Brain is smiles ahead: New book reveals how attitude impacts our health

Dr Sabina Brennan. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Did you know that you can ‘fool’ your brain into releasing natural antidepressants and pain relief — simply by faking a smile?

The feel-good factor kicks off in your brain when you flash those pearly whites spontaneously — releasing dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins into your body, according to a new, very readable book, 100 Days To A Younger Brain, by Dr Sabina Brennan, a research psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist at Trinity College Dublin.

The benefits to smiling are included in a chapter about how we manage our attitude to ageing and to living. Attitude is one of six lifestyle factors that the author outlines are important for managing brain health as we age. The others are sleep, stress, social and mental activity, heart health, and physical activity.

“We tend to think that something has to make you smile and actually I struggled for a while to understand that an organ as complex as our brain can be fooled, for want of a better word, by a fake smile or synthesised smile,” Sabina tells Feelgood.

“And then it twigged with me one day: I think it is because our brain is so clever that it has given us a wonderful mechanism by which we can release endorphins in our brain, boost our immune function, lower our blood pressure, and enhance our mood, literally by activating the muscles on our face into the shape of a smile.”

There is a large body of research which supports the fact that the six lifestyle factors outlined - which are well recorded healthy-ageing influences, also affect how our brains adapt and change.

Just as we are all unique – so is our brain. And while we all have a similar brain structure, it is shaped by our life experiences and behaviours.

In the book, Sabina outlines a bespoke programme where readers can log and assess and keep a diary around how well they relate to the six lifestyle factors so that they can build up a personal profile and plan, to influence how their own brain ages.

“People can dip in and out and read the book to get information — they don’t have to do the programme. But keeping the logs and diary can reveal so much — in an objective way, patterns can reveal themselves that you were totally unaware of, so it’s a good exercise to do,” says the author.

While we are used to ‘get healthy’ self-help books of a more general nature, many of us might erroneously think our brains are unalterable.

“We put an awful lot of store in genetics and in our genes, but the fact that our brain is adaptable is what gives us advantage — we have learnt through evolution. The brain’s capacity to adapt and change through all our experiences and exposures is exciting,” says Sabina.

I think a lot of people confuse the brain with something about being brainy, or something about being academic — even the term cerebral — and it sometimes causes people to be distant and that it’s not about them. But everybody’s brain is amazing.

Only in the past decade was it understood that we could do something about the atrophy of the brain, the natural wastage as we age, says the neuroscientist.

“Most recent research shows that lifestyle can impact on that and we actually can retain our brain volume and can build reserves ... that’s really exciting because the healthier our brain is, the longer we can withstand pathology.

“Obviously, there is no golden ticket, but when it comes to dementia what people want, is to hold on to their functioning for as long as possible.”

That desire to stall memory loss alone — whatever about other diseases linked to poor brain health — might get us all paying attention to the bespoke programme and information in the book.

Research carried out by Sabina across Europe, as part of a larger survey in 2011 and 2012, asked participants what they feared most about growing old — they said loss of memory and independence. “Also, we gave them a very long list of diseases that are linked with later life, and dementia was the disease that they feared most,” she says.

If there’s one message we can take from her book then it is that we can all attempt to take responsibility for ourselves to lessen those fears becoming a reality. And try and smile along the way.

100 Days To A Younger Brain by Dr Sabina Brennan, Orion Publishing, €15.49

To find out more about Sabina’s brain health projects, see sabinabrennan.ie

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