Imagine if your brain was your actual best friend.
Not in a slogan-ey, "Remember, your brain is your best friend" way. But genuinely, if you treated your brain with the same depth of kindness, nurturing, and protection that you extend to your best friend.
Pretend it's your brain's birthday. And you're making a montage of all the amazing times you've had together. Like the time you went hiking and got lost. You guys were leaping over ditches and dodging cows, all whilst trying to decipher that map to get home. How about that exchange trip to Europe when you were teenagers? When you attempted to speak your best French. But now, recalling their reaction, believe you somehow may have massively offended your host's family. What was it you guys said to them?
Through highs and lows, your brain is your partner in crime, your wingman, your cheerleader, and the keeper of your most treasured memories.
Your brain is incredible.
And if your brain was your best friend, as an actual person, their health would be intrinsically linked to your happiness. You can't imagine life without them. So if they're having a bad day, you're there to get them through it. If they're not feeling well, you want to help them get better.
You two are in it for the long haul. Together, forever.
With our brains controlling cognitive, motor, emotional and tactile functions, it's easy to see how optimizing our brain health can support and enhance every aspect of our lives.
We all want to live better for longer. Right?
Small daily changes can make a big difference to our cognitive health. Making these 5 habits a part of your routine will help keep you, and your brain enjoying the good times for longer.
We're all familiar with the narrative around exercise.
It's good for us, so we should do it.
Without a doubt, regular physical exercise has a direct impact on our cognitive functioning. It can improve blood flow to the brain, boost the production of neurotrophic factors (which promote the growth and development of neurons), and improve cognitive function.
What type of exercise is best for the brain?
The hippocampus plays a crucial role in how we feel. It's responsible for emotional processing, learning, and forming short and long-term memories. This area of the brain is responsive to aerobic and resistance exercise.
Aerobic exercise: Running, swimming, cycling, dancing, and brisk walking will all raise your heart rate and increase oxygen flow to the brain.
Strength training: Resistance bands, kettlebells, weights, and isometric exercises can all promote neuroplasticity - the brain's ability to change and adapt.
Mind-body exercises: Yoga, tai chi, and Pilates promote relaxation, reduce stress, and enhance mind-body awareness.
How much exercise is needed to optimize brain health?
The recommended amount of exercise per week is 30 minutes x 5 times. Or 2 x 75-minute sessions.
In 2018 the American Journal of Psychiatry published a study by Professor Felipe Schuch. The purpose of the study was to look at all data ever published on how active people were in their daily lives and monitor how prone they were to developing depression in the future.
46 separate studies were considered, equating to 260,000 people. All were free from depression or any adverse mental health or well-being. The study followed them for an average of seven and a half years.
The results showed that those who were most active compared to the least active, were 15% less likely to develop depression in the future. And people who exercised for the recommended 30 minutes 5 times a week were 30% less likely to develop depression in the future.
But if you're struggling to reach that goal, don't worry. A 2018 study showed that as little as 10 minutes of light, gentle activity per day can result in meaningful changes in the brain.
The study used a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner to look at live imaging of people's brains as they exercised very very lightly, or sat still. The results showed meaningful change and electrical activity in the hippocampus region after just 10 minutes.
Sleep is perhaps the most effective thing we can do each day to reset the health of our brain and body.
How does sleep affect the brain?
Solidifies memories: Sleep prepares your brain so it's ready to soak up new information. It's like hitting the 'Save As' button on those memories from the day. It takes the information, processes it, and then moves it from a short-term memory folder to the more secure long-term archive.
Clears out harmful toxins: Your brain has a sewage system, the glymphatic system. During sleep, the brain clears out metabolic waste products that build up in the brain when we're awake. Including beta-amyloid, a protein implicated in Alzheimer's disease.
Creativity: During dream state, your brain weaves together huge amounts of knowledge. Dreaming picks out common themes and overarching rules so you wake up with a clearer understanding and fresh new thinking.
Cognitive function and performance: Sleep is crucial for optimal cognitive function. It improves attention, concentration, problem-solving skills, creativity, and decision-making abilities.
Food. It's a brain changer.
Studies show that a diet rich in nutritious foods can improve brain function and reduce the risk of cognitive decline.
