Keeping Your Mind Healthy
We all know the importance of eating ‘five a day’, or five pieces of fruit or vegetables every day, in order to maintain physical health.
While the science behind the precise number might be somewhat dubious, the importance of eating well to maintain health is not in doubt.
But what about the mind? Are there things that you should, or should not do, in order to keep your mind healthy? Many scientists would say yes.
Eating the Right Food
A good diet is essential for physical health, but does it make much difference to your mind?
A growing body of evidence suggests that the answer is yes.
You may be thinking that this is about so-called ‘superfoods’, a term used to describe certain foods with very high quantities of particular nutrients. From the early descriptions, you might almost have thought these foods had magical powers to improve mental and physical health. Most sources now, however, suggest that the term is simply a marketing tool.
The European Union has even banned the use of the term 'superfood' in marketing except where the claim is backed by credible scientific evidence of a proven medical benefit.
However, the Mental Health Foundation notes that a good diet is important for mental health. It also suggests that diet can play a role in the development, management and prevention of several specific conditions, including schizophrenia, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Alzheimer’s disease.
That is not to say that diet can control these conditions, nor that it should be looked upon as a panacea or cure-all, or that other treatments should be stopped in favour of a particular diet.
However, diet may play a role, alongside other treatments, in the management of these conditions.
The Mental Health Foundation also notes that fewer than half of those who report mental health problems consume fresh fruit every day, compared with more than two thirds of those who do not report mental health problems. The issue here may be somewhat ‘chicken and egg’: does a poor diet contribute to the problem, or does the problem cause the lack of interest in eating healthily?
Either way, there is little doubt that feelings of health and well-being are more likely if you consume a balanced diet, with the correct balance of fats, carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, minerals and water for you.
See our nutrition pages for more information, including: What is Protein?, What is Fat? and What are Carbohydrates?.
Keeping your Mind Active
Diet is therefore important for mental health, but what about keeping your mind busy?
There has been plenty of speculation in the press over many years about useful ways to slow down brain degeneration in ageing and, particularly, how it might be possible to overcome Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
For example, it has been suggested that doing crosswords, and other puzzles or 'brain-training' that keep your brain active, might be helpful. However, neuroscientists are starting to suggest that this may not be the case.
Mens sana in corpore sano (or ‘mens sana in thingummy do-dah’, as Victoria Wood memorably put it) is an old saying meaning that a sound body is likely to lead to a sound mind. In other words, look after your body and your mind will also function well.
There is a certain amount of truth in that.
David Linden, Professor of Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, recently suggested in an interview that the most helpful thing that anyone could do for their mind was to take 30 minutes of aerobic exercise every day.
He explained that doing puzzles uses only a small part of your brain, and does not do anything for the rest. Aerobic exercise, by contrast, has several effects.
Linden explained that we do not really understand what’s behind the beneficial effects of exercise. However, scientists have observed that exercise causes all the blood vessels in the body, including in your brain, to dilate. This changes the metabolic capacity of the brain. Exercise also makes the brain secrete certain chemicals which help keep neurons healthy and able to change.
All this sounds like a very good thing for the brain and the body.
See our page: The Importance of Exercise for more.
The ‘Good’ Mind
But there is more to mental health and a ‘good’ mind than simply avoiding dementia.
The mind is shaped by all the experiences, ideas and thoughts to which it is exposed. To a certain extent, then, you can choose what you ‘feed’ your mind, just as you can choose what you feed your body.
What you choose to consume for your mind can be described as your ‘mind diet’. Your ‘mind diet’ can make your mind more or less ‘healthy’, and certainly more or less interesting.
“Garbage in, garbage out”
People talk about books that are ‘trash’ or ‘pulp fiction’. By this they mean light, easy reading that does not challenge the mind.
Reading a book like this every now and then does no harm, just as an occasional visit to a burger joint does not affect your health. But a diet of junk food alone is not good for the body, and a diet of undiluted pulp fiction is not good for the mind.
Your 'Mind Diet'
It is worth taking a few moments to consider your ‘mind diet’ every now and then.
- How good is my mind diet? Is it what I would describe as a ‘balanced diet’, of different types of ideas and subjects? Or do I tend to focus more on one type of input?
- In particular, what is the balance between ‘junk’ and ‘healthy’ mind-food?
- What effect is this having on me as a person? You might need to ask friends and family to give you an honest assessment if you are concerned about this.
- What can and should I do to improve the balance?
If you struggle to construct an ‘ideal’ mind diet, then try thinking about someone whom you admire, and consider what kinds of thoughts, ideas and experiences may have shaped their mind. Think about what that would look like for you.
Further Reading from Skills You Need
Based on some of our most popular content, this book will help you to live a happier, healthier and more productive life
Learn how to look after your body and mind: the fundamental first steps to personal development.
The Challenge of Maintaining your Mental Health
Of course, just as physical illness can affect anyone, so can mental illness, regardless of lifestyle and, if it does affect you, you should consult a doctor.
Science suggests, however, that there are many things that we can do to keep mind and body as healthy as possible and contribute to improved outcomes in the event of illness.
Common sense suggests that it is relatively easy to eat a balanced diet, and take exercise, and that the benefits to both mental and physical health would more than outweigh any inconvenience.