Your Heart Health & Mental Health Are More Connected Than You Think, Here's How To Protect Both
Your heart and brain are more intertwined than you think. What's good for your heart is good for your brain, and what's bad for your heart is bad for your brain.
Even though your brain weighs only about 3 pounds and makes up only 2% of your body weight, it uses 20% of the oxygen and blood flow in your body. Anything that damages your blood vessels or impairs blood flow to your heart hurts your brain. This means that taking care of your heart and blood vessels is critical for your brain health and mental well-being. And this relationship goes both ways.
In fact, people with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia are more likely to develop cardiovascular diseases, even at young ages, according to a review in Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience1. On the flip side, research2 shows that people with heart disease are more likely to suffer from dementia later in life, and the American Heart Association reports that up to 33% of heart attack patients will develop some degree of depression.
Here are four ways to enhance the brain-heart connection to stay healthier and happier:
1. Spend 10 to 20 minutes a day in meditation or prayer.
Research on Franciscan nuns3 found that both meditation and prayer improve blood flow to the prefrontal cortex (associated with attention span and thoughtfulness), decrease anxiety, and improve mood.
In a brain-imaging study from UCLA researchers, the hippocampus (which is involved in memory and mood) and the frontal cortex were found to be significantly larger in people who meditate regularly. I recommend it to all of my patients for better brain health and mental well-being.
Both meditation and prayer are also effective stress-reduction tools, which is associated with reduced cardiovascular risk. In 2017, the American Heart Association suggested that "meditation may be considered as an adjunct to guideline-directed cardiovascular risk reduction."
2. Build regular physical exercise into your lifestyle.
Sure, you've heard about the many benefits of physical activity for heart health. But did you know that getting your heart pumping is equally beneficial for your brain and mental health? Improving the heart's ability to pump blood throughout the body increases the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the brain for better overall function.
In addition, several studies, including a 2015 trial4, have found that regular physical exercise increases the size of the hippocampus, one of the brain's major memory and mood centers. When it comes to the brain, size matters! Exercise also stimulates the production of growth factors, such as brain-derived neurotrophic factors5 (BDNF), which act like fertilizer for the brain and enhance neuroplasticity, or the brain's adaptability.
On the mental health front, a 2019 study in JAMA Psychiatry6 found exercise lowers the risk of developing depression (and that's just from jogging for 15 minutes a day). And research on people who are coping with depression and schizophrenia concluded that exercise improves mood7, anxiety, and even cognitive health.
3. Undergo hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT).
HBOT uses the power of oxygen to enhance the healing process and reduce inflammation in both the heart and the brain. How does HBOT work? This simple, noninvasive, painless treatment provides people with concentrated oxygen in a special pressurized chamber. The increased pressure allows the lungs to take in more oxygen than usual, which is beneficial because oxygen is critical to the healing process. As more oxygen enters the blood vessels and tissues, it can boost production of growth factors and stem cells that promote healing.
In people experiencing heart attacks, HBOT has been used to increase oxygen supply to the heart, and research shows it may reduce the volume of muscle that dies. In the brain health arena, researchers have found that increased oxygen can promote healing after concussions or mild traumatic injuries (TBIs), even if they occurred years or decades earlier. A 2013 study8 on 56 mild TBI patients with post-concussion syndrome showed that HBOT improved cognitive and emotional functioning and quality of life. Other research has concluded that HBOT enhances the brain's ability to repair itself9 after TBI.
I have found HBOT helpful for patients whose brain scans show low cerebral blood flow. On the brain SPECT imaging scans we use in our clinics, low blood flow is often due to TBI, excessive use of alcohol or drugs, exposure to toxic mold, infections like Lyme disease, stroke, or autoimmune disorders. Many of our patients who undergo HBOT show remarkable improvement in blood flow on their follow-up brain scans. We have also found that HBOT can improve issues such as PTSD, memory problems and Alzheimer's disease, anxiety and depression, and attention problems.
4. Try heart-health supplements.
Take supplements with research-based evidence10 to help maintain healthy blood pressure and increase blood flow to the heart and brain:
- Ginkgo biloba: In controlled studies, this supplement has helped cerebral blood flow11, memory12, and neuropsychiatric symptoms13, including depression14 and anxiety15.
- Cocoa flavanols: These compounds improve blood flow16, support healthy blood pressure17, and improve brain function18. Because I am the grandson of a candy maker, this finding makes me happy.
- Omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA): Research shows omega-3s can improve blood flow19, brain function20, memory21, and mood22, as well as reduce brain shrinkage23 from aging, and inflammation24.
- Green tea catechins (GTCs): These substances are good for blood flow25, blood vessels, blood pressure26, and cholesterol27. Research shows that taking GTCs on a daily basis improves depression28 and reduces the risk of cognitive decline29, especially in women and people with a genetic risk for Alzheimer's disease.
- Resveratrol: At 75 mg a day, this compound boosts blood flow30.
Making a difference in your overall well-being lies in understanding that taking care of your brain is helping your heart and protecting your heart is boosting your brain.
Daniel Amen, MD, is a clinical neuroscientist psychiatrist, physician, professor and 10-time New York Times bestselling author. He is a double board-certified child and adult psychiatrist and founder of Amen Clinics, Inc., which has eight clinics across the country with one of the highest published success rates for treating complex psychiatric issues with the world’s largest database of functional brain scans relating to behavior, with more than 160,000 scans on patients from 121 countries. Amen is the lead researcher for the largest brain imaging and rehabilitation study for professional football players that demonstrates high levels of brain damage in players with solutions for significant recovery as a result of his extensive work. His research on post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury was recognized by Discover magazine’s Year in Science issue as one of the “100 Top Stories of 2015.” Amen has authored and co-authored more than 70 professional articles, seven scientific book chapters and 40-plus books, including the No. 1 New York Times bestsellers, “The Daniel Plan” and “Change Your Brain, Change Your Life.” His most recent book, “Change Your Brain, Change Your Grades,” includes editorial contributions from his teenage daughter, Chloe Amen, and niece, Alizé Castellanos.