5 pillars of brain health that can have big benefits for your mind and body

There are five lifestyle factors that play a critical role in ensuring good brain health.
There are five lifestyle factors that play a critical role in ensuring good brain health.
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  • Research shows a link between certain lifestyle factors and good brain health.
  • Paying special attention to these lifestyle habits can ensure a healthier, longer life and a reduced risk for degenerative disease and mental illness.
  • Included in these lifestyle behaviours are exercise, sleep and diet.

Our brain controls what we think, how we learn and remember, and the way we move and talk. Simply put, it works like a big computer, as explained by the National Institutes of Health. "But the brain can do much more than a machine can: humans think and experience emotions with their brain, and it is the root of human intelligence," it adds.

Therefore, it goes without saying that maintaining a healthy brain throughout your life is critical for living well for longer, as well as having good mental health. In fact, research shows that your mental well-being is strongly associated with your brain health and could potentially be a protective factor in the onset of neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer's.

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So how do you ensure healthy brain health? You keep your mind active, feed it plenty of healthy, nutritious food, and reduce risk factors that can harm the brain. In other words, your lifestyle choices can either improve or impair your brain health.

There's an easy way to remember this, says clinical psychologist Dr Colinda Linde, chairperson of the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG).

"There's a SEEDS model, and this particular model is implicated in actual brain health. So it protects you not only from anxiety and depression but also from things like dementia, which I think is big," said Linde, who spoke at a Discovery event on exercise and mental health this month.

The five SEEDS

The acronym was coined by Dr John Arden, director of Kaiser Permanente's mental health training programmes in Northern California and author of 15 books on neuroscience, psychotherapy and mindfulness. In one of his books, the Brain Bible, Arden explains that several characteristics scientists have identified over the past 30 or 40 years are key to health and happiness.

In the Brain Bible, Arden takes the most important five that have a robust body of scientific studies backing them as the healthy behaviours for "living with greater pleasure, less depression, less anxiety, and less chance of getting dementia later in life," he said in an interview with Good Therapy.

These five factors are incorporated in the mnemonic SEEDS. Said Arden:

"If you're planting SEEDS now, and you cultivate them throughout your lifetime, chances are you're going to feel a whole lot better about yourself and about everybody around you; people are going to want to be around you, you're going to be ill less often, and you're going to get dementia symptoms much later than other people."

The five SEEDS factors are as follows:

S social connectivity

We have social brain networks that need to be fostered and cultivated through a lifetime, explains Arden, and people who don't have good quality social relationships tend to be more depressed, more anxious, get ill more often, and get dementia symptoms much earlier than others.

E  exercise

Without regular exercise, we don't have body-enhancing, brain-enhancing biochemical processes occurring. As a result, our brains get bogged down, says Arden. On the other hand, a short boost of exercise on a regular basis, even if it's just 30 minutes a day, can lead to positive brain-enhancing biochemical processes, including the birth of new neurons in the brain. "It is the best antidepressant and the best anti-anxiety agent that we have," said Arden.

A South African study published this month showed that just 30 minutes of physical activity a day could lower your odds of developing depression, especially among women.

E education

Exercising the brain with new knowledge is critical to keeping your brain healthy, Matthew Solan, executive editor of Harvard Men's Health Watch, previously wrote. Arden explains that if we're not learning something new on a regular basis, we're not building an infrastructure of brain connectivity. "The more connectivity you have, the richer your thoughts—and we call that cognitive reserve later in life. … Learning a lot throughout your life does a lot to build your brain," he said.

D diet

An unhealthy diet that is rich in fats and sugars is bad for your brain. This is because the food you eat affects neurons -- the major cells of the brain.

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Arden explained: "Our body makes these brain chemicals based on the foods that we eat or do not eat. Every one of these neurotransmitters has a precursor amino acid, and if you want to starve your brain of these chemicals, you can have a bad diet, or skip breakfast, or eat simple carbohydrates, or fried foods, or whatever—but you're going to end up rendering your brain incapable of learning and incapable of having positive thought. So diet is absolutely fundamental."

S sleep

Sleep is restorative, whereas chronic lack of sleep is bad for your brain. Neuroscientists have shown over and over again that sleep deprivation can harm your physical and mental health and put you at a higher risk of developing diseases later in life.

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"Getting good hygiene and having good sleep practices is critical for mental health and for not developing dementia later on, but most importantly for not having too much anxiety the next day or too much depression," said Arden.

Most important of the five

If these SEEDS factors are not adhered to, they can be "brain degrading", said Arden. While these five lifestyle behaviours protect your brain in terms of mental health and the actual organ itself, there is one to pay special attention to, said Linde.

"There is one that is head and shoulders above the others, and it is exercise," she said. "Not only does exercise allow neuroplasticity more than anything else – and when getting older, you need more of that – [but] it helps the actual organ … It's significant and really protects the brain, so remember that."

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