The human brain is an extraordinary resource. It plays a leading role in manifesting consciousness. It is through consciousness we live and express ourselves. This is why brain health is important for quality of life. Since the brain acts as a command and control center for important body functions, brain health also has a significant bearing on our longevity. Rather than taking our brain health for granted we should concern ourselves with taking good care of it. Here are seven secrets for a healthy brain:
1. The brain is not static – The view that the brain does not grow or improve after adulthood has now been discarded. The brain continues to grow and develop throughout our lives. If we do not take care of it then it shrinks at the rate of 0.5% per year. Our brain can improve by adding new neurons, improving the myelination (coating) of existing neurons, and by creating new connections between neurons. There is no age limit when this can happen.
2. Sleep – Adequate sleep is the single most important thing for good brain health. It is during sleep that the brain is able to do housekeeping activity like getting rid of waste products, processing information, and carrying out necessary repairs and maintenance. We need 7 to 10 hours of sleep for good brain health.
3. Brain killers – Know things that are the brain killers. These are things that damage the brain:
- Stress – A mind body that is stressed produces brain activity that does not allow new connections to be formed. Lack of adequate rest and relaxation allows toxic waste to build up and prevents the healthy regeneration of the brain.
- Alcohol – We are all aware that consumption of alcohol changes our behavior and how we feel. This happens because alcohol has an immediate impact on brain chemistry. When our consumption becomes heavy and persists for long periods the damaging nature of alcohol becomes more prominent and can be seen through the development of brain lesions. Alcohol interferes with creation of new neurons and in housekeeping functions that restore brain health. Avoid excessive consumption of alcohol.
- Sleep Apnea – This is a condition that disrupts sleep. Most commonly this happens because of blocking of airways. Sleep apnea is a very dangerous condition and must be treated immediately. From the point of view of the brain it literally starves the brain of oxygen. It is also damaging to the brain because it prevents restful sleep.
- Sugar – Diabetes and high levels of blood glucose has been linked to elevated risk of dementia and a smaller hippocampus. It is now coming to light that chronic consumption of sugar damages our liver and our overall health and this can also impact our brain health. Avoid foods where sugar has been added.
- High saturated fat – A diet of high saturated fat has been associated with degradation of learning and memory capacity. Avoid food that has been fried or cooked at high temperatures in oil or lard. It is when high saturated fat is combined with high temperatures as in frying or baking, is that when it is most damaging.
4. Brain foods – BDNF (Brain derived nerve growth factor) is a protein generated by neurons. It is considered as a “fertilizer” for the brain that helps with repair of existing neurons and growth of new ones. It is widely believed that eating adequate quantity of “brain foods” helps with the generation of BDNF in adequate levels in the brain. This in turn helps regulate hunger and prevents binge eating. Here are some of the important “brain foods”:
- Omega- 3 fats and DHA are the most important brain food. You can get this from fish or algae. (Warning: farm-raised fish may not have these.)
- Curcumin (Present in Turmeric) is a star brain food. Adding crushed pepper to turmeric helps with absorption of Curcumin.
- Antioxidants and flavonoids found in: nuts (Pecans, pistachios, walnuts), leafy greens and vegetables (Spinach, beet, and tomato), and fruits (apples and berries) are all great brain foods.
- Coffee and tea- Both these are great brain foods. The only warning is that these should be had in moderation so that they do not interfere with sleep. The other warning is that these should be consumed without sugar.
5. Meditation & Yoga – Our brain activity can be measured as electrical signals. Various activities can have different frequency of electrical activity. Normal activity has “Beta waves” associated with it. What is important for brain health is brain wave activity that has “Alpha waves” or “Theta waves”. Usually these are generated when we are relaxed or sleeping. Meditation can help with relaxing the mind-body and generating beneficial brain activity. Regular practice of yoga can help with reduction of stress levels, improved sleep, and improved brain health.
6. Exercise and activity – A brain is healthy when it is adequately stimulated. This means you have to be physically and socially active. Adequate amount of physical activity is a must. This may include walking or jogging, playing a physical game such as tennis or basketball, swimming or hiking, etc. Regular social interaction and activity is also mandatory. (Sorry spending time of Facebook does not constitute social activity!)
7. Challenge your brain – The brain has a tremendous capacity to expand when challenged. A brain that is not challenged can wither from disuse. The brain is also incredibly lazy and quickly devises shortcuts in order to avoid working hard. You have to push it and take it out of its comfort zone to challenge it. When this happens the brain grows and expands. Learning new things, playing memory games, going to new places, starting new hobbies, solving puzzles and challenges, are all great ways to keep your brain in top shape. It is never too late to start.
The brain is an incredible organ. Even more incredible is the fact that we have the power to shape it and keep it healthy. Santiago Ramon said, “Any man could, if he were so inclined, be the sculptor of his own brain”. Are you ready to take matters in your own hands and sculpt your brain into a healthy and incredible instrument for good?
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