When a disease or disorder takes over the brain and robs it of its language and memory, the disease takes away you. After all, your brain is what makes you you. While there are some risk factors that are not modifiable, research has shown there are lifestyles practices that you can do to keep your brain healthy and your mind sharp that can help you live a longer, healthier life.
You may have heard someone refer to your brain as the “control center” of your body. This would make sense, since it controls every process that regulates your body. Your brain, a corrugated three pound mass, is a complex symphony of electrochemical reactions that is active every second of every day. Many of these reactions are unconscious. For example, the brain makes the lungs expand when needed and the heart pump blood continuously. It also stores memories, processes sights, sounds, taste and smells and controls emotions and hunger. For those reasons, it’s important to keep your brain as healthy as possible for as long as possible to stave off chronic—often incurable—diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia. Fortunately, science shows us how to do this.
6 Pillars of Brain Health
Your lifestyle choices have profound effect on your brain health. For example, what you eat and drink, how much you exercise, how much you socialize, how you manage stress, and how well you sleep are all vital to your brain health.
Your brain health is influenced by these six core pillars:
- Physical Exercise
- Stress Management
- Restorative Sleep & Relaxation
- Social Interaction
- Physical Health
- Food & Nutrition
In this article, we’ll go through each one of these pillars of brain health and discuss specific and actionable strategies that can you can do to optimize and protect your brain health.
Prioritize Exercise For Brain Health, Body & Mind
Exercise is one of the most important daily habits to prevent cognitive decline. While there is no one-size-fits-all prescription for the optimal dose of exercise to optimize your brain health, there are evidenced-based exercises associated with health benefits for the brain. Keep in mind, the best exercise program for one person may be vastly different from that of another person.
Aerobic exercise, also known as “cardio” or “endurance” exercise, helps to get your heart rate up and your muscles warm. Examples of aerobic exercises include biking, swimming, running, and climbing stairs. This type of exercise benefits your brain because it helps to preserve existing brain cells and also promotes the growth of new ones.
Another type of exercise is strength or “resistance” training such as pushing or pulling weights or lifting other heavy objects (like groceries). This is type of exercise is to help build and maintain muscles and bones. Strength training also helps your brain by enhancing your concentration and improving your decision-making skills.
If you’ve been alive long enough, you’ve experienced some form of stress. Whether you’ve experienced physical, emotional, or psychological stress, you know what that automatic “flight or fight” response feels like. When this occurs, you may feel your heartbeat pounding in the side of your neck, start sweating profusely, or feel as though you are about to hyperventilate. All of these reactions occur automatically and are initiated by your brain when it detects a threat.
Once the threat is gone, the stress response relaxes and your body and brain can regain their normal stress balance. However, sometimes that stress lingers on for days, weeks, or months and becomes long-term or “chronic” stress. It’s this chronic stress that can negatively impact your brain. Chronic stress can shrink the part of your brain, the prefrontal cortex, that’s responsible for memory and learning which can cause cognitive decline. In addition, chronic stress can increase the part of your brain, the amygdala, that can make you more susceptible to stress.
While you cannot eliminate stress completely, you can learn effective techniques to better manage stress and preserve your brain health.
Quality Sleep For Brain Health
Sleep is essential for keeping your brain healthy and your mind sharp. Without it, you can’t create or maintain new pathways in your brain that allows you to learn and create new memories. In addition, sleep deprivation makes it hard for you to concentrate and respond quickly. Research has shown that a chronic lack of sleep or even poor sleep quality increases your risk of disorders including high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, cardiovascular disease and obesity.
So what can you do to to support quality sleep?
One of the most important things you can do to get enough sleep is to create a regular sleep schedule. By going to bed and waking up at about the same time every day—including weekends and even when you’re traveling—you “train” your body and brain to get on a healthy sleep schedule.
Another strategy to help you get more sleep is to create a relaxing bedtime routine. That routine can start one to three hours before you need to sleep and can include things like dimming lights, putting your screens away, listening to relaxing music, reading a book, or taking a warm relaxing bath.
Stay Connected Socially To Optimize Brain Health
Strong social connections are vital to your brain health. Socializing can stimulate the brain in many ways including stimulating your attention, memory and strengthening neural networks. As you age, it can become more difficult to stay connected, however, it is essential to do so. One study suggest that loneliness can increase your risk of dementia by as much as 40%.
While it can be beneficial to have large social circles, it’s important to remember to choose quality over quantity. Not all relationships are created equal. Stressful relationships or particular social circles can negatively impact your health. Invest your time and energy into relationships that energize you as opposed to the relationships that drain you.
Control Medical Conditions To Protect Brain Health
Depending on your personal health situation, you may be advised to take medications or supplements to manage a health condition. These can be important to reducing your risks for serious conditions and slowing down the progression of diseases. Some medical conditions are linked to the deterioration of brain function these include high blood pressure, diabetes, and excess weight. These conditions can increase your risks of cognitive decline and developing dementia. Therefore, it’s important to prevent or manage these health conditions to ensure the best possible health outcomes.
As always, consult with your doctor and/or dietitian before taking supplements to support brain health in order to decrease your risk of drug interactions and to ensure you are getting a high quality supplement.
