To be honest, the word ‘well-being’ in itself is a bit fluffy. It feels like we should all be striving for well-being and the health and happiness implicated in its attainment, but it so often feels like a chore to put the time aside for it. Or even worse, we put aside the time for well-being only to not feel any better. The problem is it’s all a bit vague; of course we’d all like to be well, but if it was as easy as that, we wouldn’t be talking about it so much, nor would we be marketed so many well-being products all the time.
What does well-being actually mean, then, and how do we come about it? You’ll find its synonyms like ‘wellness’ as a category in Boots and other retailers, where you’ll find sleep aids and vitamins and occasionally protein powder. These all hint towards what well-being looks like: good rest, exercise, a healthy diet; all the key words and phrases you’d find on, say, the infographic below that we posted not long ago. But what actually goes on in your body – and especially your brain – when you carry out the kinds of activities associated with well-being? Maybe if we can understand the physiological and neurological specifics of what happens, we can pinpoint more precisely what it means to be well.
Taking a moment to stop, breathe in, and feel fresh air circulate inside of you is an immensely calming feeling. And there are physiological reasons for this too: breathing deep slows down your heartrate, brings in plenty of vital oxygen particles your body needs, and balances out the production of certain hormones in your brain, including lowering cortisol levels (the hormone associated with alertness and fear) and elevating endorphins (which increase feelings of pleasure and reduce pain and discomfort).
Deep breathing can be done at home, but there are even more benefits to breathing fresh air from outside, which is more oxygen-rich. Oxygen particles are needed for survival as your lungs convert oxygen into carbon dioxide, taking the former into our blood where they travel to cells all over our body. These oxygen particles are what gives our cells the ability to break down food and provide energy to us. Oxygen-rich air, therefore, has many benefits: it helps us digest food better, gives a boost to our white blood cells (which strengthens our immune system), cleanses our lungs of toxins and irritants, increases serotonin in the brain (a hormone which promotes happiness), and regulates blood pressure. It basically improves your body’s daily functions, as well as boosting your brain’s ability to concentrate and generally giving you more energy.
Another advantage of getting fresh air is that generally entails getting some form of exercise, whether going for a walk in green spaces, or heading outdoors for a run or group sports. Thankfully, there is less and less emphasis on losing weight as the primary goal of exercise. Certainly, burning fat has known health benefits, which is an inevitable outcome of exercise anyway. But newer discourses oriented around overall health rather than thinness have the consequence of privileging the feel-good aspect of exercise over the aesthetics of an ‘ideal’, often unattainable body type, in turn promoting better self-esteem and eating habits to those entering the world of fitness.
And certainly, exercise’s effects on both brain and body are something to celebrate. Physical activity boosts high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol (the good one) and decreases triglycerides, helping regulate blood sugar levels. This has a palpably positive impact on all kinds of health conditions: from diabetes, to high blood pressure, to depression and anxiety. It strengthens your heart and lungs and raises adrenaline levels, which in turn open up your capillaries up to 20% wider. This increases blood flow, delivering oxygen to each corner of your body (in fact, you take in up to fifteen times as much oxygen exercising than you do at rest!). It even strengthens your bones and helps prevent loss of calcium, especially as you get older. In terms of your brain, exercise stimulates the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) all of which promote feelings of happiness and lessen fear and anxiety by helping brain cells communicate with each other. Have you ever felt a rush of excitement and joy after intense exercise? That’s your brain sending out all these neurotransmitters, and your brain cells essentially chatting to each other. These positive functions are all great to remember, and even envision, when you’re needing motivation, getting tired, or feeling defeated while exercising.
Getting good sleep is probably the most evidently beneficial activity on this list, as sleep deprivation feels as immediately unhealthy as it is on a microscopic level in your body. The good news is that other well-being activities directly encourage healthy sleep: for instance, breathing deeply and taking the opportunity to take in fresh air lowers both heartrate and cortisol levels which help your body anticipate rest. Further, using up more energy via increased oxygen intake makes you sleepier when bedtime comes around. Regular exercise, too, is one of the best ways to ready yourself for a deep sleep as your body has delivered oxygen at a x15 rate, and your brain has chatted to itself enough to need some rest.
