The SEEDS of Brain Health & Happiness

article health interview

Dr. John Arden is the Author of 15 books including, Brain2Brain, The Brain Bible, and Rewire Your Brain. His new book is entitled Mind-Brain-Gene: Toward Psychotherapy Integration. John's study of neuropsychology has inspired him to integrate neuroscience and psychotherapy, synthesizing the biological and psychological into a new vision for psychotherapy: a Brain-Based Therapy, which he has presented in all US States and 27 countries.

BrainFirst: I would love for you to unpack the SEEDS model for us. What are the SEEDS of brain health?

John Arden: I’ve been exploring what the main factors are, in terms of keeping yourself focused, happy and healthy - and enjoying your life - and it appears that at the very least, there are five factors that are all over the research literature, and all over all the books on healthcare in general. Those five factors are encoded in the pneumonic SEEDS, which are: Social, Exercise, Education, Diet and Sleep.

In fact the term SEEDS, you could say, is a practical one in that a person needs to not only plant them but cultivate them over their whole lifetime to yield success. And that’s whether or not they’re a business person, or just people like you and I out here trying to learn and have a decent life.

If you plant and cultivate seeds on a regular basis, the five health factors, then you’re going to not age as quickly. You’re not going to develop dementia as quickly. You’re going to reduce the likelihood of developing depression and anxiety.

Each one of these factors needs to be part of the others. In other words, you can’t just say, “Well, geez, I’ve got one, give me a break - I will get to the others later.” What we’re talking about here is cultivating all five factors on a regular basis and ensuring that you get your daily dose.

BF: All five factors are important, of course, but if one of our readers is thinking, “OK, I want to improve my brain health, I want to improve the quality of my life overall. Maybe I’m a little bit of a mess at the moment, or I need to up-level, I need to make a bit of a change,” where is a really good place to start?

JA: Let’s start with movement. Movement is fundamental to our biology. Let’s put it in an evolutionary perspective. For most of our existence, roughly until about 11,000 years ago, we were hunter-gatherers - we moved roughly about 10 miles a day. Yet, there are very few of us who move 10 miles a day right now unless we’re in a car or subway, for example.

Moving 10 miles a day is critical. Why? Because we evolved, in part, by doing that. It has a lot to do with our metabolism, gene expression, and in fact we know that not doing a regular dose of exercise, a cardio boost, is actually more detrimental than smoking.

Let me just quote the World Health Organization that, as you well know, when they do reports they’re reviewing records of a couple of hundred thousand people. When a study includes a couple of hundred thousand people I’m really paying attention - and they suggested that not exercising on a regular basis is worse than smoking.

Movement increases your metabolic rate, increases the capacity of your brain to focus, increases the release of these various brain chemicals we call neurotransmitters or neuro-hormones - the cornucopia of brain chemistry that keeps you focused and up and optimistic and goal-directed. Without the exercise, you don’t have any of that!

If you’re a person who sits in an office a lot, start by just getting up and moving

As a psychologist I spent a good 40 years where I sat and talked to people all the time. Knowing how important movement is I made it a regular daily practice that, sometimes even between seeing patients, I would get a cardio boost. I would run out of the office, and up and down trails and hills. Then I would sit back down again and my heart rate would be up, and I would be so much more focused.

So where do you start? You start by getting up and moving.

BF: So we’re moving more, if we’re not an exerciser we’re now going out for a walk - that’s fairly straightforward, something that people can get started with. What’s the next thing that we should tackle, what’s next in the model?

JA: Something also so fundamental to your biology. Let’s talk about diet, and the reason why I want to address diet so quickly here, the D in the SEEDS, is that we are now suffering a pandemic of obesity, of autoimmune disorders - of this catastrophe awaiting us in the future because the baby boomers are getting older. With a large group of us, and I’m part of that group, we’re going to see far more people with various types of dementia.

Diet is fundamental to this larger picture. Each one of the SEEDS elements is. But I do want to address the diet aspect. Why? Because we’re eating a lot of things that are already digested for us. What I mean by that is people eat a lot of simple carbohydrates, and so let me just pick out some very simple things to watch for.

Eating simple carbohydrates, and I’m not just talking about sugar, I’m talking about white flour, and other foods that are already stripped of their nutrients – they turn into glucose too quickly. As a result of that, it actually creates all sorts of metabolic problems in your body and your brain.

