6 Steps to Boosting Your Brain Health
Are you having a harder time remembering things, staying focused on a certain task, or thinking clearly? You could be suffering from an inflamed brain. Thankfully, there are many things you can do to boost your brain health.
Your brain is often referred to as the “control center” of your body. Beyond helping you to think, remember, and act 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 slow cognitive decline and stave off chronic—often uncurable—diseases like Alzheimer’s. By supporting the six pillars of brain health, you can boost your brain’s functioning.
The health of your brain is influenced by six fundamental pillars:
- Stress reduction
- Sleep and relaxation
- Medications and supplements
- Food and nutrition
As you can see from the list, boosting your brain health involves many aspects of your daily life. In this blog, we’ll go through each one of these pillars of brain health before diving deeper into specific and actionable strategies surrounding food and nutrition. For an effective start, pick the pillar that is the easiest place for you to begin and then take the simplest first step in that area.
Step 1: Exercise for brain health
If there’s only one thought for you to take away from this blog, this is it: Exercise is a magic bullet when it comes to your 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 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 such as pushing or pulling weights or other heavy objects (like groceries). This 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.
Step 2: Stress reduction for brain health
While stress is a part of everyone’s life. Chronic stress that is not addressed can have detrimental effect on your body and mind. In fact, 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”). Once the threat is gone, however, the stress response relaxes, and your body and brain can regain their normal (“low/no stress”) balance. However, when that stress lingers on for days, weeks, and months (or longer), it becomes long-term or “chronic” stress. It’s this type of stress that can negatively impact your brain.
While you can’t eliminate stress entirely, 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 or to things you truly don’t have the time to take on. Saying no to certain things or turning down unnecessary projects may help reduce the amount of stress you feel. A helpful way to gauge whether or not you should say “yes” or “no” to something is to ask yourself:
How will I feel about saying “yes” to this request in 10 minutes, 10 hours, 10 days, 10 months?
If you know you won’t feel good about saying “yes”, then “no” or “not at this time” may be your best response.
Another strategy to reduce stress is to take a step back regarding the specific problem at hand. Perspective – and a few deep breaths – can help you to see your current situation more clearly, enabling you to make better decisions and avoid turning it into an unmanageably large issue.
Additionally, calming the mind through meditation or guided imagery can help reduce the feelings of stress by refocusing your attention on something positive and soothing.
Step 3: Sleep for brain health
Getting your 7-9 hours of sleep each night helps your mood and ability to manage stress. Sleep also allows you to be better able to plan and run your busy life to ensure that you 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 foster a 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.
Another strategy to help you get more sleep is to create a relaxing bedtime routine. Your bedtime 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 a guided meditation, reading a book, or having a warm relaxing bath. Ultimately, whatever helps you get your sleep is going to also help your brain.
Step 4: Socialization
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.
Step 5: Food and nutrition for brain health
What’s on your plate can be a powerful tool to boost your 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.
Here a few of the key foods and nutrients you can add to your plate 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 and seeds such as flax, chia, walnuts, and soy.
Plants contain more than vitamins and minerals, they’re also a source of fiber and antioxidant phytochemicals. Eating more plants helps more than only your brain, it’s also associated with better heart health and weight maintenance.
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
Yes, you read that correctly – chocolate – specifically, dark chocolate – is good for your brain. Both 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 (greater than 70% cocoa) and unsweetened chocolate.
Coffee and teas
Did you know that caffeine can help to improve your memory and ward off dementia? For those individuals who tolerate coffee and do not suffer from adrenal issues (wired & tired), caffeinated coffee can have beneficial effects on brain health. Drinking black coffee is recommended. In addition to being a source of caffeine, black and green teas also contain antioxidants for brain health.
Moderate consumption of red wine
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.
You can also get resveratrol from eating organic red grapes. Enjoy red grapes with some walnuts for a brain-boosting snack.
Whole grains like gluten-free 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 your healthcare practitioner 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. 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.
Step 6: Medications and supplements
Depending on the state of your personal health, you may be advised to take medications or supplements. These can be important to reducing your risks for serious conditions and slowing down the progression of diseases. Some of the medical conditions which are linked to deteriorating brain health include:
high blood pressure, diabetes, and excess weight. These conditions can increase your risk of cognitive decline (reduced memory and ability to think) and dementia.
The functional medicine approach identifies the root cause of these and other conditions that can lead to cognitive decline and puts you on a path to better brain health. If you’re interested in learning more about how you can implement these six essential brain health strategies into your life, ask your healthcare practitioner or contact us today.
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The contents of this blog are intended for educational purposes only. The information presented here is not a substitute for proper medical attention, diagnosis, or treatment by a qualified healthcare professional. Always seek the advice of your healthcare provider before starting or making any changes to an existing treatment plan, exercise program or dietary regimen, and before using nutritional supplements.
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