As well as breathing and exercise, sleep is important both physiologically and neurologically. In the first instance, it helps repair your heart and blood vessels, as well as muscles, cells, and tissues; good sleep can therefore significantly reduce your risk of heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes, and stroke. Good rest also provides a great boost to the immune system as white blood cells repair during sleep. It also helps regulate hormones such as ghrelin and leptin, associated with feelings of hungriness and fullness respectively. Poor rest can cause an increase in ghrelin and a decrease in leptin, making you feel hungrier than usual (and in lots of incidences, hangrier). Neurologically, sleep is your brain’s chance to reset: you form new neural pathways so that the next day your brain is ready to learn new information and remember it long-term. This is why good sleep helps your memory, problem-solving, creativity, and decision-making.
So many discussions around eating are about what’s bad for you: too much sugar, salt, fat, or whatever scapegoat of the moment. What often gets neglected is why eating healthily is good for your body and brain. Complex starches that are found in wholegrain foods such as porridge, oats, brown bread and rice, beans, pulses, and vegetables release energy at a slower rate, helping you feel full for longer and keeping away hunger pangs. This keeps blood sugar levels more consistent, combatting the adverse effects of diseases like diabetes, but also boosts brain function as you aren’t focused on hunger or food cravings. Moreover, antioxidants found in fruits (especially berries) and leafy greens reduce the risk of cancer and promote overall health by slowing or preventing the damage to cells caused by their waste products (known as ‘free radicals’). Lastly, foods in these groups are gut-friendly, meaning they do not cause inflammation or irritation in the digestive tract. This is important neurologically too: new research is finding more and more similarities and connections between our gut and our brains, and increasingly researchers are associating healthy eating with improved mental health. A 2015 study even found that foods containing vitamins C, D, and E, omega-3, and flavonoids (found in fruit and vegetables) help prevent cognitive decline and dementia. While you can’t always see or feel directly how eating healthy benefits you, especially when sugar can provide such an immediate surge of happiness, the long-term effects of healthy eating are far more noticeable and palpably beneficial because of what’s happening to you on a molecular level.
You’ve probably heard it a million times before: stay hydrated! The opening lyrics to Mick Jenkins’ song Jazz even says ‘Drink more water, or you might die.’ He’s not wrong! But more than that, staying hydrated is a great way to rid your body of its waste products. After drinking, water is absorbed through our intestines, where it circulates throughout the body in form of bodily fluids such as blood. And it – you guessed it – helps deliver oxygen to various parts of the body, as oxygen is a component of water itself (this is partly why you need to hydrate more after exercising). It also contains other nutrients and minerals such as iron, zinc, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and others, all of which have different functions such as strengthening nerves, joints, or bones. It also then carries away waste products which we then expel as urine, and can also help with waste in other ways, aiding digestion and mitigating constipation. But fascinatingly, it carries out a similar function in your brain: it completes its dual task of both bringing nutrients that help cells communicate, and it clears out waste products that impair brain function. What this means is: next time you have a brain fart, consider drinking a glass of water to clear your head. Lastly, staying hydrated helps keep cortisol levels down, in turn reducing anxiety, and promoting deeper sleep.
Friends, partners, and family
Seeing loved ones is an instant mood-booster, and as you might expect, there are plenty of things happening in your body and brain that make it so. When spending time with friends, your brain releases serotonin and dopamine – mentioned above in the exercise section – but also a neurotransmitter not yet mentioned: oxytocin. Sometimes called the ‘love hormone’ (though it is also produced in platonic situations), oxytocin encourages even higher levels of serotonin and dopamine production and is associated with feelings of joy, pleasure, and social bonding. It is also produced during orgasm, as well as pregnancy and breastfeeding; though friendships can produce plenty of it too, as its production is stimulated during hugs and social time more generally. Connecting with someone, either romantically or platonically, helps your brain develop healthy brain cells and form positive neural pathways. The production of these neurotransmitters has secondary effects on your physical health, too, as stress-relief lowers blood pressure, heartrate, cortisol, and inflammation in the body.
It’s amazing that what’s happening on a molecular level can have such an impact on your mood, and provide such a boost to your body’s overall functioning. You might have noticed too that pretty much all these well-being activities are connected in some way; while it might be slightly reductive to say that it’s all about lowered cortisol levels, or oxygen molecules being transported about your body, the physiological effects certainly amount to that in many cases. There are of course other specificities that happen though, and your body does so many incredible things to keep itself going, even if you are completely unaware of exactly what or how it’s happening.
Maybe well-being is encouraging yourself, your body, and your brain to carry out those functions as best they can, by engaging in the above activities. We hope that you find pathways to well-being in the coming year, and remember: oxygen is key!