You’ll often hear your brain being referred to as the “control center” of your body. Beyond helping you to think and remember clearly, your brain helps to regulate the rest of your body, like your breathing, temperature, hunger, and hormones. It’s important to keep your brain as healthy as possible for as long as possible to stave off chronic—most often thought ‘incurable’—diseases like Alzheimer’s, and science shows us how to do this.
For the most part, your brain’s health is influenced by six fundamental pillars:
- Stress reduction
- Sleep and relaxation
- Medications and supplements
- Food / nutrition
In this post, I’m going to walk through each one of these pillars of brain health with you, before diving deeper into specific and actionable strategies surrounding food and nutrition (which I’m stoked about, given this post covers BOTH sides of my Practice; Functional Nutrition Counselling AND my NeuroChange Practitioner / Optimal Performance Leadership Coaching).
Exercise for brain health
Exercise is incredibly beneficial for physical and mental fitness, to de-stress, improve sleep, as well as keep your heart, lungs, and muscles healthy. What’s more, being physically active is a fundamental pillar of brain health. There are several types of exercise and you can bet all are beneficial.
Aerobic exercise, also known as “cardio” or “endurance” exercise, helps to get your heart rate up and your muscles warm. Examples of aerobic exercises include biking, swimming, running, and climbing stairs. This type of exercise benefits your brain because it helps to preserve existing brain cells and also promotes the growth of new ones.
Another type of exercise is strength or “resistance” training (my favourite these days, especially with regards to overall metabolic health) such as pushing or pulling weights or other heavy objects (even including your groceries!). In so many studies, strength or resistance training is known to help build and maintain strong bones. Strength training also helps your brain by enhancing your concentration and improving your decision-making skills.
Stress reduction for brain health
We all experience stress. Stress is how the body and brain react to a threat or demand (or “stressor”). Some good or ‘necessary’. Some not so much (likely the type you think of first). The reactions to this second type are what people are speaking of when you hear; “fight or flight.” They include increased heart rate and breathing and a heightened sense of focus. All of these physiological reactions are initiated by the brain when it detects the threat.
Once the threat is gone, the stress response relaxes and your body and brain can regain their normal (“low/no stress”) balance. However, sometimes that stress lingers on for days, weeks, and months (or longer) and becomes long-term or “chronic” stress. It’s this chronic stress that can negatively impact your brain. Chronic stress can effectively shrink the part of your brain responsible for memory and learning (your “prefrontal cortex”) and can increase the part of your brain that is receptive to stress (your “amygdala”).
While stress cannot be eliminated entirely (and that’s arguably not an ideal goal anyway), you can learn effective techniques to better manage it and preserve your brain health. One very practical—but often difficult—strategy is to “just say no” to things you don’t actually have to do (a question I pose to clients often). Turning down unnecessary opportunities to take on more responsibility may help reduce the amount of stress you feel.
Another strategy to reduce stress is to focus on the specific problem at hand in the present moment. This can help you see the current situation more clearly and make better decisions, to avoid turning it into an unmanageably large issue or perceiving the situation to be more difficult than it has to be (I will typically cover this in some of my CBT/REBT training with clients, touch on it in Mindfulness Practice, etc.).
Finally, calming the mind through meditation or guided imagery (or living your days in a place of Mindful awareness; something I can also help you with. Reach out here to ask me more about it) can help reduce the feelings of stress by refocusing your attention on something positive and soothing.
Sleep for brain health
Getting your 7-9 hours of sleep each night helps your mood and ability to manage stress (not to mention the numerous other restorative work your body does while we soundly sleep). Sleep also allows you to be better able to plan and run your busy life and ensure that you can have the energy to do what you need to do to maintain and improve your well-being (including the five other pillars of brain health).
One of the most important things you can do to get enough sleep is to set a realistic, regular sleep schedule. By going to bed and waking up at about the same time every day—including weekends and when you’re traveling—you “train” your body and brain to get on a healthy sleep schedule (which includes how our bodies begin naturally ‘winding down’ prior to bedtime, etc.).
Another strategy to help you get more sleep is to create a relaxing bedtime routine. That routine can start an hour (or more) before you need to sleep and can include things like dimming lights, putting your screens away (no more TV, internet, or smart phones), listening to soothing music or reading a book, or having a warm relaxing bath (which also goes directly to what I’d mentioned above about ‘winding down’).
Whatever helps you get your sleep is going to also help your brain.
Staying connected to a network of people you care about can help reduce stress, improve mood, and help to feel more supported in life. Your social network can include your spouse and/or partner, immediate and extended family members, friends, or others in your community.
You can socialize informally or spontaneously (like walking or chatting with a neighbor) or you can join organized activities like hobby groups, sports teams, or volunteering opportunities. The brain benefits of socializing even extend beyond people to pets. Studies show that pets can help you feel calm, improve your health, and enhance your social life, all of which can benefit your brain.
At the time of writing this post, we’re just over 3yrs into this global pandemic known as COVID. The lockdowns, social distancing, etc., has all taken it’s toll on our social wellness. I want to stress how important this pillar is, and encourage you to be social whenever it’s safe for you (and others) to do so.
