7 Habits That May Actually Change The Brain, According To Science
I was reading an article recently about our precious brain, it never stops working, even while we sleep. It requires an extraordinary about of nutrition to keep it maintained and functioning.
There is little evidence for instance that Omega -3 fatty acids (fish oil) and green smoothies can do anything for our brains above and beyond generally good nutrition. So what does science actually tell us can help our brains?
Physical activity is clearly linked to brain health and cognitive function. People who exercise appear to have greater brain volume, better thinking and memory skills, and even reduced risk of dementia. Exercise is also thought to help generate new neurons in the hippocampus, the brain area for learning and memory, which is known to lose volume with age, depression and Alzheimer’s disease.
A recent study in the journal, Neurology, found that older people who vigorously exercise have cognitive test scores that place them at the equivalent of 10 years younger. This is likely due to the increased blood flow to the brain that comes from physical activity.
Starting an exercise routine earlier in life is the way to go as the effects are more pronounced the younger one begins. More research will be needed, but in the meantime, enough research has shown exercise to be beneficial to the brain that its pretty hard not to at least acknowledge it (even if we don’t do it as much as we should).
The exception to the exercise is high impact sports, which have been linked to brain damage and dementia, as even small impacts can accrue over time.
Foods and Spices
The brains main source of food is glucose. In fact, it requires 120 grams of glucose per day to maintain brain function. The source and quantity of glucose (sugar) does matter: Eating highly processed carbs, which break down very quickly, leads to a blood sugar peak, then crash (which your brain certainly feels) these are not real brain food. However, eating whole, unprocessed foods leads to a slow, steady rise, and a more constant source of energy–and sustains brain functioning for longer.
Interestingly, Omega-3 fatty acids do not serve as fuel for the brain, lipids (fat) molecules are too large to cross the blood-brain barrier but they appear to help reverse some brain damage and inflammation.
The evidence is inconclusive that plant-derived antioxidants can improve cognitive function, at least in isolation. While some studies haven’t found an effect, others have suggested that compounds in foods like cocoa and blueberries may do some good. Not surprisingly, Mars Inc. has funded a lot of research in this area.
Now interestingly, there are a volumes of research for the use of Turmeric, the base spice in any curry. If used regularly, has been linked to reduced incidence of Alzheimer’s disease, presumably for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
What research tells us is that just consuming one thing will not cut it – for instance, adding blueberries to an otherwise mediocre diet probably won’t do much. But a diet low in sugar and high in whole foods, healthy fats and as many colourful fruits and veggies as you can eat, cumulatively is the best things you can do for your brain.
Vitamins and Minerals
Though there’s little evidence that a multi-vitamins do much for brain function. Vitamin B12 on the other hand is critical for the function of the central nervous system. A deficiency can lead to cognitive symptoms like memory loss commonly seen in poorly managed vegans and vegetarians. Vitamin D is also critical for brain health–and while there’s no causal link, low levels have been linked to cognitive decline. Iron is another mineral that the brain needs to function well, especially for women who are menstruating, since it carries oxygen throughout the body.
Coffee lovers know instinctively that coffee does something very good for their brains in the morning, and indeed our cognition jumps into gear. Coffee does appear to effect some real change, not only does it keeps us alert, by blocking adenosine receptors, but coffee consumption has also been linked to reduced risk of depression, and even of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. This is partly because, like cocoa, compounds in coffee improve vascular health, and may also help repair cellular damage by acting as antioxidants.
Scientific evidence for meditation’s effects on the brain has really just exploded in the last 5 or 10 years. Although there are thousands of years of anecdotal evidence that meditation can help a person psychologically and perhaps neurologically. Meditation has been linked to increased brain volume in certain areas of the cerebral cortex, along with less volume in the brain’s amygdala, which controls fear and anxiety. It’s also been linked to reduced activity in the brain’s default mode network (DMN), which is active when our minds are wandering about from thought to thought, which are typically negative and distressing. Meditation also seems to lead to changes to the white matter tracks connecting different regions of the brain, and to improved attention and concentration.
Education or Mental Activity
Staying mentally active over the course of a lifetime, starting with education, is tied to cognitive health–which explains why crosswords and Sudoku are thought to help cognition. Mental activity may or may not keep a brain from developing disease (like Alzheimer’s), but it certainly seems to be linked to fewer symptoms an it fortifies us with what’s known as cognitive reserves.
The brain does an awful lot of work while we’re sleeping–in fact, it really never sleeps. It’s always consolidating memories and pruning – removing unnecessary connections and re-enforcing and making space for necessary connections . Sleep deprivation, just a little of it, takes a toll on our cognitive health. It’s linked to worse cognitive function, and poorer attention, learning and creative thinking. Sleeping for about seven hours per night seems to be the number to aim for.
Now you have the prescription for brain health, do as many of these things in a day as possible, your brain may appreciate it more than you think.