Brain Health: An Owner's Guide To A Happy, Resilient, and Stress Free Brain
There’s nothing more important than a healthy brain to foster a meaningful and vigorous life. Keeping your memory, focus, and coordination in tip top shape is more important than ever, especially during the pandemic.
To be honest, the reason I’m writing this post is that I recently found myself placing the used supper dishes in the refrigerator. A little startled, I worried about what this might mean. Is it a sign of dementia, a stress reaction? Is the relentless and prolonged turmoil we are experiencing affecting my brain?
For me, January 6 catapulted stress levels to an entirely different dimension. Waiting to win a spot in line to get vaccinated hasn’t helped either.
Our brains are under siege. We’re not just stressed. We are stressed out. Scientists call this unprecedented stress the allostatic load. The accumulated stress you are exposed to damages your body. But mostly, it damages your brain.
Basically, the continued isolation, worry, and grief take a heavy toll on your brain as it tries to cope with on-going attacks to your sense of safety and well-being. We are in a negative cycle of chronic fatigue, worry, frustration and inability to cope.
The double whammy is that when you add all the above to our normal unhealthy lifestyles, like poor food choices, couch potatoism, poor sleep, overwork, dull routines, and bad relationships, you get the perfect storm of shrinking brains, poor memory, and mental health disruptions.
Thankfully, there are steps we can take to offset and remedy some of the negative impacts of the persistent traumas of the past year.
Taking Care of Yourself
Keep in mind that whatever you are experiencing, a little self-care can go a long way to foster overall well-being and especially brain health. With some effort you can re-balance your brain emotionally and physically.
To me, self-care means you care enough about your brain to commit to confronting the obstacles challenging its health. There is no part of you more important than your brain. Simply speaking, you are your brain.
Let me add, that if you have children, all of what I say here goes double for them. The developing brain must be closely nurtured and protected.
My sons and I have a mantra that we recite when we feel challenged: Change that Brain! Change that Brain! When we recite this mantra, we are reminded to do the things that will help keep our brains healthy and vital. Keeping our brains healthy and staving off dementia demands commitment and effort. It’s not always easy, but it’s worth it.
There are solutions.
About this Owner's Guide
6 Healing Actions
I’ve created this guide to help you understand and implement specific science-based strategies to improve your brain’s health in a time of stress. I call these the 6 Healing Actions for Brain Health.
All 6 Healing Action recommendations are accepted scientific approaches to dealing with the challenges facing all of us. By considering these behaviors, you will potentially see real changes in how your brain functions over time, including a balancing of the major neurotransmitters such as serotonin, glutamate, dopamine, acetylcholine, norepinephrine and GABA. Insulin-like Growth Factor (IGF-1) will increase promoting angiogenesis and neurogenesis. You will feel better, think better, remember better and experience a greater sense of well-being.
Harvard Medical School has stressed that a adopting a healthy lifestyle can assist in avoiding Alzheimer's disease.
I have not overly stressed scientific references for the sake of simplicity. However, I have made references to articles or videos that may be helpful to you in furthering your efforts.
Keep in mind that the information in this post is for educational purposes only. Whenever you are making changes always consult your physician or mental health provider for advice.
Your Brain Under Stress
Before jumping into solutions, let’s take a brief journey into our fried brains.
Recent research indicates there are three types of stress that damage our brains. Stresses that:
Are unpredictable and random. Stressors we cannot anticipate. Who could anticipate an armed insurrection or a global pandemic?
Have no time limits. Chronic stresses, such as financial, health, and safety concerns. Worrying about Covid-19 for over a year qualifies.
Must be handled alone. A lack of social support intensifies stress responses. Zoom notwithstanding, Except for my wife, I haven’t hugged a single family member since last January.
There are several ways that our brains are harmed by the stressors we now face:
The physical structure of your brain changes causing deterioration in brain function. Yes, your brain actually changes!
The size of your brain begins to shrink. Chronic stress reduces the volume of the hippocampus affecting learning, emotion, and memory. And you’re wondering why you are acting the way you are!
Memory noticeably diminishes. The ability to retrieve information is impeded by stress leading to perceived memory loss. Yeah, supper dishes in the refrigerator.
Your brain cells die. Some research indicates that stress can kill new brain neurons.
