Now more than ever, mental health has risen to the forefront when it comes to conversations of overall wellness. According to a Mental Health America statistic, almost 20% of Americans experience some type of mental health disorder.
When discussing how we, as humans, can feel better, longer, there's no doubt that mental health plays a huge part.
So what is mental health, defined? Simply, it describes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It broadly encompasses how we feel and behave as humans in this world, and is directly correlated to how we deal with stress and handle major life transitions. Whether its anxiety, depression, or something a bit more serious, the effects of these very common struggles in combination with the realities of life, can absolutely manifest in other areas of your health as well.
When we say cells are involved in everything we do as humans…we mean everything. Mental health included.
Mental health also plays a role in our intuition or “gut feelings" and often guides our decision making; creating a somewhat interesting intersect of nature and nurture. That being said, you can imagine how these issues of mental health can easily cross over into physical health category; whether that's your increased heart rate when experiencing anxiety, or your lack of appetite when stressed or depressed.
Regardless of the stigma often associated with it, mental health is crucial when discussing our overall health and wellbeing, because it directly impacts our productivity, mood, and motivation. Not to mention our day-to-day decisions that shape our entire lives: work, relationships with our family, parenting, physical health and so much more.
Brain Health is Two-Fold: Mental Health vs Cognitive Function
Let’s discuss the differentiation between mental health and cognitive function; because while linked, they are very different concepts when we discuss brain health and function.
While mental health involves our emotions, feelings, and psychological stability, cognitive function refers to the overall function of the brain in terms of its ability to coordinate movement, create thoughts, convey messages, and respond to stimuli environment. Cognitive function can be thought of as an umbrella term to capture all sorts of functions associated with the brain, and mental health as a “subset” of cognitive functioning.
As expected, cells play a vital role in mental health
When we say cells are involved in everything we do as humans…we mean everything; mental health included. From that morning stretch to your racing thoughts in bed at the end of the day, cells in the body and brain are constantly at work to keep you functioning at the highest level possible.
We often do not consider the impact cells have on our mental health and overall cognitive function, but the truth is, there are trillions of cells in the brain responsible for keeping you (ideally) happy, motivated, and present all day long.
That’s right, cells are not only responsible for physical behavior like muscle movement and posture, but they are also the source of your thoughts and emotions; so naturally, we want to monitor how changes to cellular health can have a direct impact on how you feel and think.
Terrific Trio: brain cell types and their influence
Within the brain, there are three major cell types important to this discussion: neurons, astrocytes, and microglia.
Neurons are the main communicators of the brain and are responsible for relaying messages from one cell to the next. In doing so, millions of neurons form networks that are essentially responsible for specific behaviours and bodily functions such as eating with your family, laughing at a movie or taking a walk at the end of a long day.
In a general sense, neurons release chemical messengers called neurotransmitters to change the activity of neurons elsewhere in the brain. This is how they communicate with one another, and disturbances in the amount of neurotransmitter released or the ability of a neuron to release these chemical messengers can impair normal functioning (like your mental health.)
Astrocytes are a form of glial cell in the brain that are necessary for neuronal protection and for monitoring the extracellular environment. One of their main roles is to remove the excitatory neurotransmitter, glutamate, from the extracellular space because too much of glutamate in this space can overstimulate neurons, which can often result in oxidative stress and cellular damage. So, astrocytes plays a key role in keeping communication between neurons in check.
Finally, microglia are small cells with big attitudes. They’re normally surveying the extracellular environment like astrocytes, but they play more of a defensive role when it comes to threats and stress signals. Microglia are known to release inflammatory mediators, which can trigger changes in the metabolism of neurotransmitters responsible for mood regulation. In this sense, we can see how microglia play a direct role in mental health.
Oxidative stress in the brain: necessary, but in moderation
The brain is the first organ in the body that responds to stress. When we perceive a threat, structures within the brain trigger the release of neurotransmitters and hormones that cause a myriad of other changes throughout the body. All these changes are necessary to promote the commonly known fight-or-flight response, which is meant to promote survival in the face of an environmental challenge.
When the brain experiences stress, neurons dramatically increase their metabolic activity, which results in greater-than-normal processing of energy substrates like carbohydrates. Any time metabolic activity increases, reactive oxygen species (ROS) increase in the cell as a by-product of energy metabolism. Normally, when a threat is resolved, the brain recovers, and ROS are cleared from the cellular and extracellular environments.
In the case stress is not resolved within a reasonable amount of time, ROS can buildup and cause damage to cells in the brain. This is when things get a little messy.
Remember that astrocytes maintain normal communication between neurons by recycling glutamate from the extracellular space. Under chronic (i.e., long-term) stress conditions, it is thought that the release of glutamate occurs at a higher rate than it is cleared by astrocytes. The resulting higher-than-normal levels of glutamate overstimulates neurons, which can be toxic and damaging to these cells due to increased oxidative stress.
When microglia pick up on danger signals released by overstimulated neurons, they activate, triggering the release of inflammatory mediators like cytokines. This causes a signaling cascade in other cells nearby to release more inflammation. This inflammatory signaling cascade is often referred to as neuroinflammation.
How does this impact mental health?
Let’s consider the impact of neuroinflammation and its cascading effect on chemical messengers released by neurons, which are responsible for those day-to-day functions.
Among the many things that happen, a big one is the change in metabolism of key neurotransmitters involved in mood. When activity in the neuroinflammation pathway increases, the production of serotonin—a neurotransmitter involved in mood regulation—decreases.
Instead, the building blocks of serotonin are sent down another pathway that increases production of neurotoxic compounds known to increase glutamate signaling in the brain.
Yep, that serotonin, that buzz word you feel when you watch your favorite show or bask in the sun after a long winter. In this case, it really is the key link when we talk about optimal brain function and mental health.
In summary, as a result of neuroinflammation, we get reduced recycling of glutamate, increased glutamate signaling due to neurotoxic compounds, and decreased serotonin levels. Altogether, this collective change is known to cause mood imbalances and disrupt reward processing, which, you guessed it, are both symptoms of mental health disorders like depression.
This is one of the scientific reasons maintaining cellular health is important to keep each cell type in check, and in return reduce the impact of stress on the brain.
What can I do to improve mental health through cellular health?
Some studies have shown that anti-inflammatory drugs can improve depression symptoms. That's not too surprising based on what we know from above.
Simply put, these anti-inflammatory drugs directly reduce the release of inflammation by immune cells and restore normal functioning of microglia. Better functioning brain cells: better functioning you!
While this is a simplified explanation, it's true that by targeting brain cell health, it is possible to improve mental health. It also never hurts to try all those remedies you see online: getting outside for a walk, eating well, etc.
We do know that easy ways to improve inflammation and maintain brain cell health are by exercising, eating anti-inflammatory foods, and regulating our perception of stress through a practice like meditation. It may also help to learn how to control reactions to stress by starting small, like googling simple stress adaptation techniques or trying an antioxidant supplement to buffer stress at the molecular level.
In the end, brain cells work together to make sure you have the mental capacity to survive and thrive in your environment. We're all about maximizing your healthspan -- and what's more important to living healthy, impactful years than you brain health? Focus on your cellular health, and your brain will return the favor.
As always, be sure to chat with your doctor about your personal symptoms and see what treatment plans are right for you.