“You can’t have a healthy marriage if you don’t have a healthy brain,” says Daniel Amen, a psychiatrist and author of "Change Your Brain, Change your Life" and "Magnificent Mind at Any Age." He often displays magnetic-resonated images that display views of healthy brains next to brains affected by alcohol, drugs, or diseases. Healthy brains look whole and smooth while the affected brains are riddled with holes and gaps.
It sounds so obvious and yet, we tend to live without giving much thought to brain care. We worry about how our bodies look, the numbers on a scale, achieving our career goals, and preserving our marriages and other significant relationships but we don’t pay much attention to the very control center that drives every area of our lives: our brains. As the marriage editor, I was particularly piqued by Amen’s connection between unhealthy brains and unhealthy marriages.
He spoke about a couple in marriage counseling and how, after years of therapy that cost nearly 25 thousand dollars, the counselor finally suggested divorce. The problem was that the couple couldn’t make changes. “He’s such a jerk,” the wife complained. After further questioning, Amen learned that the husband’s oppositional behavior began when he took a job working in a furniture refinishing plant where he was exposed to toxic airborne chemicals. After a transfer to another part of the plant, the husband’s brain—and marriage—began to improve.
Toxins affect our brain health which influence our behaviors and attitudes which, in turn, determines how we relate to others. Amen outlined key brain toxins, some of which include environmental toxins, drugs, smoking, medications, alcohol, caffeine, stress, lack of sleep, lack of proper nutrition and lack of oxygen (aerobic exercise). How many of us fall prey to these harmful substances or factors without realizing that they diminish the quality of our relationships?
According to Amen, an unhealthy brain often cause these typical behaviors: anger, low tolerance, unfocused thinking, anxiety, memory loss, impulsive behavior, impaired sexuality, and inability to maintain job and relationship satisfaction. Do you or your spouse exhibit some of these symptoms? If you honestly reflect on your recent marital conflicts, could poor brain health be a contributing factor?
Admittedly not all marital conflicts may be caused by unhealthy brains. There are other factors that influence our behavior and attitudes, namely genetics, upbringing and education. If, for example, religious differences are causing marital discord, no matter how healthy the brains involved, there will be contention. But perhaps, healthy brains are better equipped to settle these matters in a mutually beneficial manner, minus emotional theatrics. When a brain is maintained in optimum health, it can cope with external factors including relationship conflicts.
Amen’s books include fascinating brain images, research, anecdotes and an in-depth brain health plan, but here are just a few of the tips he gives to help you improve your brain health. Try them to see if they improve your marriage as well:
1. Exercise. Amen can’t stress enough the importance of exercise because it oxygenates the blood and brain. Oxygen-starved brains cause headaches, irritability and inattention.
2. Avoid smoking, drugs and alcohol. All three are dangerous toxins to the brain. Contrary to recent studies that support alcohol consumption, Amen says that alcohol is poison to the brain. Only a very small amount taken weekly is the most that should be consumed.
3. Sleep. Rest is vital to the brain. Sleep deprivation kills brain cells.
4. Proper nutrition. He lists several key vitamins and minerals that support brain health found in foods like salmon, walnuts, avocados and blueberries. He also recommends vitamin supplements.
5. Sufficient hydration. Dehydration seriously impairs the brain’s ability to process.
6. Stress avoidance. Stress, and the hormone cortisol that it releases, shrinks the brain!
These sound similar to advice given for general well-being and health for the body. But somehow, brain health—and a better marriage—is a stronger motivator to adopt these habits than simply fitting into a smaller size of jeans. Amen says he provides far more in his books, including a special step-by-step brain health plan.
I know that when I'm feeling ill or just off balance, health-wise, I don't have as much patience for even minor marital irritations. I decided to make brain health a priority and I encourage you to do the same. Then, stop by in the Marriage forum to let us know how your healthy brain efforts have affected your marital relationship!