As the world emerges from what was for many a prolonged period of inactivity and stress, it’s not just our bodies that have become soft – our brains are inevitably affected too. Just as Dr James Levine coined the term “sitting is the new smoking” to describe the increase in heart disease and diabetes that accompanies too much inactivity, 2018 research from the University of California has found that sedentary behaviour is also linked to thinning in regions of the brain that are critical to memory formation.
Our Brain is Arguably our Most Valuable Organ
A healthy brain is crucial to our health, well-being, and lifestyle. It is the command centre for the nervous system and underlies our ability to communicate, remember, solve problems, make decisions, and live a long and full life. Moreover, a healthy brain helps us with cognition and emotional regulation in the present, in addition to assisting in staving off functional decline as we age.
However, Brain Health is in Decline
An estimated 6.2 million Americans aged 65 and older will be living with Alzheimer’s dementia in 2021. By 2050, the Alzheimer’s Association estimates that number may grow to 12.7 million unless something changes drastically. And while research is still evolving, evidence is strong that people can reduce their risk of cognitive decline by making fundamental lifestyle changes.
We know that exercise helps to improve our physical health, so what does it take to keep our brain healthy, give it a strengthening workout and boost our cognitive skills?
4 Tips for a Healthier Brain
1 – Reduce your Stress
While momentary stress doesn’t present a problem to brain health, continued stress endured for long periods does. Long-term stress interferes with cognition, memory, and attention and contributes to conditions such as anxiety and depression. This is caused by the overstimulation of the amygdala, which regulates our fight or flight response – a normal reaction to stressful events that are designed to be temporary.
Research has shown us that long-term, chronic stress shrinks the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for memory and learning. It has also established a connection between long-term stress and cognitive decline as we age, including contributing to the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease and dementia – that is, on top of the known ill effects of chronic stress on sleep patterns, inflammation, and heart health.
Adapt With Stress-Reduction Strategies
While we can’t always control what happens to us, learning stress reduction strategies will help us live happier and better lives while contributing to our brain health and cognitive function into old age. Here are some essential practices:
● Tai Chi
● Guided Imagery
● Progressive Muscle Relaxation
● Regular physical activity
● Connecting with supportive people
● Speaking with a therapist / finding professional help
● Doing something you love
● Spending time in nature
2 – Eat the Right Foods
The bacteria make ninety percent of the body’s serotonin in the gut. Serotonin is the primary hormone that ensures our moods are balanced and we experience feelings of well-being, calmness, and happiness. Conversely, low serotonin levels contribute to developing chronic conditions such as anxiety and depression, which can have long-term effects on our brain health. Thus, it’s imperative to keep our serotonin production optimal. This can be achieved by maintaining our microbiome and improving our gut health and digestion.
Best Practices for a Healthier Microbiome:
● Avoiding packaged and processed foods
● Avoiding foods high in refined sugar
● Avoiding foods fried in vegetable and canola oil and using a healthier alternative such as olive oil
● Avoid alcohol
● Drinking plenty of water
● Eating a diet rich in various coloured fruits and vegetables.
● Eating enough fibre, including whole grains and legumes
● Increasing consumption of fermented foods such as kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, Kombucha, and yogurt
Supplements that Support the Brain
While the diet should be able to support optimal brain health, the truth is that many of us do not consume enough of some nutrients or are not able to absorb as much as we should from our food. The following supplements have been researched for their supportive effects on the brain. Always talk to your healthcare practitioner before taking any nutritional supplement.
● Anti-inflammatory herbs such as turmeric (aka curcumin) help to reduce inflammation in the brain
● Amino acids such as GABA, which help calm the brain, reduce mental stress, and facilitate good sleep patterns
● A good quality probiotic can help support the gut as it manufactures serotonin
● Oils high in omega-3 fatty acids such as fish oil, flaxseed oil, or hemp oil help provide the building blocks for healthy brain cells
● B vitamins and folic acid help in the production of neurotransmitters
● Vitamin D is essential during the dark winter months. One study found that people with low levels of Vitamin D have twice the risk of developing Alzheimer’s
3 – Sleep Well and Get Plenty of it
Good sleep hygiene is crucial to maintaining good brain health. On average, you need seven hours of regular uninterrupted, quality sleep per night. If you fail to meet these requirements, your brain’s ability to think, regulate your emotions, manage stress, and balance your hormonal function can be impaired over time.
Fostering Healthy Sleep Habits
Here are our recommendations for healthy practices that promote great sleep – so that you wake up feeling refreshed every morning:
● Creating a relaxing bedtime ritual and committing to it (i.e., meditation or a hot shower)
● Going to bed at the same time every night
● Keeping your bedroom dark, quiet, cool, and comfortable
● Limiting screen time before bed / no screen time for at least an hour before your bedtime ritual
● Waking up at the same time every day, including on weekends
● Avoiding caffeine after 12:00 pm
● Avoiding naps
● Avoiding late-night meals
4 – Stay Mentally Active
Treat your brain like any other muscle; use it, not lose it. So often, life becomes habitual, and this affects our cognition. Therefore, it’s important to regularly challenge your brain and keep it stimulated daily to help prevent cognitive decline and reduce the risk of dementia later in life.
Here are some activities to consider integrating into your daily practice. Ideally, choose more than one and switch up your routine often:
Play strategy games
Do crossword puzzles, word games or Sudoku
Learn a new skill such as a musical instrument or craft
Learn a new language
Read a book
Socialise and have stimulating conversations or friendly debates with a social group
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