Your brain’s form and function are literally a reflection of your everyday habits. It turns out that the age of your brain may be a lesser influence on its structure than what you actually do with it. You can support and improve your brain health by the things you do in your life. Or conversely, your lifestyle can tax and stress your brain while increasing the chances of its decline.
Diet, exercise, stress management, sleep, socialization, and mental stimulation are key elements to a brain healthy lifestyle.
Brain Healthy Diet
When it comes to your brain, you literally are what you eat. Your grocery list can have a direct impact on your brain performance and can directly impact whether you cross things off of your to-do list, meet your work goals, or remember your anniversary. Your brain is the biggest energy hog in your body. While, on average, it represents only 2% of the body’s weight, it uses about 20% of the energy produced. Studies show that a person can be as much as 200% more productive just by making better eating choices. You can promote quicker thinking, better memory and concentration, improved balance and coordination, sharper senses, and the activation of your feel good hormones just by what you put on your plate. Read more
Research shows that physical exercise improves mood, memory, attention, creativity, and learning and reduces depression, age related decline, and the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Moving your body increases the blood flow to your brain which elevates oxygen levels which triggers biochemical changes protecting the new resulting neurons by bathing them in nerve growth factor, BDNF (think of it as Miracle-Gro for your brain.) These conditions encourage your brain to grow and change by forming new neural pathways and synaptic connections, a process known as neuroplasticity. The exact amount or intensity of the exercise required has yet to be determined, but it appears that the minimum is thankfully low and studies have shown that even modest amounts of exercise yield positive results. Read more
If you are under stress and don’t find ways to release it after the event has passed or learn techniques to cope when experiencing stress, you carry around a constant current of worry that can become ingrained as anxiety. And then if you suffer from anxiety for too long, you could slip into depression. Stress is one of the most dangerous toxins your body faces every day because it changes your gene expression, causes brain damage, shuts down your immune system, increases inflammation, causes belly fat, and more. Read more
To experience absolutely no stress, you would have to be dead. Seriously. And some stress is actually good, called eustress, motivating you to act and perform at your best. The key is to manage stress so that it doesn’t become unhealthy or turn into anxiety or depression. There are many ways to do this on your own: exercise, yoga, mindfulness and meditation, breathing exercises, practicing gratitude and other mental health tools. The point is: do something!
Every aspect of your life is impacted by sleep, from your appearance and health to relationships and success in your professional life, but it hits your brain the hardest. Your brain’s entire electrical and chemical systems are influenced by your sleep – or lack of it. After just one night of skimping on sleep, the results can be seen in delayed reaction times, glucose levels, mood, headache, impaired memory, and hormone balances. Lack of sleep slows down your thinking, impairs your memory, concentration, judgment, and decision-making, impedes learning, and contributes to depression. Getting too little sleep on an ongoing basis has also been linked to weight gain, heart disease, diabetes, early death, and a higher risk for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, stroke, some cancers, and multiple sclerosis. Learn more and how to get better good-for-your-brain sleep here.
Being around and with other people helps keep your brain happy and healthy. You don’t even have to interact with them to benefit, just being in the same physical space can increase the happy neurotransmitters in your brain. Chatting or chilling with friends or family has even more brain benefits. Studies have shown that people with larger social networks and daily interaction with others have decreased risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s. Your brain wants to be connected and included and feels calmer and happier when it is.
Your brain changes every minute of everyday as a result of what you do, feel, and think, a process called neuroplasticity. If you stay in your comfort zone never trying anything new, you aren’t aking your brain to grow and stay strong. It’s already got your basic routine down. No big deal.
Recent studies have found that having an intellectually challenging job helps to preserve thinking skills and memory as you age. Learning a second language, to play a musical instrument, or a new craft or hobby as well as continuing your education, and traveling all have brain benefits. About anything that forces your brain to stretch, grow, and learn is going to be good for it. Activities that require intense mental focus switch on neuroplasticity, promoting the growth of new synapse connections and leading to strong neural wiring.
You want to mix it up for best results. While doing the daily crossword puzzle may be fun, it’s not going to do much for your brain after a while. Brain training exercises can also help harness and direct neuroplasticity and exercise your memory, attention, and other cognitive skills to keep them in shape.
While the belief that our brain function naturally deteriorates as we age has become firmly entrenched, it’s not nearly true as much as you might think. You can take simple steps to instill brain-healthy habits into your life to keep your physical and mental health at its best. And not only will your brain benefit, you whole life and body will reap rewards.
You don’t have to try drastically overhaul your life all at once. Make one small change this week. Start walking 15 minutes every day. Go to bed one hour earlier. Eat more nuts and seeds and less junk. Start meditating 5 minutes a day. Do the one thing consistently for weeks, until it becomes a habit, and then add another thing. Your brain can even become your ally in breaking bad habits and establishing good-for-you ones.
Before you know it, you can make a significant amount of change in the right direction. The health of your brain today and tomorrow is in your lifestyle. Implement changes to start building a better brain today.