So what happens here? Well, you develop all sorts of difficulties thinking clearly. You develop all sorts of difficulties generating this cornucopia of neurotransmitters to keep your brain focused and positive.

Then, in addition to eating simple carbohydrates, you fry them in hot vegetable oil, or combine simple carbohydrates and trans-fatty acids - I’m talking about various types of fried foods - you will have major destructive damage to your brain. And not just to your brain, but to all aspects of your body.

You turn on your immune system inappropriately and you create this chronic inflammatory process. Chronic inflammation tears down your brain, tears down your body, and accelerates the process that paves the way for dementia. It also causes lack of clarity of thought, and blue moods, and more susceptibility to stressors - in other words, less resiliency.

What we’re talking about is the destruction of your body and your brain through inability to move and to eat a healthy diet

What is a healthy diet?

You could say in general it has been conceptualized to be roughly the Mediterranean diet or the Okinawan diet, which is built around, basically, vegetables and fruit and complex carbohydrates and protein - not as much protein, but to some degree.

If you look at the blue zones across the planet, where the people are living above 100 years old, they are basically practicing either the Mediterranean or the Okinawan diet. Of course we have some variation among us when it comes to dietary requirements, but the broad-based ideas are these: the vegetable matter in your diet has to be the greatest quantity, and then you add in the complex carbohydrates, protein sparingly, and good fats - which are critical.

BF: So we’re moving more now. We’re starting to eat healthier. We’re likely feeling a lot better, and we’ve got more mental clarity. We know that it’s going to be of benefit to us now, AND in 10, 20, 30 years from now. What’s next?

JA: Let’s talk about sleep next. If you don’t get those other two right, exercise and diet, your sleep is going to be all rotten - and in fact, what you eat in the evening has a major effect on your capacity to generate the neurochemistry to sleep. If you eat too many simple carbohydrates then you’re going to destroy that capacity to regulate your circadian rhythm.

What are some of the main sleep hygiene factors? Well, there are a number of things that we all need to NOT do, and there are a number of things we need to do. Let me start with something that we all seem to do a whole lot of, and that’s looking at computer and phone screen.

If you’re looking at a computer screen late at night, you’re literally tricking your brain into thinking that it’s daytime outside, instead of night-time

Our retina is picking up the light from the screen and that light signal goes to our pineal gland, which is responsible for producing the circadian rhythm neuro-hormone called melatonin. A lot of people, especially folks that spend a whole lot of screen time on social media, have a tendency to create not only insomnia but also disrupt their sleep architecture.

We have a standard sleep architecture. We have slow wave sleep, REM sleep, and variations in between. What we’re doing in recent years is decreasing the amount of slow wave sleep, partly by what I was just talking about. But also by using sleep depressors.

We’ve got a variety of sleep depressors out there that we need to eliminate, and never prescribe. These include the benzodiazepine drugs - which I call them the garbage of the healthcare system - I’m talking about Valium and Ativan and Klonopin and Xanax and so on.

These drugs contribute to a reduction in slow wave sleep. They also reduce the amount of clarity the next day.

Over-the-counter drugs like Benadryl - Excedrin PM and Tylenol PM - are also a problem. Big population studies have found that consuming Benadryl-like substances, or benzodiazepine-like substances, contributes to dementia later in their life. Why is that the case?

If you get good quality sleep, your glial cells actually shrink a little bit to allow the passage of these various substances that you don’t want to accumulate too much of in your brain, like beta-amyloid.

Well, if people consume some of these substances, substances that decrease the glyphatic system’s capacity to wash out toxics, it could contribute to dementia later on in life.

The glymphatic system is a functional waste-clearance pathway that removes neuro-toxic and metabolic waste. It is "active" when we get good quality sleep. In fact, the restorative function of sleep may be a consequence of the enhanced removal of the waste that accumulates during waking hours.

A lot of people that don’t get good quality sleep end up feeling pretty exhausted in the morning too, right? So they do all sorts of things to provide them with more energy. Consuming various stimulants, and my favorite drug, espresso.

But we also know that if you consume any stimulants in the afternoon you’re screwing up the sleep architecture. In the afternoon you’ve got to stop any kind of stimulant. Mate tea or green tea or various types of caffeine, including alcohol in the evening, which also decreases slow wave sleep.

