I'm back! Today we'll talk about why it's so important to keep your brain at its best and some ways to make sure it stays healthy.
As we age, so do the functions of our brain. Taking care of your brain from a young age isn't just beneficial for reducing the risk of age-related brain disorders such as Alzheimer's and dementia, but also for reversing the effects of brain aging in general.
Brain changes occur 10-20 years before dementia symptoms occur and this is the case for many neurodegenerative diseases as well.
You shouldn't wait until you experience cognitive changes or decline, but rather make an effort in keeping your brain sharp and at its utmost potential by active engagement. Preventative measures ultimately keep your brain healthy and in constant use, thus limiting any decrease in cognitive function. Keep in mind that your brain is the control center for the rest of your body, so it's exceptionally important to make sure it works as it should be. Even the smallest cognitive change can have adverse effects because of the close link shared to every other part.
"A traumatized nervous system is like having a chronic illness"
You can feel all the effects of having a chronic illness if your brain and nervous system aren't functioning correctly, which can include chronic stress, fatigue, chronic pain, and not being able to rely on your body to support you as it should be.
Ways You Can Keep Your Brain Healthy
Challenging your brain is by far one of the best ways to keep it strong and at its prime. Treat your brain as a muscle- you need to constantly put it to use and work it so that its cognitive abilities remain strong. While exercise increases the proliferation of neurons, cognitive stimulation helps those cells survive (Kempermannn and Gage, 1999). Solving puzzles, learning a new language, reading, all increase cognitive reserves and enhances cognitive abilities. Try playing a game that forces you to think strategically, this allows for various neural circuits to be used, thus strengthing those connections. You need active engagement, and consecutively as well- activities that require mental stimulation will further develop neuroplasticity and increase brain reserve.
"The more intellectual stimulation you have, the more various neural circuits are used. And the more circuits you have, the harder it is for the changes associated with neurodegenerative diseases to manifest"
Because humans are naturally social species, social interaction is extremely important as well. Social connections help keep connections between your brain cells strong, so don't disregard networking with family and friends. Research proves that solitary confinement has a close link with brain atrophy and staying socially active can reverse these effects.
2. Decrease Inflammation
The Impairment of Neurogenesis and Neuronal Stem Survival
Though it may not seem as major as an actual stressful event, even negative thoughts have the ability to release cortisol and increase inflammation in the same way a stressful event would. Inflammation increases cognitive decline and the development of neurodegenerative diseases. Physically, the size of your brain and its reserves decrease with greater inflammation. Diet and sleep are two key things to remember when it comes to keeping your brain healthy.
A healthy diet is essential for boosting brain health and since our brain uses more than 20% of our caloric needs, what you put in your stomach should be as healthy as possible to minimize the risk of cognitive disorders and the shrinkage of brain tissue. You can increase your intake of anti-inflammatory foods (fruits, vegetables, healthy fats- omega 3 fatty acids) to directly combat the effects of inflammation. Additionally, antioxidants (vitamins C and A) are excellent because they reverse oxidative damage caused by free radicals and in turn, combat cognitive loss (damaged mitochondria and cell death in neuronal cells in the brain).
Sleep is just as important. Your brain needs rest too and allowing it to do so is one of the most beneficial things you can do for it. Getting an adequate amount of sleep (7-10 hours a night) is the best way to ensure time for your brain to take off and heal from draining activity. Consecutive sleep not only allows for your brain to rest, but maximizes its ability to consolidate, store memories effectively, and restore mental health. Furthermore, during sleep, your brain rids of harmful proteins called beta-amyloids which pile up in the brain and disrupt ties between brain cells, eventually killing them. This accumulation has been proven to cause Alzheimer's and dementia as well.
3. Mental Health/Mindfulness
Chronic stress can decrease neuronal plasticity while increasing neuronal cell death. Effective stress management such as positive thinking, acceptance, and mindfulness goes a long way in improving stress response. Mindfulness promotes positive structural and neuroplastic changes in the brain while decreasing cortisol levels through a more mediated stress response. Writing down any anxiety-inducing thoughts or stressors, especially before you go to sleep, helps your brain to not worry about them. And don't forget to slow down and breathe- your brain needs oxygen too!
4. Increase BDNF and Exercise
Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) promotes neurogenesis through improved cognition. The greater the intensity of a workout/exercise level, the higher the yields for a higher BDNF level. Physically, exercise, specifically cardiovascular exercise, promotes blood flow to the brain and creates positive neuromuscular changes, making it one of the top contributors to reverse brain aging (Guure, 2017). High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) workouts are amazing examples of a very effective type of exercise. Even just 15-30 minutes of exercise a day has been proven to reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, dementia, and even strokes. Additionally, exercise heightens the development of new neuronal cells and increases the connections between synapses. By exercising, you actually increase the size of your hippocampus which naturally decreases with age and you also increase nerve proteins that protect brain cells.
5. Protect Your Head
This should go without saying, but probably the most important way to care for your brain is by protecting your head. Your skull is amazing at what it does for protecting your brain, but that isn't enough- even moderate head injuries can cause cognitive impairment. As a result of an impactful fall, your brain can move around in your skull and damage the soft tissue because of the friction against the hard bone. If you do hit your head (even slightly), do not brush it off. Sit down for at least 15 minutes and after, evaluate yourself and how you're feeling. Also, prevent brain bleeds! Wear a helmet when you ride a bike and play high-intensity sports, wear a seatbelt, and take necessary preventative measures.
Thanks for reading!
Photo: Johan Swanepoel