow, and eating fat all have in common? As even some of history’s greats have learned, improving your mental health is just a matter of making the right decisions.
From the January 2012 Trumpet Print Edition

Winston Churchill was hounded by what he called his “black dog.” Whenever his political career suffered setbacks, it stalked him: mental gloom—depression. Yet he was a fighter. He would not be weighed down for long. And the weapon he used to attain victory in his battle was vigorous activity.

Churchill literally worked his way out of moroseness. His literary career and political leadership are a testament to this fact. He was a gifted and prolific writer. He wrote thousands of newspaper and magazine articles and authored over 40 books. Paul Johnson, in his bestselling biography Churchill, estimates that the man has somewhere between 8 and 10 million words in print. And when needed most, Winston Churchill was able to stand strong against the tide of intense personal attack launched by pacifist politicians. Full of zeal and undying energy, he led Britain and the entire Western world out of defeat by the Nazis in the years leading up to and during World War ii.

In a similar vein, Abraham Lincoln used the personal growth he gained struggling against melancholy as a motivating force to find greater purpose for his life. As president during one of America’s darkest hours, the Civil War, he found that purpose by leading his beloved country to win the struggle against deep division and embrace the high call to provide equality and freedom for all oppressed people. Amid personal and national tragedy, he was able to step outside of himself and dedicate the full power of his mental energy and political career to the dual causes of the Union’s preservation and human emancipation.

Depression, left unchecked, paralyzes a person’s will power. The severely depressed become imprisoned in a concentration camp of the mind—starved of positive productive thought—prevented from creative accomplishment—frozen stiff in a block of ice.

True freedom from depression is won through the self-discipline of building a positive, productive mind—even in the midst of personal suffering. The way to beat inactivity is to propagate positive accomplishment.

Here are the steps you must take to build a productive mind.

Healthy Lifestyle

“The most perfect mechanism ever designed and made is the marvelous mind and body that is man,” Herbert Armstrong taught. Like any machine, the human mind and body must be well maintained to function properly. In fact, a healthy mind can only be built by building a healthy body.

Over the last several decades, scientific research has delivered to us a vast amount of knowledge concerning the connection between mind and body. Yet most people have not carefully applied what is known. We embrace an unhealthy lifestyle and pay a high price for our irresponsibility.

We must face reality. Our high-stress, technologically developed, pleasure-driven society is sapping our physical health and dulling our minds—literally killing us.

Stephen Ilardi, in his book The Depression Cure, references some fascinating cross-cultural studies of depression. He tells us, “Only one known group of Americans hasn’t been hit by the modern depression epidemic: the Amish. Still clinging tenaciously to their 18th-century way of life, Amish communities have a rate of depression dramatically lower than that of the general population.” He also mentions, “In developing (Third World) countries, the lifetime rate of depression is often a fraction of that observed in the West.” In the Kaluli people of the New Guinea highlands, for example, “clinical depression is almost completely nonexistent.” Meanwhile, countries that move away from traditional to Americanized lifestyles see the prevalence of depression begin to rise.

What can we learn from such facts? The Amish, people in developing countries and the Kaluli have a much harder life than the people of America, Australia, Britain, Canada, Germany or New Zealand. So one might assume they would have more mental ills like depression. Why is the reverse true?

Take a look at the Kaluli. These indigenous and illiterate people are sometimes referred to as horticulturists because they subsist on a natural diet taken by hunting, foraging and gardening. Essentially they live on fresh fish, game, fresh fruits and leafy green vegetables. They are active people who must work hard to survive. The Amish lifestyle, though not as stark, is similar: The Amish work hard physically in order to grow and preserve their own fruits, grains, meats and vegetables according to Old World traditions.

To put it simply, these two groups of people get plenty of whole fresh food, exercise, fresh air, sunshine and water. In addition, they live within a closely knit, emotionally supportive community of families.

Unfortunately, there is not a similar description for the majority of the Western world.

Begin With Diet

Your brain—the physical component of your mind—is not separate from your body. To function at peak performance, the brain—your thinking, operating, motivating control center—must be fed healthy food. Shockingly, that food is primarily fat!

Fat has become a dirty word for most Americans. Yet, the human brain is 60 percent fat by dry weight. Fat molecules, including saturated fats and cholesterol, play a critical role in the construction of brain cells and the insulation of nerve fibers. Your brain needs healthy fat to thrive. Medical tests run on depressed patients reveal a lack of healthy fats in the blood. This means that a majority of depressed patients have starved brains.

The human body manufactures most of the fats that the brain requires for proper functioning, yet two crucial types of fat the brain needs a steady supply of—omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids—can only come from food. Most modern Western diets tend to be low in omega-3 fatty acids and high in omega-6. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in foods such as brussels sprouts, fish, flaxseeds, kale, olive oil, salad greens, spinach and walnuts. Good-quality omega-6 fatty acids come primarily from seeds and nuts or the oils produced from them. A healthy diet must include a balance of these two fatty acids along with other natural foods such as whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables.

