What are some simple ways to keep the mind clear and functioning optimally?
"THE RELATION THAT EXISTS between the mind and the body is very intimate," Ellen White wrote in The Ministry of Healing, p. 241, summing up the Adventist view that man is a unity, his body and mind are inseparable.
Questions about body, mind and soul have taxed philosophers since time immemorial. The Greeks believed that humans have a dual nature, a body and a soul capable of existing apart from each other. The (immortal) soul, they said, escapes from the prison house of the body at death. This view, downgrading the body, is typical of false religions, and has profoundly influenced Western thought, including Christianity. Although medical science now acknowledges that the mind has an important influence on the body, the bodys connection to the mind seems less appreciated, especially by psychiatrists and psychologists. This is not to say that these specialists neglect the physical diseases of their patients, but that many of them pay too little attention to their patients' lifestyles. The same can be said of the plethora of popular self-help books.
The Adventist view means that no therapeutic program is complete without attention to lifestyle, whether the problems to be solved are mental, physical or spiritual. Often lifestyle change is the most important and effective part of the treatment. The extra energy and the clear mind that result from a reformed lifestyle may be all that is needed to help a person solve their problems.
Psychological counseling and therapies are now extremely popular, but unfortunately many mental health practitioners overlook the fact that the lifestyles of their clients may be major factors in their psychological problems. If these clients could adopt truly healthy lifestyles, many might not need their psychotherapists at all. No course of Christian counseling, however biblically based, should be considered complete without attention to lifestyle factors.
As the brain is the organ of the mind, both mental and spiritual health depend on the health of the brain. Ellen White, in Education, p. 209, states that the only way by which the Holy Spirit can communicate with us is through the nerves of our brains. These nerves depend on a constant supply of oxygen and glucose and can survive for only minutes without them. This calls for an efficient transport system to deliver these basics and a vast number of other essential materials, as well as to remove waste products and other potentially harmful substances. This means that the condition of the heart and blood vessels is vital, as well as all the other organs in our incredibly complex bodies. In effect, whatever interferes with the proper functioning of any system of our bodies can potentially damage mental health, and whatever improves their functioning can improve mental health. Lifestyle is so important because it is the key to the optimal functioning of all our body systems.
THE EIGHT TRUE REMEDIES
"Pure air, sunlight, abstemiousness, rest, exercise, proper diet, the use of water, trust in divine powerthese are the true remedies," Ellen White wrote in The Ministry of Healing, p. 207. They are also the lifestyle factors that keep our minds and bodies healthy. The principle of seeking the causes of illness, and of assisting nature in righting those causes, holds just as much for mental as for physical illness. The acronym NEWSTART (thanks to Weimar Institute of Northern California) is a useful memory aid and check list and is used in this review of the impact of lifestyle factors on mental and spiritual health.
Well start where Newstart starts, with Nutrition. Practically everyone knows that emotions affect the digestive system. Stressful situations destroy the appetite, stop digestion in the stomach, and speed up the bowels. The opposite fact is just as true though less well recognized: the digestive system affects the mind, including the emotions, judgment and intellect.
How much? One of the most important differences between Ellen White and many of our contemporary health gurus is her assertion that "the stomach is closely related to the brain" (The Ministry of Healing, p. 306). In this connection the amount of food is very importanthence Sister Whites emphasis on abstemiousness. To give our minds the best chance, either to recover health or to stay well, the first rule of nutrition is that we need the right amount of food, enough to satisfy our hunger and to maintain our correct weight, no less and no more. Overeating affects the brain directly, making us sluggish and sleepy. Habitual overeating contributes to depression. On the other hand, lethargy is also one of the hallmarks of starvation. Few of us are faced with starvation, but many people dont eat enough, and inadequate food intake can make us irritable and anxious.
When? The second rule of nutrition is that we should eat at the right time. Another of Ellen Whites strong points, one in which she differs from many other authorities, is her condemnation of eating between meals and immediately before retiring. In both these cases common sense, common experience, and for those in the healing professions, clinical experience, support Ellen White. Does science? Between-meal snacks have been shown to slow down the stomachs action. The food stays in the stomach longer than it should, giving it the chance to ferment and produce noxious substances. These can irritate the digestive tract. They can also be absorbed into the circulation and cloud the brain.
