‘Brain Energy’ Book Review: Is CrossFit the Grassroots Movement of Mental Health?

Dr. Palmer is a psychiatrist and researcher at Harvard Medical School with over 27-years of experience. His most recent endeavor is a call-to-action for healthcare workers (e.g., doctors, coaches, etc.) to promote metabolic health through his newest book: Brain Energy. This book outlines an empirical theory citing metabolic dysfunction as the common pathway in all mental health disorders. The book provides depths of scientific background and support with easy to implement suggestions. One of the biggest take-aways from this book is that people who are metabolically healthy are less likely to experience poor mental health.

Dr. Palmer breaks down the complex ideas of how exercise may benefit mental health. He cites that physically active people experience 43% less poor mental health days than those who are sedentary. Exercise also promotes mitochondrial health by producing new mitochondria and removing unhealthy mitochondria. Dr. Palmer recognizes that while any physical activity may maintain mitochondrial health, to improve mitochondrial capacity and function high intensity exercise is needed:

“…to improve metabolic capacity, people need to push themselves. They must work toward getting faster, stronger, more flexible, doing more reps, or achieving some other metric of increased capacity. We know when this happens, the number of mitochondria in their muscle and brain cells increase, and the health of those mitochondria improve as well.”

Sound familiar? CrossFit coaches and trainers may refer to this as an increase in work capacity. By using constantly varied functional movements at a high intensity, physiological adaptations are increased, and progress is measurable (e.g., time, distance, weight/force). Dr. Palmer also cites that insulin resistance may dampen these physical, mental, and cognitive benefits seen with exercise. Exercise isn’t the only key to addressing metabolic function to improve mental health. Diet is necessary too.

Palmer writes that experts now believe that mitochondrial dysfunction may be the primary cause of both type 1 and 2 diabetes. This is in part due to the feedback loop between mitochondria and insulin. Insulin isn’t just necessary for energy maintenance for our bodies and plays a role in neural health by influencing a large range of neurotransmitters and contributing to regulation of mitochondria. Dr. Palmer highlights the importance of measuring insulin and blood glucose for mental health and how diet and exercise can potentially increase mitochondrial health. Therefore, controlling insulin levels improves mental health through healthy mitochondria. If you’re a CrossFit coach/trainer this idea probably sounds familiar. This line of thinking follows the nutrition lecture from the CrossFit Level 1 seminar.

In fact, just as the CrossFit Seminar staff explains, insulin resistance is on the rise due to living in a society where we have too much energy available. Insulin resistance can be driven by a poor diet or other health risk factors that put most of our population between sick and wellness (see below for the Wellness Continuum from CrossFit LLC). Luckily, CrossFit has one solution for how to promote wellness: eating meats, vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, and no sugar. This diet will take care of many issues seen with metabolism today. The CrossFit diet directly addresses one of the key concerns for poor metabolic health: controlling quality and quantity of food intake to support exercise, not body-fat.

Dr. Palmer speaks on the importance of food quality:

“Processed foods are filled with artificial ingredients and often devoid of nutrition […] Understanding the effects of all these hormones and chemicals on human metabolism is far from clear, but research suggests they do have an impact.”

Speaking on quantity of food, Dr. Palmer writes:

“Sometimes, it’s not about one specific ingredient. Instead, it might have more to do with how much we eat. [Overeating] can lead to high levels of insulin and blood glucose, especially in people with insulin resistance. […] Could elevated blood glucose account for the higher rates of depression and Alzheimer’s disease in people with diabetes? All of this research suggests that it might play a role.”

While two of the most important keys to addressing this poor mental health crisis is answered with the CrossFit lifestyle (e.g., exercise and diet), Dr. Palmer speaks to what he preserves as one the biggest challenge for improving mitochondrial health:

“The bigger challenge is getting people who are metabolically compromised to follow through with an exercise routine. They lack energy and motivation. Their metabolism is doing this to them. It’s not their fault. Overcoming this inertia can be difficult. Nonetheless, it can be done with support, encouragement, and education.”

When asked what advice Dr. Palmer had for CrossFit coaches looking to increase long-term health success for people with mitochondrial dysfunction, he advised:

“People who have mitochondrial dysfunction literally have less energy in their cells. Explaining this science can be helpful, as it reduces shame and lets them know that their fatigue and lack of motivation can be “symptoms” of metabolic dysfunction. Nonetheless, this metabolic dysfunction can be corrected through the CrossFit program. Let your clients know that you are there to support them in their journey to improve their health, that you understand it’s going to be difficult at times, but that you will help them get there.”

This leads to the potential key players in addressing the mental health epidemic: CrossFit coaches and affiliate owners. Reading Brain Energy can help equip coaches and affiliate owners with the scientific background to understand the common pathway for all mental health disorders: the mitochondria. Having this knowledge increases coaching capacity through CrossFit trainers and coaches understanding why CrossFit combats poor mental health and provides tools for how affiliate members can address poor metabolic function. Affiliate owners, coaches, and anyone wanting to promote the wellness of CrossFit should read this book so that they are better able to serve as educators for their local communities and spread wellness. Dr. Palmer’s scientific brain energy theory provides a human-centric approach that falls in-line with the CrossFit mission: “to improve health and fitness through education, research, philanthropy, and advocacy.”

Donations can be made to the Brain Energy movement. Dr. Palmer spoke on how these donations are being used, saying:

“Currently, we are using donations to produce a free newsletter and the Mental and Metabolic Health Assessment. We are hoping to expand our free educational programs for both the general public and healthcare providers to include webinars, a podcast, and more. With enough support, we are hoping to start a grassroots movement focused on improving the lives of the millions of people suffering from chronic mental illness. They deserve more effective treatments and better lives. Mental health is metabolic health!”

Disclaimer: the author is not affiliated with Brain Energy or CrossFit.

To learn more about the brain energy movement please visit https://brainenergy.com/movement/

To listen to Dr. Palmer speak with CrossFit Health please visit https://www.crossfit.com/health/mental-illness-as-a-metabolic-disorder

To learn more about CrossFit please visit https://www.crossfit.com/what-is-crossfit/

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