There is a direct link between omega-3 deficiency and depression. It is becoming common practice to have depressed patients take cold-water fish oil supplements to increase the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in their diets. What an easy lifestyle change! The results are dramatic and well documented. Many easy-to-locate sources in books and on the Internet will provide you a wealth of facts and information on this subject. If you want to be truly mentally healthy, you must take advantage of what is known.

Besides incorporating omega-3 fatty acids, many people need to reduce the amount of omega-6 fatty acids in their diet. This is not as easy as taking a supplement. To be truly healthy, every individual has to move far away from eating large amounts of highly processed snacks and fast foods. Foods such as cereals, cookies, chips (crisps), crackers, fast foods and shakes are full of omega-6 fatty acids. The best way to fill your need for omega-6 fatty acids is to eat raw nuts and seeds and to use non-hydrogenated, cold-pressed olive, coconut or palm oil while cooking. Realize, butter is not the evil villain it has been made out to be. Yet it is important to eliminate the omega-6 fats found in margarine, Crisco and other polyunsaturated oils (soybean and canola) from your diet.

The best diet is made up of foods that are properly cooked at home. Eating mostly home-cooked meals has become a rarity, especially in America.

Here is a truth that cannot be denied: A diet full of fresh whole foods, including leafy greens, raw fruits and vegetables, and also low in caffeine and alcohol consumption, provides the means for securing good mental and physical health.

Exercise, Fresh Air and Sunshine

To function properly, the brain needs oxygen-rich blood. No one can increase the oxygen content in his blood sitting in front of a computer surfing the Internet. Couch potatoes can’t run with the wolves! A positive, clear-thinking brain needs an active body. Getting regular exercise, out of doors, in fresh air, is the least expensive, side-effect-free anti-depressant you could use. An invigorating walking program is probably one of the easiest exercise programs to undertake—but one of the hardest to begin. To borrow a phrase from a well-known shoe company, just do it!

The average Kaluli walks 10 miles each day, carrying water, hunting, foraging for fruits and veggies and carrying firewood. For most of us, a brisk 30-minute walk in the park or the neighborhood at least three to five days a week is much more appealing. You pick. But seriously, Stephen Ilardi shows that experts who have studied exercise as a treatment for depression have proved that walking briskly for 30 minutes only three times a week is better than Zoloft!

Of course, to get the maximum mental benefit from exercising you’ll need to get your heart pumping above its resting level, which is also known as aerobic exercise. When beginning a walking program, it is a challenge to get and keep your heart rate at an aerobic level. This means it would be good to get a physical exam before starting such a program. Besides a good pair of walking shoes and some exercise clothing, it might be good to invest in some kind of heart-rate monitor. It is easy to find good ones for about $40. It should be your goal to get your heart rate in a range of 60 to 90 percent of your maximum heart rate. You can find on the Internet a chart that will give you the aerobic heart rate for your age. If you do not want to invest in a heart rate monitor, a rule of thumb to follow when walking is that if you can carry on a conversation, you’re not walking fast enough. If you can’t sing, then you are on target. However, if you are gasping for breath, you need to slow down.

Of course, there are other kinds of aerobic exercise such as cross-country skiing, cycling, jogging, mountain hiking and swimming. Besides age and physical skills as factors, these sports will require more investment in time and money.

Here is the major point to consider when it comes to exercise: Whatever exercise you pursue, fully commit to it—truly make it a lifestyle change—and make it enjoyable.

Many people get depressed in the dark winter months. Most people spend less time out of doors than they did just a few decades ago. But getting out into the sunshine is a necessity for good mental health. Even the light of a cloudy day is far better than being indoors with artificial light. Sunshine brightens human mood. “As it turns out,” Ilardi tells us, “the brain gauges the amount of light you get each day, and it uses that information to reset your body clock. Without enough light exposure, the body clock eventually gets out of sync, and when that happens, it throws off important circadian rhythms that regulate energy, sleep, appetite and hormone levels.” Of course, the disruption of these critical biological rhythms can set off depression. Just 30 minutes of natural light each day is enough to keep circadian rhythms in good working order. Those who stay indoors from dawn to dusk make their body clocks go haywire, causing unwanted and unnecessary health problems.

Sufficient Sleep

Sleep deprivation is on the rise in our Western society. Multiple millions of people are not getting a good night’s rest every night. Ilardi tells us that Americans in particular clock in only an average of about 6.7 hours of sleep each day. Not surprisingly then, most people struggle drowsily and unproductively through the day. This has been a boon for caffeine suppliers like Starbucks; many rely on coffee and other stimulants to kick-start the workday.

There was a time when many in business and industry considered sleep an unnecessary luxury. Yet now the field of neuroscience has proven that insufficient sleep wrecks a person’s emotional, mental and physical health. To function at peak performance levels, our brains need adequate sleep. There are those rare individuals who can get by on less sleep—6 to 7 hours. The rest of us, though, need a minimum of 8 hours of sleep—some 9 to 10. Lack of proper sleep is one of the most powerful triggers of depression. It is now a proven fact that mood disorders are preceded by several weeks of subpar sleep.

