By Sarah Braithwaite, Neuroscience-based Life and Integrative Health Coach of MindSight.
An introduction to the article
A holistic perspective on mental health explores the neuroscience of the brain body connection and practical tools to both manage and prevent mental illness. This article discusses the role of dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin in the body, and how tools such as mindfulness, human connection, purposeful living, and nutrition influence one’s state of being. Mental health, is a topic that is finally being deconstructed of its identity around stigmatization, and entering a new paradigm of understanding where people are no longer victims of a diagnosis but instead have tools to proactively manage their environment and alleviate symptoms.
The brain body connection
Recent neuroscientific evidence has made abundantly clear that our previously distorted view that the brain and body are separate entities, is in fact false. According to Dr Tara Swart, Neuroscientist and Coach, the brain and body operate within one system where neurology and physiology are both intrinsically linked. The notion that mental health is only symptomatic of what is happening in the brain, is incorrect, especially since serotonin, a very vital mood stabilizing neurotransmitter, is in fact mostly produced in one’s gut, not one’s brain. Yes, you read correctly – up to as much as 90% of serotonin is produced in the gut. Serotonin generates a sense of wellbeing which is essential to human functionality and can be boosted naturally by the consumption of fruits.
(Check out this blog on effective ways to improve your gut health).
Fascinating research by American stem cell Biologist Dr Bruce Lipton, further endorses the mind-body relationship. His medical research shows that our emotions and thoughts are altering our gene expression within our DNA sequence. New ways of thinking suggest that chronic suffers or borderline persons with depression or anxiety in addition to prescribed medical treatment, should prioritise nutrition, exercise, human connection, mindfulness, and meaning/purpose within their lives. With our perception of stress becoming increasingly challenging to manage, it is imperative for individuals to take ownership of emotional management and mental health before the arrival of a diagnosis.
The happy hormones and their role in mental health
Let us consider the most imperative mental health game players amongst the neurotransmitters, namely serotonin already mentioned, and dopamine and oxytocin. Dopamine relates to the reward centre of the brain as we produce it when something ‘feels good’. Functional, healthy human beings rely on a constant stream of dopamine production. To obtain it sustainably one should be engaging in genuine meaningful and purposeful life activities.
Think about your career, family life, hobbies, passions – do any of these generate a sense of valuable contribution to the world, hold real significance, or feel meaningful to you? For one this may be a high-powered job, and for another a love of gardening. When we are unfulfilled with authentic meaning and purpose, our brain will search for more dopamine in unhealthy ways, which manifests as addiction and/or mental illness.
Research shows that depression is evident in retired business men and women, who’s career-less identity prompts a loss of purpose in the world. Fast ‘dopamine kicks’ are very evident in social media where a single ‘like’ of a picture can cause a cascade of dopamine rushes, however, this is short lived and dangerous to some. Sustainable engagement in meaningful activities is essential to mental health and wellbeing, and because the bulk of one’s time is spent at work or with family, these two areas should be the driving sources.
Oxytocin, is the other important neurotransmitter, produced abundantly during connections – and no, not technology connections, but real human to human connection. This neurotransmitter allows us to trust one another, which is the basis of healthy relationships. Science has shown that for optimal mental health, one should have at least two meaningful connections a day, such as a coffee catch up, a walk and talk with a friend, or a positive conversation with a coworker. As humans we are wired for connection and cannot survive without it. With technology ‘connecting’ us more than ever globally, ironically loneliness is on the rise as becoming one of the biggest contributors to mental and physical health.
Tools such as mindfulness practice, stress management, nutrition, maintaining healthy connections, and meaningful activities, are all imperative in their role of influencing neurotransmitters and biochemistry in the body. How we think, behave, manage emotions, eat, and move all have a huge impact on our production of dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, and because of the research of epigenetics (mentioned above) we cannot solely blame our genetic history on unwanted outcomes.
Mindfulness for mental health
Mindfulness is a scientifically validated, non-associative religious practice that has transformative effects not only on mental wellbeing, but on immune system regulation and functioning of the brain. Mindfulness can reduce anxiety, and in recent studies demonstrated the successful decline in recurrent depressive episodes of diagnosed patients.
Mindfulness practice brings the central nervous system into homeostasis, improving emotional regulation, and minimizes the prominence of the fear centre of the brain known as the amygdala. Fear, anxiety and stress connected to the amygdala are influential in the delicate balance of ‘threat’ and ‘reward’ in the brain which in turn affects one’s dopamine levels and overall mental state.
Nutritional quality is vitally important to mental health in that the mind gut communication occurs via the vagus nerve, and both overall gut health and the microbiome determine factors that influence mental health outcomes.
Equally important is stress management and exercise in reducing the stress hormone cortisol, and maintaining healthy levels of dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin.
Chopra, D., M.D, Tanzi, R. PH.D. (2015). Super Genes: The hidden keys to total well-being. Penguin Random House UK.
Davidson, R. J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S. F., Urbanowski, F., Harrington, A., Bonus, K., & Sheridan, J. F. (2003). Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation: Psychosomatic Medicine, 65(4), 564–570. https://doi.org/10.1097/01.PSY.0000077505.67574.E3
Lipton, B. H. (2005). The biology of belief: Unleashing the power of consciousness, matter and miracles. Mountain of Love/Elite Books.
Swart, T., Chisholm, K., & Brown, P. (2015). Neuroscience for leadership: Harnessing the brain gain advantage