Medications and supplements
Depending on your personal health situation, you may be advised to take medications, or to consider supplements. Both can be important in reducing your risks for serious conditions and/or slowing down the progression of various diseases or diagnosis. Some of the medical conditions that are specifically linked to deteriorating brain health include (potentially surprisingly so for some of you); high blood pressure, diabetes, and excess weight. These can increase your risks of cognitive decline (reduced memory and ability to think) and developing dementia.
Food and nutrition (or ‘Feeding Your Brain’) for brain health
There are several foods and nutrients that promote a healthy brain by slowing cognitive decline and reducing your risk of Alzheimer’s disease. University researchers developed the MIND diet to emphasize foods that are rich in antioxidants and critical brain nutrients such as vitamins and other plant-based phytochemicals.
Let’s go through a few of the key foods and nutrients that are shown to boost your brain health.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of essential fats that promote heart and brain health. Some of the best sources of omega-3s are fatty fish such as salmon, herring, and sardines. The MIND diet recommends at least one serving of fish each week. If you don’t love fish, omega-3s are also found in nuts (if able) and seeds such as flax, walnuts, chia, and soy. And please, as with anything, research (and/or contact your healthcare provider) as to whether or not this advice is best for YOU in whatever your current condition is – and I’m thinking, as a specific example, someone who is pregnant, and being aware of their intake of particular species of fish, etc.).
Plants contain more than vitamins and minerals, they’re also a great source of fibre and antioxidant phytochemicals. Eating more plants helps more than simply your brain, it’s also associated with better heart health and weight maintenance, intestinal health, and overall wellness.
Some of the top plants for brain health are deeply-colored fruits and vegetables like berries, leafy greens, and broccoli. The MIND diet recommends vegetables every day, at least six servings of greens each week, and at least two servings of berries each week.
Spices and chocolate
Spices and dark chocolate contain antioxidants called flavonoids. These compounds can help improve blood flow to the brain and reduce inflammation. These can be found in high amounts in turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, and dark and unsweetened chocolate.
Coffee and teas
Did you know that coffee can help to improve your memory and ward off dementia? Up to three cups of black coffee per day is recommended (not taking into account other diagnosis or medical concerns). When it comes to teas, black, green, and white/silver teas contain antioxidants for brain health (I often have 1 cup of this particular silver tea).
Moderate consumption of red wine
I know, I know…you’ve been waiting for me to (hopefully) say this…so has my wife! Resveratrol is a compound found in red wine and the skin of red grapes. It is also an antioxidant and is thought to be able to reduce cell damage and protect against the formation of plaques in the brain. Too much alcohol is not good for your brain either, so it’s important not to overdo it. Try to stick with no more than one glass of red wine per day if you’re a woman and no more than two glasses per day if you’re a man (or again, NONE, depending on additional medical complications). You can also consume resveratrol from drinking red grape juice, which has the added benefit of being alcohol-free (but you would need to be equally aware of added sugars).
Whole grains like oats and quinoa are rich in brain-healthy B-vitamins and fiber, making them an important part of the MIND diet. B-vitamins are essential so that the brain can create energy, repair DNA, maintain the proper structure of neurons (nerve/brain cells), and create essential neurochemicals for optimal function. B-vitamins also act as antioxidants to reduce the harmful effects of free radicals that can damage brain cells (or any cells).
Vitamin D is also known as the “sunshine” vitamin because your skin makes it when it’s exposed to the sun. Low levels of vitamin D are associated with increased risks for brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s. You can increase your vitamin D levels by going in the sun for 5-15 minutes three times a week. You may need slightly more time if you have darker skin or live in a more northern latitude. Try not to get too much sun without sunscreen as it can increase your risk for skin cancer. Vitamin D supplements are also widely available. Talk to me about a D Supplement, and we’ll work to find the right one for you.
Limit red meat
Consuming too many foods high in saturated fats is linked with an increased risk for heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease. As one point of study, the MIND diet recommends no more than four servings of red meat per week. Try limiting your red meat, butter, and dairy whenever you can and consider substituting with beans, lentils, and soy.
There are many things you can do to bolster your brain health. They include a number of healthy habits such as getting exercise, reducing stress, getting enough sleep, socializing with others (or with pets), and following recommendations for medications and supplements. When it comes to food and nutrition for brain health, try to get enough omega-3s, more plants, spices and chocolate, coffee and tea, vitamin D, and a bit of red wine. Limit the amount of red meat you consume.
Worried about your risks for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia? Want guidance around which foods, nutrients, and other lifestyle choices will help your brain stay healthy for years to come? Need a plan to help you embed these six pillars of brain health in your day-to-day life? Book an appointment with me today to see if my Clinic can help you.
* Remember: As with every post I write, I speak in many generalities – as I’m unable to cover every single aspect of every single person’s condition or diagnosis, dangers, etc., in writing. Please always be sure to consult your Practitioner or Care Professional (whether it’s me, or someone else), do your research, listen to your body, and keep asking questions. Please also note that if seeing me in clinic, ordering products from my site, etc., recognize I am earning through my products, services, and my clinic. While that has no bearing on the advice I give, products or services I offer, etc., it’s important you know.