Sleep deprivation will slow down your thought process, impair your memory, disrupt your reaction time and significantly alter your mood. People suffering from sleep deprivation are often irritable, quick to get angry and have little ability to cope with stress. It is a good thing to evaluate your sleep habits, especially if you have to fight depression.

There are some simple things that you can do to improve your sleep: Reduce your intake of coffee and other stimulants, exercise, and turn off the television and go to bed, for example. However, making the commitment to change your habits will be the challenge. If you have a chronic sleep problem, work diligently to get that situation solved. Ilardi provides a detailed, information-packed chapter on the subject. The Internet is full of extremely helpful websites that give tips on gaining proper sleep. Make it your goal to get adequate natural sleep.

Work Hard, Work Continually

To build a productive mind, you must work your mind. People paralyzed by depression stop working. Many have been known to lose their jobs and wreck their careers. It should not be surprising then to learn that one of the most effective therapies for the clinically depressed is to get the patients back into fruitful and productive work.

Abraham Lincoln learned this vital lesson on his own. “As a young man he stepped back from the brink of suicide, deciding he must live to do some meaningful work,” Joshua Shenk tells us in Lincoln’s Melancholy. Lincoln, a self-taught lawyer and failed politician, found a purpose for his life when the debate over American slavery came to the political foreground. He believed slavery was morally, socially and politically wrong. He also passionately believed that the Constitution demonstrated that America’s Founding Fathers envisioned a country without slavery. Shenk mentions, “For Lincoln, this sense of purpose was indeed the key that unlocked the gates of a mental prison.”

This does not mean Lincoln never experienced depression again. In fact, as president, he suffered through struggles and problems that would have crushed lesser men. Here is the lesson. Lincoln’s life’s work provided the means for him to step outside of his own mental gloom and fight for a cause bigger than himself.

This kind of work ethic has been drained from the American workforce. Most now simply work for the cash to party hearty on the weekend. Those depressed need to find a meaningful life purpose that will open the door for them to step outside of themselves. Of course, not every occupation can be neck-chills thrilling, but every job can be done passionately and with purpose.

No matter the task laid before him, Winston Churchill performed it with gusto. As prime minister during World War ii, “Churchill began to set a personal example of furious and productive activity at 10 Downing Street,” Paul Johnson tells us. “He was 65 but he looked, seemed—was, indeed—the embodiment of energy. He worked a 16-hour day. He sought to make everyone else do likewise.”

Ecclesiastes 9:10 states, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might …” (English Standard Version). No matter what your job, stay enthusiastically active in your work for the entire time you are at work. Stay mentally engaged; do not let your mind drift.

The vast majority of us will not be called upon to end slavery. Yet, the key here is to find some kind of engaging and productive mental activity that keeps your mind off yourself and your problems. For example, Winston Churchill pursued painting. A little brainstorming—which itself is productive thinking—will show you that your options really are endless. Some learn a musical instrument, others pursue vegetable or flower gardening. Find something you can be passionate about and challenged by. Then do it continually—especially when personal problems weigh you down.

Stay Socially Fit

Depression takes its toll on relationships. Familiar acquaintances of people descending into depression often work hard to support and encourage their downtrodden friend. Yet when the problem persists over weeks with little improvement, even the strongest bonds are strained. Some snap completely.

Depression’s core symptom—its dark side—is one of isolation and withdrawal. It is very difficult to experience a friend pulling away and shutting down. What most don’t understand is that depressed people withdraw—don’t return phone calls, refuse to get together, show no interest in staying connected—because they want to protect their friends from experiencing their black world. Depressed people often say, “My friends are better off without me,” or “I am such a downer to be around.” This is often not the case. Many depressed people can actually crack the funniest jokes. In fact, Abraham Lincoln was known for his talent at telling humorous stories.

The point here is to work hard to stay out of depression. Those who have suffered depression and have lost friends as a result are encouraged to reconnect with old friends and family. Of course, if those old friends are toxic to a person’s full recovery, they should be avoided. Reconnecting with old friends is a big step for a formerly depressed person. It takes a lot of courage. Most friends are only too happy to welcome a recovered depressive back into their life. A few are not. Yet even in this situation, there may be a valuable lesson: learning who are true friends.

Great men like Lincoln and Churchill forced themselves to get out with people while fighting black moods and melancholy. A key strategy for a recovering depressive is to get back into social situations where he can serve others. Volunteerism is highly recommended. This world is full of people and problems that need a helping hand. It is really a simple solution: If you’re feeling down about yourself, get out and help someone else.

Jesus Christ is described in the Holy Bible as having been a man of sorrows and encompassed with grief. Yet the Apostle Paul tells us that He said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35, esv). Luke said also in the book of Acts that Christ “went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed” (Acts 10:38). Loving, serving and giving will keep you not only socially fit, but also very happy.

In previous articles we have shown you that God created man in His own image (Genesis 1:26-27). This was for an awesome purpose. God is a Family, and He intends to expand that Family through man. God gave man a mind like His own, though it is significantly inferior. God has a highly productive, positive and creative mind. He intends for us to develop and have that same kind of mind.

So let’s get to it. Let’s work to build a productive mind.