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Six Ways to Heal the Holes in Your Head


Do you ever feel like you have holes in your head? Actually, you do. Ventricles are the spaces between the grey matter (brain cells) and white matter (wiring that connects the brain cells) in your brain. Depressive episodes, manic episodes, and psychosis all burn up brain tissue, leading to bigger ventricles. (Image: Effects of Western diet on the brain. See companion image, Effects of Mediterranean diet below.)

This loss of brain cells hits the hippocampus (in charge of memory and emotion regulation) particularly hard. In the early years after my last mental health crisis, I talked about my “Swiss cheese brain.” At my worst, I lost bills, I lost words, I lost everything my wife said to me on the way out the door in the morning. She took to writing down what I said I would do before she got home, never more than two items.

I lost the list.

Part of recovery is healing the holes in your head. Here are six ways to rebuild that brain tissue.

Diet

Inside your brain cells are little power plants called mitochondria. They produce the energy to build brain cells and wiring. They get their raw materials from the food you eat. Good food, good energy. Bad food, no energy. You know how you feel exhausted fifteen minutes after you eat that donut? It’s because your mitochondria are poisoned and pooped. Fresh fruit and veg, whole grains, plant-based fats and protein like nuts, avocados, olive oil, tofu – you know the drill. Eating right will improve your memory and your ability to manage your emotions.

Exercise

Exercise stimulates BDNF, Brain-Derived-Neurotrophic-Factor, the protein that grows those new brain cells. BDNF at work may be the mechanism that explains why exercise is such a powerful, natural antidepressant. BDNF is the material; well-nourished mitochondria provide the energy. Now your brain is an active construction zone.

Manage stress

Disregulated stress hormones burn up those brain cells. One strategy for managing stress is – don’t take on more than you can manage, whether work, other responsibilities, exposure to “difficult people,” obsessing about the news, social media… Learn when and how to say no. Another strategy is to do things that give you joy, especially activities that take you out of the gerbil wheel inside your head. Creating art has been demonstrated to lower the stress hormone cortisol. Best thing about it – it makes no difference whether or not you are “good” at art.

Meditation and yoga


via GIPHY
Meditation and yoga have been shown to decrease inflammation and increase BDNF, reducing stress on cells and helping to build new ones. Simple mindfulness exercises, like sitting quietly in a chair and paying attention to your breath lower cortisol for all kinds of health benefits. When your mind wanders (of course it will wander!) you simply notice that it did and return to your breath. Five minutes practice a day will make a difference.

Medications

Since episodes of depression, mania and psychosis cause the problem, preventing episodes will keep it from getting worse. That is what antidepressants, antipsychotics, and mood stabilizers are intended to do, they prevent episodes. Taking your meds not only relieves symptoms, it is also good for your brain.

Time

All of the above take time to work. You can’t replace your wonky brain with a new one. You have to give the one you have time to heal. And it does heal. The fatigue that lays you low after an episode? Part of it is because your brain is a construction site, working hard to fill up the holes in your head with new brain cells and improved wiring so it can work better.

So while you are recovering, eat your veg, take a walk, grab some colored pencils or modeling clay, take a break, and take your meds. Your brain will thank you.

image of brain ventricles on a Western diet used under Creative Commons
flair from Facebook.com
photo from Pike Place Market by Eric Hunt, used under GNU license
photo of bicycle by Jacob and Marlies, used under Creative Commons license
The Scream by Edvard Munch in public domain
photo of pills by Tom Varco, used under Creative Commons license
image of brain ventricles on a Mediterranean diet used under Creative Commons

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