Food in the stomach at bedtime is digested even more slowly, interfering with sound sleep. Rich suppers are well known for producing colorful and interesting dreams. Who knows? Perhaps Freud and his clients would have had fewer dreams to interpret if they had gone to sleep with healthily empty stomachs!
Although it might be difficult to prove to the satisfaction of the skeptic that eating between meals contributes to mental illness, few can deny the benefits of organizing ones life on a schedule with regular times for eating and sleeping. The self-discipline involved is a useful exercise in developing the will power and self-control necessary for fighting mental problems.
What about the kind of food and its effect on the mind? Food and Mood is a popular subject among natural therapists. Whether used with or instead of drug treatment and counseling therapies, food can be a powerful and effective medicine. Hippocrates is reported to have said, "Let food be your medicine, and let your medicine be your food.
"What kind? One really cant find a better definition of the ideal diet for both mental and physical health than the one in The Ministry of Healing, p. 296: "Grains, fruits, nuts and vegetables constitute the diet chosen for us by our Creator. These foods, prepared in as simple and natural a manner as possible, are the most healthful and nourishing. They impart a strength, a power of endurance, and a vigor of intellect that are not afforded by a more complex and stimulating diet."
Without these guidelines, choosing what to eat can seem dauntingly complex because individuals differ greatly in their tolerance of different foods. But if the overall lifestyle is healthful, and if the basic diet is goodmainly whole, unrefined plant foodsindividual intolerances are much less evident and troublesome. (A note of caution: Vitamin B-12 deficiency can cause mental symptoms, and its wise for anyone on, or adopting, a totally plant-food diet to get their blood level checked, and to take a B-12 supplement if it is low.)
Sugar. For many people sugar is a major problem. Potatoes Not Prozac is a good slogan as well as the name of a popular self-help book. Refined sugars are very quickly absorbed into the blood stream, causing a rapid rise in blood sugar, which frequently triggers an equally rapid fall, which, in its turn can cause weakness, trembling, anxiety, irritability, even confusion. High sugar intake produces fluctuations in blood-sugar levels that clearly dont help ones mental state. The unrefined starches in whole-grain products (and potatoes) are slowly broken down and absorbed, keeping the blood-sugar level steady. Cutting out the sugar and increasing the starch can completely cure the swinging blood sugar problem and its distressing nervous and mental symptoms.
Refined sugar has other problems. It seems to have a special ability to produce cravings in some people; for example, a sugary snack can give an alcoholic an almost irresistible craving for a drink. Another problem is that because it contains no fiber or nutrients, refined sugar does not satisfy but encourages over-consumption. This displaces more-nourishing foods from the diet, resulting in deficiencies of the materials needed for optimum mental and physical health.
Refined foods. The same principle applies with all refined foods, including vegetable oils. Its particularly important to know that refining flour removes valuable vitamins of the B complex, which have a special role to play in brain and nervous system function. Mentally ill patients have been found to regress seriously on a diet deficient in the vitamin B complex, which is one reason why unrefined cereal products should be a staple for everyone who wants sound judgment and self-control.
Fat. Too much fat is as bad for mental health as too much sugar. A high fat intake, especially if it includes animal fats, whether from meat or dairy produce, makes the blood more viscous and the whole circulation more sluggish. This makes oxygen transport to the brain less efficient and means a duller mind in the short term, and serious trouble long-term. Over the years fatty material is deposited in the arteries including those that supply the brain. Generally diminished mental efficiency is one result, major strokes and progressive dementia from mini strokes are other possible outcomes. High sugar intake compounds the damage.
Meat. What about meat? Meat is mainly protein and fat; carbohydrate is the fuel that the brain needs. The digestion of protein calls on heart, liver and kidneys to do extra work. There are a number of substances in meat which act directly on the nervous system to irritate and confuse. An in-depth look at them supports Ellen Whites statements that animal foods arouse "animal passions," those intractable emotions and cravings which wreak havoc on mental and spiritual health. Sir Robert McCarrison, one of the founders of nutritional science, researched the effect of diet on behavior. He had found that the various ethnic groups that he worked with tended to have different temperamental characteristics, some warlike, others passive. In a carefully designed series of experiments, he fed his laboratory animals the distinctive diets of different groups. He found that food had a profound effect on the animals behavior and reflected the temperamental differences he had noticed. Diets composed mainly of plant foods produced peaceful rats, and diets high in meat and refined foods produced aggressive rats. One group of rats had the typical meat, white bread and overcooked-vegetable diet of the British working man of that time. McCarrison, himself British, commented that this group of rats accurately reflected the British workmans tough, assertive but somewhat narrow state of mind typified in the words of the triumphant song Rule Britannia: "Britannia rules the waves! Britons never, never, never shall be slaves!"
