Intellectually, we know brain health is critically important. But it’s easy to forget how powerfully brain health impacts our overall health, until we (or someone we know) begin to experience difficulties.
Your brain isn’t just a glob of grey tissue that allows you to think and do math. It’s a complex and extraordinarily dynamic organ that manages more bodily systems at once than we can fathom. What you see, hear, smell, remember, feel, say, and do, are all controlled by your brain. Working more rapidly and efficiently than any machine, your brain keeps your heart and lungs working, manages motor control and balance, and works closely with your digestive and immune systems.
Your brain is more than just your body’s command center. Dreams, for instance, are something we consider a mildly entertaining nighttime distraction. But they are so much more than that. When we dream our whole brain is active, much as it is when we’re awake. Research suggests that dreaming may be the way our brain performs memory reactivation and consolidation. In other words, we process our memories when we dream.
Your brain also produces the chemicals that cause you to love and form strong relationship bonds. The love centers of the brain light up at just the thought of a loved one, and even the primitive parts of our brain are involved in romantic love. In turn, love increases circulation to the brain. This mutually nurturing relationship between love and our brain is just one of the ways in which our brain is central to more than just our nervous system.
From birth, your brain grows at an astounding rate. Parents know that the routine measurements of their child’s head is an important part of tracking growth. Head circumference gives information about the size of the brain and its proper development throughout childhood. By the time a child is eight years old, the foundation for future learning and success has already been built.
So, how do we actively support the health of this all-important organ over a lifetime? Eating a balanced diet, exercising, and using your brain in novel ways are all well-documented ways to support healthy brain function over the long term. Let’s take a closer look at each of these.
Feed Your Brain
There are hundreds of foods and nutrients claimed to support brain health, including chocolate and red wine. As wonderful as that sounds, not all of those claims are backed by science. By contrast, the tried-and-true foods that support the brain are well established:
- Green leafy vegetables. Spinach, kale, broccoli, and other leafy greens provide important nutrients for the brain such as vitamin K, folate, and carotenoids rich in antioxidants like beta carotene and lutein.
- Fatty fish. Wild caught, fatty fish provide an abundance of omega-3 fatty acids, an essential polyunsaturated fat that we must get from our diet. Fish provide omega-3 fats rich in EPA and DHA. One reason these healthy fats are crucial to brain health is because DHA is literally a building block for the brain, eyes, and nervous system. In fact, DHA is such an important fatty acid for the brain that it will take in DHA over other available fats. If you have concerns about consuming fish regularly, a fresh and high-quality fish oil supplement can be a big help.
- Berries. Cranberries, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries are not only delicious, but bright and colorful too. The natural plant pigments that create those brilliant hues are flavonoids that support our circulatory system and our brain.
- Walnuts. This wonderful source of healthy fat provides another omega-3 fatty acid: ALA. This is an essential fatty acid that also helps support healthy brain function.* However, for most people, it can’t replace the need for direct EPA and DHA. For vegetarians, or those who choose not to eat fish in any form, a quality algae supplement is an excellent, direct source of omega-3 EPA and DHA that doesn’t contain any fish.
Move Your Body
We all know we should exercise more, and as if we didn’t have enough reasons to do it, we now know that exercise influences brain health. Researchers at the University of British Columbia found that regular aerobic exercise seemed to increase the size of the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for learning and verbal memory. Interestingly, they also noted that resistance and muscle training did not seem to have the same effect. Their research indicated that the effect was both direct (stimulating circulation and hormone release) as well as indirect (supporting mood, sleep, and healthy stress levels).
Benefit to the brain was shown with two one-hour sessions per week, but 30-minute sessions spaced cumulatively throughout the week is considered equally beneficial. And just what was this magical and important exercise? Brisk walking. Walking is an activity that is often dismissed as not intense enough, but it’s an exercise with tremendous benefits. And since socialization is also important for our health, try walking with a loved one or group of friends!
Keep Your Mind Active
Researchers seem to be undecided about whether games, such as crossword puzzles, actually improve brain function. But there are some activities they do agree can help maintain brain function:
- Learning new skills. Higher levels of education are associated with better brain function later in life. Experts speculate that learning trains the brain to be mentally active throughout life. Continuing to challenge your brain with mental exercise may stimulate existing and new communications between brain cells, supporting brain function. Finding ways to exercise your brain is easy. Something as simple as taking up a new hobby or volunteering where you have to learn a new skill can be a fun way to enjoy exercising your brain.
- Using all your senses. Different senses activate different parts of the brain. So, using as many senses as possible when you learn something new means more parts of your brain will be involved in creating that memory pattern. You may have experienced this at a time when a particular smell suddenly brought back a vivid memory. Don’t just wait until a task requires other senses, use your senses to experience a task in a different way. For example: Notice the smell of the oil paints you’re learning to paint with. Close your eyes and experience the feel of yarn before you learn to knit it.
- Believing in yourself. It turns out, our attitudes about aging and the brain may help shape brain function as we age. Instead of perpetuating the stereotype of “senior moments” (which may make us less likely to work at maintaining brain function) believe you can help your memory, and then turn that belief into the action of practice.
- Using planning and memory tools. I’m going to admit, this is one of my personal favorites. This works for me and I can’t recommend it enough. Don’t make your brain remember everything! Put your glasses or keys in the same place every time. Use calendars and planners to keep track of important events like birthdays or meetings. Make lists and use maps or GPS to get places you don’t regularly go. Your brain does so much for you, taking up a little of the slack can go a long way.
- Repeating what you want to know. If remembering something is important (like the name of a new acquaintance), repeat what you want to remember out loud or write it down. This helps to reinforce the connection of memory. And to further reinforce this, do it more than once at different intervals. Don’t just repeat it several times within a short period, like cramming for an exam, but spread the exercise out over hours and even days.
Let the information here inspire you to think about brain health more often, pick a few suggestions from this list to practice regularly. Your brain will thank you.
“The brain is like a muscle. When it is in use, we feel very good.”
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
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