Nutrient Dense Foods For Brain Health
There are several foods and nutrients that promote a healthy brain by slowing cognitive decline and reducing your risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other chronic diseases. You may have heard of the MIND diet that’s designed to help prevent dementia and to slow the decline of brain function as you age. The MIND diet emphasizes foods that are rich in antioxidants, phytochemicals and other nutrients that are vital for optimal brain health.
Keep reading to learn a few of the key foods and nutrients that may help boost your brain health.
OMEGA 3 FATTY ACIDS
Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of essential fats that promote heart and brain health. One of the best sources of omega-3’s are chia seeds with one ounce providing 5,000mg of ALA omega 3 fatty acids. Hemp seeds contain 3,000mg of ALA omega 3 fatty acids in just 3 tablespoons. Walnuts are another source of healthy fats and ALA omega 3’s. Studies have shown that eating walnuts can have significant improvements in memory and cognitive performance. Am I the only one who thinks it’s pretty interesting how walnuts resemble the brain? Lastly, flaxseeds are a nutritional powerhouse that are also a, excellent source of ALA omega 3’s. Chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp seeds, and walnuts can easily be incorporated into your diet.
PLANT-BASED NUTRITION FOR BRAIN HEALTH
Plants contain more than vitamins and minerals, they’re also a great source of fiber, antioxidants and phytochemicals. Eating a plant-rich diet helps more than your brain, it’s also associated with better heart health and weight management.
Some of the top plants for brain health are brightly-colored fruits and vegetables like berries, leafy greens, and broccoli. You should aim to fill half your plate with a diversity of colorful vegetables to maximize your antioxidant and nutrient intake.
COCOA & DARK CHOCOLATE FOR BRAIN HEALTH
Cocoa and dark chocolate contain powerful antioxidants and other compounds that supports brain health. These powerful plant compounds can help improve blood flow to the brain and reduce inflammation. Two of my favorite brain foods, cocoa powder and dark chocolate, contains high amounts of flavonols in the form of epicatechin a substance that can cross the blood-brain barrier.
Flavonols are a class of flavonoids that have biological activity such as antimicrobial, hepatoprotective, anti-inflammatory and vasodilation effects, and have been considered as potential anti-cancer agents.
In order for the brain to function optimally, cerebral blood flow needs to be maintained to support oxygen and glucose supply to the neurons. The main polyphenols that can enhance cerebral blood flow come from berries, cocoa, soya, tomatoes, grape seeds, wine and tea.
According to research, ingestion of a single dose or a one-week treatment with cocoa rich in flavonol increases cerebral blood flow in grey matter and reverses endothelial dysfunction which suggest its potential in the treatment of cerebrovascular problems.
COFFEE & TEAS FOR BRAIN HEALTH
You may be wondering which type of tea is best to drink for brain health. When it comes to teas, black and green teas contain the most antioxidants. Green tea is one of the healthiest because it’s packed with antioxidants, polyphenols, and a catechin called EGCG. which may boost your brain function.
The EGCG also helps to protect brain cells from oxidative stress in order to reduce your risk of diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and dementia.
Likewise, consuming up to two to four cups a day of coffee is beneficial to your your brain. Research shows drinking black coffee is linked with the prevention of cognitive decline and can reduce your risk for having a stroke and developing Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.
VITAMIN D FOR BRAIN HEALTH
Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin that plays an essential role in brain health. You have vitamin D receptors which are found throughout your brain tissue. The biologically active form of vitamin D has shown neuroprotective effects including the clearance of amyloid plaques which is an indicator of Alzheimer’s disease. If you are unable to get adequate vitamin D through your diet, supplementation may be needed.
RESVERATROL FOR BRAIN HEALTH
Resveratrol is a natural polyphenol that’s found in red wine and the skin of red grapes. As a natural food ingredient, multiple studies have demonstrated that reservatrol has a very high antioxidant potential.
Reservatrol may reduce cell damage and protect against the formation of plaques in the brain. However, if you plan on getting this powerful antioxidant from red wine, remember, too much alcohol is not good for the brain, so be sure to drink in moderation.
The recommended intake of alcohol for women is no more than one drink per day and no more than two drinks per day for men.
A drink is defined as:
- 12 ounces of beer
- 5 ounces of wine
- 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits
If you prefer an alcohol free alternative, resveratrol can also be obtained from drinking red grape juice or eating red grapes. While there are many reservatrol supplements on the market, due to its poor solubility, bioavailability, and potential adverse effects, it’s best to get your dose of reservatrol from natural food.
TO SUM IT UP
There are many things you can do to optimize and protect your brain health. They include a number of healthy habits such as getting exercise, reducing stress, getting enough sleep, socializing with others (or with pets), and following recommendations for medications and supplements. When it comes to food and nutrition for brain health, try to get enough omega-3s, more plants, spices, dark chocolate, coffee, tea, vitamin D, and a bit of red wine.
By the way, if you haven’t seen the National Geographic series called “Limitless with Chris Hemsworth” on Disney +, I highly recommend it. This series provides scientific research and insight to how you can unlock your potential to live a longer, healthier life. Looking for personalized recommendations to optimize and protect your health? Book appointment today.