Brain Health: How to Keep Your Mind Healthy Your Whole Life
By Dr. Anne Zauderer
Our mind is a precious thing. On a very basic level, it is what keeps us alive by regulating our basic functions: our hunger, our breath, our digestion, our heartbeat. However, on a more personal level, it is our memories, our personality, our knowledge, and our drive. It truly is a precious thing. Protecting the health of our mind should be a lifelong endeavor.
In this article, I want to give you some tools that you can use to keep your mind healthy and young. This sort of an endeavor is a marathon, not a sprint. It involves stepping outside of your comfort zone and trying new things. In fact, what you are doing right now (reading this article) is great for your brain health! So keep up the good work…
In order to survive, our brain needs two basic things: fuel and stimulation. We fuel our brains with oxygen and the right nutrients (we’ll talk more about the nutrients you need for brain health later in the article). Stimulation to the brain comes from our sensory system: smell, sight, touch, taste, and sound. It’s all of the stimulation that the brain receives that causes it to grow. Having the right stimulation, new stimulation, and frequent stimulation are the keys to maintaining a healthy brain.
We are born with all of the brain cells (called neurons) that we will ever need over a lifetime. However, as an infant, we only have basic connections between those brain cells. As a child acquires more and more skills, more connections develop. Kids will make upwards to 90% of the connections in their brain by the age of 5, so a lot of learning happens early in life! However, we all know that we are able to learn new skills throughout our entire life. So how do we learn those new skills?
By making more brain connections! We make these connections by stimulating the brain.
To understand how important stimulation is to the brain, you want to think about the brain like a loop. The brain initiates certain actions in the body. Some of those actions are voluntary, such as walking and talking; however, some of those actions are involuntary such as breathing and digestion. These are critical functions for the body; however, they are only half of the story. The other part of the “brain loop” is the sensory information that the brain receives. Our brain is constantly gathering information about how the body is moving and about our environment. With all of the information the brain gathers, it then can appropriately tell the body how to respond. But it’s this “gathering of information” that stimulates new connections in the brain. The brain makes the body move, but it’s the movement of the body that fuels new connections being made in the brain.
Here are a few ways you can provide sensory information to the brain to build or strengthen connections in the brain:
1. Move your body!! I can’t stress this one enough. Find an activity that you enjoy and get out and do it! Whether it’s swimming, Tai Chi, aerobics, Cross Fit, yoga, biking, walking, or playing pickleball (trust me, it’s a real sport), find new and different ways to challenge the movement of your body. The key with physical movement and building brain connections is to constantly be changing it up and frequently trying new things.
2. Stimulate your senses intentionally. Our sensory system is a powerful thing. Our brain is constantly gathering information about our environment. The smell of fire can cause our body to leap into action, the smell of cookies can make our mouth start watering, and the sensation of heat on our skin can cause us to withdraw our hand from a hot stove. Interestingly, a lot of sensory information our brain is collecting is mostly unconscious. However, we can consciously choose to stimulate our senses in very powerful ways. Here are a few ideas for you to stimulate your senses:
• Turn down all the “noise”. Turn your TV off, put away your smart phone, and be aware of your senses. Meditation is a great way to calm the mind and practice sensory awareness.
• Go for a walk in nature—be aware of what you are hearing, smelling and seeing. This will make your senses more acute.
• Play classical music. Classical music can have a calming effect on the brain.
The two different brain hemispheres are attuned to different musical qualities. For instance, the right hemisphere processes harmony, interval, quality, timbre and patterns. The left hemisphere processes pitch, timing, rhythm, lyrics, familiar sounds, and rapid variance in volume. Listening to a variety of music and being aware of these qualities can provide powerful stimulation to the brain.
• Prepare food at home using a variety of spices. Using fresh, whole food ingredients in your meal preparation and being aware of all of the food and spice combinations can be a powerful sensory experience! Ditch the packaged, pre-prepared foods that are high in salt and preservatives (they use these chemicals to mask the flavor of poor quality food). For an easy recipe, whip up a fresh cucumber dill salad (recipe below!) and enjoy the ingredient combination.
• Get a chiropractic adjustment or massage to stimulate proprioception and touch.
CUCUMBER, RED ONION, AND DILL SALAD RECIPE
While English cucumbers are generally seedless, if any seeds remain, simply scoop them out by dragging a spoon down the length of the cucumber.
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 English cucumbers, peeled and cut in half lengthwise, sliced into half moons
1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
In the bottom of a large bowl, whisk together the vinegar, sugar, and salt. Toss in the cucumbers, red onions, and fresh dill. Cover and chill for at least 15 minutes.
3. Activate your mind. Do this continually by challenging your mind to do new things. You can easily do this by reading new books, trying challenging crossword puzzles or Sudoku, learning a new language, auditing a college course, finding a new hobby or skill, or even doing regular “brain games” through companies such as Luminosity or CogniFit.
Oxygen is critical for brain function. Without oxygen, brain cells will die within a matter of minutes. The best way to improve oxygenation to the brain is … exercise! Exercise will work the heart muscle to help it pump and transport oxygen in the blood more efficiently. Also, the better shape you are in, the better your body inherently gets at transporting oxygen (think about how hard you huff and puff when you haven’t been to the gym in a while).
The second source of fuel that is critically important is the right nutrients/energy. The brain is fueled by glucose (this is why we are biologically programmed to love the taste of sugar). However, the body also has a back-up mechanism if glucose isn’t present (think of our ancestors that hunted and gathered their food —they would have periods where food wasn’t always readily available). If glucose isn’t present to burn as energy, the body will break down fat and convert the fatty acids into ketones for energy. New research is showing that these ketones have a very protective effect on the brain. Additionally, research is also showing that the over-consumption of carbohydrates and sugar can have a negative impact on the brain, and lead to neurodegeneration (some sources are now calling Alzheimer’s “Type III Diabetes”).
So here is a short list of ways to fuel the brain for optimal performance:
1. Consume coconut oil, which is high in Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs). MCTs are very readily converted by the liver into ketones. This can have a very protective effect on the brain. I recommend using coconut oil as much as possible in cooking. You can also purchase straight MCT oil and add it to smoothies or your coffee in the morning.
Side Note: The morning is a great time to consume MCTs because, overnight, your body has already switched into “fat burning mode” while you were asleep. Eating good, quality fats in the morning will promote the burning of fats for fuel.
2. Decrease your intake of sugar and simple carbohydrates. Not only will this help protect against diabetes, elevated triglycerides, inflammation … etc., this is also extremely protective for the brain. Do a 30-Day Food Challenge. Give up all grains and sugars for 30 days and see your cognitive performance and mood improve!
3. Eat high antioxidant foods that decrease inflammation. Inflammation in the brain can lead to “brain fog”, memory changes, and neurodegenerative changes. Protect your brain with foods and nutrients that decrease inflammation. Here are a few of my favorites:
• Tumeric (curcumin)—use as a spice in cooking and take it as a supplement
• Leafy greens (spinach, kale, swiss chard)
• Nuts and seeds
• Coldwater fish
• Colorful vegetables (bell peppers, beets, sweet potatoes…)
The key to optimal brain health is making a lifestyle out of all of these recommendations. All of these things, combined with getting the right amount of sleep and developing a low-stress lifestyle, will keep our brains active and healthy!