Miraculous changes. Numerous workers have reported the almost miraculous effects of dietary change on school children, students, workers, and perhaps most notably, delinquent boys. Some twenty years ago, a criminologist, Alexander Schauss, published his findings about the relationship of diet to the behavior of delinquent boys. When the boys sugar-rich refined-food diet was replaced with wholesome, unrefined plant foods, their behavior improved spectacularly. The positive effects of improved diets, or even the simple addition of breakfast, on school childrens grades and behavior have been demonstrated many times. Alcoholics and drug addicts also respond well to nutrition therapy.
EXERCISE AND WATER
Exercise, the second remedy in the Newstart program, is as important as diet where mental health is concerned. It increases the amount of oxygen in the blood and improves the circulation to every cell in the body. This explains the sense of well being, lifting of the spirits and reduction in anxiety commonly experienced after a good walk or workout. Exercise also stimulates the brain to produce endorphins, the bodys own natural antidepressants and tranquilizers, and explains the frequently noted "runners high."
The National Institute of Mental Health has identified some important benefits from exercise. In addition to a general benefit to mental health and well being, the institute lists short-term reduction in stress, anxiety and tension, long-term reduction in anxiety, long-term reduction in depression in moderately depressed persons, and reduction in muscle tension and stress hormones. Other research shows improvement in memory and cognitive function in middle-aged and elderly subjects. One study compared the effect of a fifteen-minute brisk walk with a well-known tranquilizer pill. The effect of the walk was better and lasted longer.
If the exercise takes place in fresh air and sunlight (not necessarily sunshine), so much the better. Fresh air, particularly in parks and flower gardens, near lakes and waterfalls, and after rain, contains negatively charged ions, which have an invigorating effect, unlike the positively charged ions of most indoor air. The sunlight itself promotes endorphin production. Recent research has shown that meaningful work, such as gardening, has better long-term mood-enhancing effects than exercise for its own sake. There are important implications here for the care of mental patients, an interesting verification of what common sense and Ellen White tell us.
Water makes a difference to mental health too. At the two extremes of severe dehydration and water intoxication there are profound effects. Mild dehydration increases the viscosity of the blood, which, as already explained, reduces the efficiency of the circulation to the brain. A mild degree of chronic dehydration contributes to a mild and chronic depression of mental function, so keeping up the fluid intake is important. As we are all different shapes and sizes, with different lifestyles and different sizes of drinking glasses, the best rule is simply "drink enough to keep your urine pale and clear."
Water used in hydrotherapy treatments can be very helpful to mental health. One does not have to leave home to experience the calming effect of a neutral (body temperature) bath, or the stimulation of a few seconds of cold water on the skin at the end of a warm bath or shower. Such simple methods were widely used for mental health problems in the past, before the advent of effective medications. The more complex hydrotherapy treatments offered at natural therapy institutions can be very effective too.
SUNLIGHT AND TEMPERANCE
Sunlight. The list of benefits of sunlight to mind and body is long. One of the more important in this context is the relationship of sunlight and melatonin, a hormone that is produced in the brain in response to light and influences the balance of sleeping and waking. Bright light in the middle of the day ensures the production of melatonin and makes it available for proper sleep during the hours of darkness. This emphasizes the importance of regular hours, and taking advantage of natural light. One of the first signs of mental imbalance can be the "turning of night into day," and the disturbance of the sleep-awake cycle. Restoring that cycle by being up when it is light and sleeping when it is dark is an important step toward recovery even in serious mental illness.
Temperance. This includes self-discipline in all areas, and cannot be overemphasized in relation to mental and psychological problems, because self-control is a vital part of the healing process of them all. But the abstemiousness that is a true remedy also includes the avoidance of harmful substances, so lets take a quick look at the poisons that so many people voluntarily consume.