A study carried out by Felice Jacka explored the impact of diet in existing mental illness. Those that were being prescribed drugs or therapy for moderate to severe depression were approached to take part.
67 participants were randomized and split into 2 groups. Group 1 had 7 sessions of social support. This wasn't so much a therapy, but more that they met with a member of the research team and chatted about subjects they enjoyed. Group 2 had a change in diet. They met with a clinical dietician and received education, support, and nutritional counseling. Group 2 were encouraged to follow a modified Mediterranean diet.
The results were staggering.
After 3 months, a third of those in group 2 met criteria for remission of major depression, compared to 8 percent of those in group 1.
Food is medicine.
Foods to boost brain health.
Berries. Research shows that flavonoids can help maintain cognitive function. The natural plant pigments that give berries their vibrant colors, also helps to improve memory. Colour is key here. A Harvard study found that older women who consumed two or more servings of strawberries and blueberries each week delayed memory decline by up to two-and-a-half years.
Omega-3 fatty acids. These essential fatty acids are normally found in oily fish, soybeans, almonds, walnuts, and flax seed. Research has suggested that omega-3s can improve memory, reduce inflammation, and improve cognitive function.
Green leafy vegetables. Spinach, kale, and broccoli are high in antioxidants and lower the risk of neurodegenerative disease. Broccoli also contains vitamin C and flavonoids to boost brain health.
Nuts and seeds. A 2015 study linked higher walnut consumption to improved cognitive test scores. Nuts and seeds are also rich sources of Vitamin E, an antioxidant which protects cells from oxidative stress caused by free radicals. A 2014 review found that vitamin E may also contribute to improved cognition and is thought to reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease.
How's your social life looking? Research shows that keeping your social calendar filled is crucial for brain health. From chatting with friends to even just the anticipation of laughter. Getting more social makes us smarter, happier, and more productive.
Laughter is the best medicine.
In 2006, a group of researchers exploring the connections between the brain, human behavior, and the immune system discovered that even just the expectation of laughter could increase levels of hormones that protect our health.
Following up on this in 2008, these researchers noted a significant decrease in levels of harmful stress hormones when individuals looked forward to laughter. In a study, participants who were about to be shown a funny video, experienced substantial drops in levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, by 39%. Epinephrine (adrenaline) dropped by 70%. And dopac, (a component that aids the creation of epinephrine) dropped by 38%. These were notable differences when compared to the control group.
It's good to talk.
Another study explored the potential protective effects of social engagement on cognitive decline in older adults. The study looked at 293 adults with an average age of 83 living in communities.
Participants underwent 3 Tesla magnetic resonance imaging. This type of MRI can measure the cellular integrity of brain cells used for social interactions. Results indicated a positive relationship between higher levels of social engagement and increased gray matter microstructural integrity in several brain regions, signifying potentially lower levels of cognitive decline.
Learn something new.
We hear a lot about aging and decline. But when it comes to your brain, it's a myth that you can't grow new neurons after a certain age, or you can't make new neural connections. Neuroplasticity is the brain making new neural connections, new synapses and that goes on your entire life.
The more you can learn, the more neuro-protective it is. That could be learning a new sport, language, or an instrument. The best activities to promote neuroplasticity are activities that incorporate mind/body coordination.
AKA embodied cognition.
This is the idea that your body, helps to grow your mind through the physical experiences you have.
States of the body, modify states of the mind.
Anything that involves hand-eye coordination: playing an instrument, taking up yoga, dancing, archery, golf - all of these involve manipulating your body. Your body is the bit that's connected to the world, and the only way the brain can talk to that environment is via the body. So with every new experience, new neural connections are being made. Even something as simple as getting outdoors and going for a walk on uneven ground. That uneven surface means your body is adapting and learning. Your foot, ankle, legs, and vestibular system are making dozens of micro adjustments, so you don't fall over. Doing something different keeps your brain firing.
There are things we all do, every day, that are non-negotiable. Brushing our teeth, going for a run, drinking plenty of fluids. All of these rituals are instinctive to us. And the reason we carry them out without question?
We know they're good for us.
Looking after brain health doesn't have to mean a complete lifestyle overhaul. But the little things you do today, will benefit both body and brain later down the line.