At certain times in our lives, we question our thinking, our memory, our abilities to carry out certain skills, and even our sense of self. Throughout our lives we experience things that create patterns of activity that explain how our brains code these aspects.
Our brain is really a universe of activity. It works for us 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It creates thoughts, drives our emotions, and stores our memories. It is so busy that when we think, see, or move, electrical signals race among billions of nerve cells. It is amazing! It is resilient! It is powerful! And our brain gets better with use!
Our brain health is essential for our quality of life and longevity. So, are there things we can do to preserve our brain health? Research supports that we absolutely can make a difference with our lifestyle choices. What we eat and drink, how much we exercise, how well we sleep, the way we socialize, and how we manage our stress are critical to maintain our brain health.
Get moving! When we exercise regularly, we have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Exercise improves blood flow and memory. It stimulates chemical changes in the brain that enhance our learning, mood and thinking.
Regular aerobic exercise, like running, biking, and swimming preserve existing brain cells, and foster the growth of new ones. Research shows a link between long term, moderate physical activity, and an increase in volume of the hippocampus, the area of the brain that deals with the formation of long-term memories. This area is the first to be damaged in Alzheimer's disease.
Food and Nutrition:
We really are what we eat! There is a process called oxidation that damages brain cells. Oxidation occurs with exposure to harmful stress that is due to our lifestyle and environmental factors. Foods rich in antioxidants aid our body’s defense from the harmful effects of oxidation to our brains.
The Mediterranean-style diet is rich in fish, whole grains, green leafy vegetables, olives, and nuts. Research shows that it can help maintain brain health and may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. In contrast, diets rich in saturated, fat, sugar, and processed food can impair brain health.
In addition to a healthy diet, some supplements and specific nutrient intake can also be important for our brain health. Some examples are:
- Bacopa monnieri (an herb that can help improve memory, at least in the short term.)
- Blueberry (a fruit that contains a lot of molecules called anthocyanin. These antioxidant compounds are often supplemented for their ability to improve cognition.)
- Caffeine with Theanine (theanine is an amino acid with relaxing, but not sedating properties. It can reduce the overexcitability often caused by caffeine without impairing caffeine’s stimulatory effect. The improvements in concentration (focus and attention span) induced by caffeine and theanine have been shown to be synergistic.) But, be careful with caffeine. It can interact dangerously with several pharmaceuticals. It can also interfere with glucose metabolism, raise blood pressure, heart rate. These three effects fade as our tolerance to caffeine develops.
If you want to use the combination caffeine and theanine, take 200 mg of both caffeine and theanine (400 mg total) about 30 minutes before you need increased focus and concentration. In most cases, the effects of caffeine and theanine are most potent in the first 2 hours after ingestion.
In healthy adults, caffeine intakes up to 400 mg/day don’t raise any general health concerns. However, it should be cycled based on its stimulatory effects. If it no longer provides noticeable benefits, supplementation should be stopped for 2-4 weeks to reset tolerance.
Sleep and Relaxation:
Rest well! Sleep really does energize us. It improves our mood and immune system and may reduce buildup in the brain of an abnormal protein called beta-amyloid plaque, associated with Alzheimer’s disease. In addition to quality sleep, practicing meditation and stress management techniques can be helpful for brain health.
According to the CDC, age is a factor in the amount of sleep needed:
For 13-18 years of age: 8-10 hours are needed.
For 19-64 years of age: 7-9 hours are needed.
For 65 years and above: 7-8 hours are needed.
Use it or lose it! Mental exercise is just as critical as physical exercise and keeping your brain fit and healthy. Mental exercises may improve your brain functioning and promote new brain cell growth. You can memorize. When we work our brains through memorization we are stimulating neural plasticity, which alters the brains’ nerve pathways in response to new experiences. These functional brain changes appear to be important in warding off cognitive decline. We can also find something new to learn, like a new hobby or skill.
Stay connected! Spending time with others, engaging in stimulating conversation, and staying in touch and connected with family and friends are good for our brain health. Studies have shown that those of us who have the most social interaction in our community experience show the slowest rate of memory decline.
Not only will these 4 areas of self-care help in our brain health, they are just so helpful in giving us a good quality of life today.
I will leave you with some further research and investigations going on related to brain health: Dopamine and serotonin are neurotransmitters. They are frequently associated with the brain. Yet, more than 90% of serotonin and 50% of dopamine are found in the gut. More to come in the area of the brain-gut connection!
We can start today to improve our brain health. It is never too late to start!
Cleveland Clinic, Healthy Brains.org
Examine.com Brain Health (large database of supplement and nutrition research)