Alcohol obviously damages the mind: in excess there is alcoholic psychosis and alcoholic dementia. Modern methods of visualization can now show shrinking of the cerebral cortex, due to destruction of nerve cells, as well as decreased activity in those areas, in heavy drinkers. The general mental and moral decline of the heavy drinker is well known, but what about the more moderate drinker? Even as few as two drinks a week can produce intellectual impairment, still measurable twenty-four or more hours after the last drink.
Nicotine. Its addictive nature, once denied, and the tensions produced by its withdrawal are now widely recognized. The symptoms that are relieved by the next cigarette maintain the illusion that tobacco calms the nerves. More-sinister possibilities are now being researched. Is the fact that psychiatric patients smoke so much a matter of cause or of effect? Or do these patients smoke simply because they have nothing better to do? Serious consideration is now being given to the possibility that tobacco is a factor in the causation of mental illness, including schizophrenia. Smoking has been associated with a lower incidence of Alzheimers disease; until recently it was thought to have a specific protective effect, and not simply to be a consequence of the smokers not living long enough to develop it. These ideas are being seriously questioned; some investigators believe that nicotine contributes directly to the development of Alzheimers.
Caffeine. Ellen White refers to the intoxicating and depressing nature of caffeine. It is a mind-altering drug closely related to nicotine and sharing nicotines addictive nature. Mental patients, on average, drink far more coffee than most coffee drinkers, and the same questions are being asked about caffeines place in the causation of mental illness that are being asked about nicotine, particularly with regard to depression. Caffeine is also well known for symptoms that mimic the symptoms of anxiety: tremors, rapid heart rate, palpitations, sense of foreboding, insomnia, irritability, etc. In addition caffeine lowers the pain threshold, promoting headaches and a variety of painful symptoms. No one should be offered sedative medication without their caffeine intake being queried, and the same goes for pain relief. In medical practice I have seen many people with insomnia and acute anxiety cured simply by cutting out their caffeine. Many headaches, backaches and other painful conditions are relieved by the same remedy.
The illicit drugs, even the widely used "soft drugs," pose serious dangers to mental health, both in the short and long term. Less well known are psychological effects of many widely used prescription drugs, for such varied conditions as allergies, heart disease, high blood pressure, insomnia and many others. Side effects listed include lethargy, depression and confusion. Other medications can cause nightmares and hallucinations. Fortunately dramatic side effects are rare, but consistent use of such medications can contribute to mental and emotional problems, underlining the importance of using lifestyle methods to reverse degenerative problems whenever possible, rather than drugs to control them.
(A note about the drugs used for psychological and psychiatric problems: the effects are not always the ones desired, many have the danger of addiction, and it is in their nature to affect the reason, judgment and will. This is not to say that they should never be used, but to emphasize the principle of doing everything possible in terms of lifestyle and natural therapy first, and using all medications with caution and respect.)
AIR, REST, AND TRUST IN GOD
Air. Fresh air and sunlight are closely linked with exercise, as already mentioned. Ellen White considered fresh air to be a vital component of healing regimens. Now that so many people live in polluted city environments, it is even more important to make the most of fresh air. This can be done by avoiding the busiest routes and times when walking, choosing environments with trees and plants whenever possible. Minimizing exposure to indoor pollutants is important too. Not only tobacco smoke, but aerosols and synthetic materials also exude fumes that are harmful to the brain.
Rest. Insomnia is a well-known factor in depression both as a cause and an effect. Causes of insomnia range from caffeine and other drugs to a full stomach at bedtime, lack of exercise, an irregular program, shift work, etc. Sleep deprivation can induce hallucinations and even psychosis in normally sound minds.
Regular hours for rest and sleep are of paramount importance in maintaining mental health. So is the regular weekly rest day. How often we hear stressed, overworked Adventists laughingly saying that it is only the Sabbath that keeps them sane. Many a truth is spoken in jest! Holidays are important for sanity too, and the Old Testament program of annual feasts sets us a healthy example.
Trust in divine power. Temperance, rest and trust in divine power are closely linked. Trust in God enables us to be temperate in our work and take the rest that we need to restore our mental and physical health.
Trust in divine power is indispensable for true mental health, but the subject is beyond the scope of this article. Nevertheless, lest anyone think this article overlooks the significance of divine trust, here is an appropriate closing quote: "Nothing tends more to promote health of body and of soul than does a spirit of gratitude and praise" (The Ministry of Healing, p. 251).