Body temperature is another important sleep hygiene factor. You’re all cuddly and warm in your duvet, but, you may not be able to stay asleep and in fact, your sleep latency is all messed up - you’re more likely to wake up in the middle of the night and have a hard time getting back to sleep.

What's the solution here? You need to stay cool as much as possible. Sure you can get to sleep, but staying asleep is the critical aspect - and for that you need to stay cool. Also, get some fresh air by cracking the window open.

If you do wake up in the middle of the night, and many of us do, and you don’t have to go up and go to the bathroom, what you say to yourself when you are now trying to go back to sleep has a major effect on your capacity to do that. A lot of people in the so-called CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) sleep hygiene area have been talking about so-called negative sleep thoughts.

So what are negative sleep thoughts?

As soon as you start getting upset that you haven’t been able to get back to sleep or you’re looking at the clock “oh, I’m going to be ruined tomorrow, oh my god, you know, I’m going to be a miserable idiot" and all that, all you’re doing is activating yourself!

Instead, use that as a time to say, “Well, you know what? I’m always complaining that I don’t have time to meditate. Since I’m up now, I might as well lay here and meditate,” or maybe think about something that’s a little bit more mentally-exhausting, like reminding yourself of what it was you were trying to learn earlier that day - which is actually another one of the SEEDS elements.

BF: Now that we’re moving more, eating healthier, sleeping better, let’s talk about that factor, education, or learning.

JA: It turns out that if you’re not learning something new on a regular basis, you’re not building the cognitive infrastructure and the biophysiological infrastructure for brain connectivity.

We know that people that are more learned - and I don't necessarily mean more fancy degrees, although that's certainly a way to structure your learning - but just constantly learning on a regular basis, are less likely to develop dementia-like symptoms later in life than others.

Why would that be the case? Well, they may still lose a lot of neurons and connectivity, but, they have more to lose. This is also called cognitive reserve.

Another benefit is if you're constantly learning on a regular basis you're not thinking about the petty nonsense that can exist in all of our lives. You could say that education and learning are anti-depressants, they're anti-anxiety agents.

If you're not focusing on expanding your appreciation on the multiple levels of your world that you live in, you're usually thinking about the petty nonsense in your life - you're looking in the rear view mirror and you're ruminating

In other words, you're not going to revert to negativism as much - because we have a tendency to do that. That's the default for everybody. It's the easiest thing to do. But if you have more cognitive infrastructure because you're learning on a regular basis, you're not going to be doing that.

BF: We're social creatures, we wouldn't have survived, evolutionarily speaking, without other people and cooperation - can you unpack the social factor from the SEEDS model.

JA: Not only are we an incredibly complicated species, but we are the species that spend the greatest amount of time with our principal caregivers. We're born totally defenseless. When a horse or a colt is born they're walking around right away - certainly they're dependent on their mothers, their mares and so on - but we spend an inordinate amount of time absorbing the connectivity.

It turns out that not having good quality social relationships can come at a cost to your moods and cognition. What are we talking about with regard to social interactions? We're talking about the capacity for reciprocity - the capacity to feel connected with one another rather than "it's all about me" or "all about you". Those aren't good quality relationships. Those are imbalanced or narcissistic or co-dependent relationships.

In social neuroscience it has been demonstrated that people who have bad relationships or no relationships actually shrink their telomeres. Telomeres are the ends of our chromosomes, which, if they shrink too quickly we age faster.

What I'm talking about is mutual inter-dependence - the feeling of empathy for one another. The feeling of not only that I'm cared for but that I can care for another person.

Because if you can express empathy, which you could also call action-oriented empathy - which is compassion - you're activating areas of your brain that give you the capacity for feeling good about yourself.

When I'm doing something good for somebody else, it's not to get brownie points. In fact if you can do it and not get any credit for it, you further benefit from it

The capacity of connectivity, the capacity of feeling concern for other people is an anti-depressant. And it turns out that it creates all sorts of ripple effects throughout all of these social brain networks.

SEEDS: Social, Exercise, Education, Diet and Sleep - and you’ve got to do it on a daily basis.

Those five factors, we would call that the foundation for mental and physical health. It's so important that we can even think about it beyond just the brain. We're also talking about the immune system and gene expression. So these five factors are fundamental at all levels of your body and your brain and your mind.

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