Especially When Depressed: Caring For The Brain


Our brain requires food, oxygen, exercise, relaxation, and rest. Especially when experiencing symptoms of depression, we need to make sure our brain is getting these basic needs met.

Self care is difficult when depressive symptoms are strong, and it might seem that our efforts make no difference. However, every small thing we do for our self helps to keep us afloat, and makes feeling better possible.

Sleep, Relaxation, and the Brain

Everyone has a basal sleep need, the hours of sleep a person regularly must have to function at their best. Basal sleep needs vary among individuals though healthy adults generally require from seven to nine hours each night. Getting too little sleep dulls our mood and alertness.

Brains need daytime relaxation breaks as well, periods of rest from the stress of a busy or down day. Having continuously high levels of the stress hormone cortisol can, over time, damage our brain’s hippocampus (learning, memory), prefrontal cortex (planning, reasoning), and amygdala (emotional regulation).

Brain Rest/Relaxation Tips:

  1. If you are not getting enough sleep (or getting too much) try turning in and rising at the same times each day, even on weekends if possible.
  2. Learn to quiet your thoughts using mindfulness meditation, relaxing music, controlled breathing, Qigong, or whatever method works for you.
  3. Unplug from electronics and the media for 30 to 60 minutes each day.

Exercising Body and Brain

To maintain a healthy brain we must exercise our body so that nutrients and oxygen flow generously to its cells. The exercise does not have to be strenuous to be of benefit, and includes activities such as gardening and housecleaning.

Our gray matter also needs to be exercised. Neurons are activated by challenges and thrive with problem solving, puzzles, learning, or creative projects. Novelty forces them to get buzzing and create new circuitry paths, stimulating the growth of new cells and keeping our brain flexible.

Brain Exercise Tips:

  1. Add extra movement to your day such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or doing a few simple yoga stretches during the workday.
  2. Check out websites offering fun and challenging brain games that increase in difficulty as you play and progress.
  3. Spend time everyday - even if it is only a few minutes - enjoying one of your interests or hobbies.

Feeding the Brain

The production of new brain cells is called neurogenesis, and it is naturally affected by what we eat. Research using aging rats showed that even an old rat’s hippocampus could grow new cells when given a nutritional supplement—here, vitamin and antioxidant rich blueberry extract.

Since the hippocampus is involved with learning and memory, knowing that it can grow new cells is excellent news for the future of anyone who is aging. The more immediate significance is that what we consume affects our daily ability to focus, think, learn, and recall.

Brain Nutrition Tips:

  1. Instead of giving up favorite comfort foods, focus on adding healthy foods to your diet—an extra daily piece of fruit, or a leafy green salad with dinner.
  2. Eat fewer sugary and/or processed foods. Start by eliminating one item now, another a month from now, and so on.
  3. Keep a record of what you eat for two weeks. Just being aware of what you usually consume can help you make better food choices.

Sources: ARS; Sleep Foundation
Photo credit: Christopher Parente / flickr


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