The influence of the environment on our mental health: Episode Notes
Many neuroscientific studies have addressed the influence of the environment on our mental health.
While it is true that the genetic factors we were born with could predispose us to develop mental issues later in our lives, it is also true that the environment can either accelerate, slow down, or even prevent the onset of these issues.
Our mental well-being is therefore determined by a combination of both biological and environmental elements.
Recent research looking at the effects of the environment on mental health has been focusing more on a few key areas, which will be discussed in this podcast episode:
- social interaction
Overall, differences in our environment can affect the levels of inflammation in the body, which can have a negative impact on our mental health by reducing the blood flow to our brain cells.
When this happens, our brains receive less nutrients and are therefore less able to protect and repair themselves, leading to more neurological degeneration.
On top of that, oxidative stress can be induced through a bad diet, which causes a build up of toxic chemicals in our body, and can also lead to more neuroinflammation.
Given the tight relation between our gut and our brain, nutrition plays a significant role in the development of neuroinflammation. Specifically, a bad diet can provoke an imbalance in our gut bacteria and consequently affect our mental well-being.
With this in mind, foods that are either high in sugar or heavily processed should be avoided as they have both been linked with oxidative stress and neuroinflammation. New research is showing that mental health can be improved with nutritional supplements (also known as “nutraceuticals”), such as magnesium, zinc and omega-3 for depression.
Physical activity is another key aspect of our mental health. Through exercise we increase blood flow, therefore also increasing the possibility of carrying nutrients to the brain. Research shows that ideally we should seek a combination of aerobic exercise, strength training and meditative practice such as yoga.
The third and last factor that we discuss on this episode is social interaction. We know that social isolation can quickly and drastically degrade our mental well-being. A lack of social contact can even be as bad for your health as high blood pressure, smoking or obesity. Positive social contact and feedback directly increases our levels of oxytocin (“cuddling hormone”) and helps regulate stress, therefore reducing inflammation in the body and the brain. Social interaction can also promote healthy behaviours through following social norms, like going to the gym or quitting smoking.
Because of these reasons, it can be healthy to change our belief system around social interactions in order to turn them into positive experiences whenever we can. A piece of practical advice would be to make the most of social interactions every time we have the opportunity, to connect with others, to experience empathy and to give and receive positive feedback in social situations, especially if we suffer from social anxiety.
Our Guest: Elliot Brown
Elliot is a neuroscientist and mental health advocate who has been doing clinical research in psychiatry for the last 12 years. He wants to get people talking openly about their own mental wellbeing, and to see mental health treated equally as general physical health.
Elliot has lived experience of mental health problems, spent lots of time with people suffering from serious mental illness, and has seen how mental health is tragically neglected on many different levels. He wants to change this.
One way he is making a change is by raising awareness about the brain and mental wellbeing, especially for academia and in the workplace.