Mental Illness emerges. Exposure to chronic stress may predispose you to depression, anxiety, and other emotional conditions. Who isn’t depressed, anxious, and worried?
What Can You Do to De-stress?
There are a variety of steps you can take to mitigate the impact of stress in your life. Lots can be done. But first:
Things to Stop Doing!
Some things are just downright bad for your brain. Consider stopping or dramatically reducing them.
Smoking. Totally bad. Please stop. Smoking increases your risk of dementia by 50%. Try the Mayo Clinic formula to stop smoking.
Drinking. Some say alcohol is good for your heart but it ain’t good for your brain! Even moderate drinking has been shown to decrease brain volume.
Diet Sodas and Fried Foods. Death by a thousand cuts. Artificial sweeteners are considered neurotoxins and are to be avoided. Fried foods diminish cognitive skills, memory, and learning capacity.
Playing Contact Sports. Think football, boxing, and yes, soccer. CTE is a real danger, especially for kids. 130,000 children were reported to have brain trauma this year alone.
Multitasking. Thought of as great by corporate America, it’s bad for your brain. Very bad. Chronic Multitaskers suffer memory impairment, difficulty learning, and high stress levels. If you need help to stop multitasking, try the lifehack.org website.
Things to Start Doing!
Healing Action 1
Food: Always Feeds the Brain
The food we eat not only provides your brain with the nutrients It needs but also protects it from dysfunction and disease. The purpose of a good diet, brain wise, is to reduce inflammation and the resulting neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Good news for me!
The Mind Diet, Mediterranean Diet, and Dash Diet are all excellent ways to sustain overall health. The Mind Diet, a combination of the Mediterranean and Dash diets, is designed specifically to optimize brain function, reduce stress hormones, increase neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, reduce insulin sensitivity, and calm the brain. Properly followed it can significantly reduce the effects of stress.
The recommended Mind Diet foods are:
Good Brain Foods: green leafy vegetables and other vegetables, nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil, and red wine. I hesitate to include red wine in my recommendations. Alcohol is a brain toxin and should be consumed in marked moderation.
Bad Brain Foods: red meats (beef, lamb, and pork), butter and margarine, cheese, pastries and sweets, and fried and fast food.
Take a look at this short but informative video on the Mind Diet.
Diet, Depression, and Gut Health
Increasingly, researchers are finding that the food we eat can have a profound effect on our mental states. An entirely new field of Nutritional Psychiatry has evolved to incorporate these findings into mental health practice. Dr. Drew Ramsey, a leader in the field, has developed a well-planned approach applying nutrition to mental health concerns. Keep in mind, mental health is a form of brain health.
It's now increasingly understood that the health of your gut corresponds with the health of your brain. You have probably noted that when you gut is not feeling well you experience brain fog, lack of focus, and even depressive symptoms. Researchers at Johns Hopkins have indicated that your gut is similar to a second brain. They have dubbed this the Enteric Nervous System (ENS).
The ENS consists of two thin layers of over 100 million nerve cells reaching from your esophagus to your rectum. The brain and the ENS are in constant communication with the ENS potentially triggering major mood changes such as anxiety and depression if proper dietary habits are not followed.
Adhering to the suggested diets can alter the way your brain functions, how you feel, how you think, and help keep the brain/ENS connection working properly.
Dr. Ramsey explains his Eat Complete program in this very informative video.
Healing Action 2
Movement Gives Your Brain a Boost
Regular movement has a powerful impact on brain health. It is scientifically well-established that exercise has numerous neurological benefits that should not be overlooked. Physical activity is a must.
Movement heals your brain!
Regular physical activity improves your brain by reducing stress, depression, and social anxiety. It improves mental health, cognitive functioning, and memory. This is accomplished by increasing levels of oxygen and blood vessel volume, decreasing stress hormones, enhancing positive neurotransmitters, and increasing BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor) which increases the survival of nerve cells.
The major neurological benefits derived from exercise are:
Decreased social anxiety
Improved processing of emotions
Prevention of neurological conditions
Euphoria (short-term) (Runner's High)
Increased energy, focus and attention
Hinderance to the aging process
Improved blood circulation
Decreased ‘brain fog’
Regular body movement can improve your chances of remaining healthy long into your senior years by reducing the incidence of dementia, diabetes, heart disease, and even some cancers.
Which Movements are the best?
Exercise is the real deal! The best approach is to combine aerobic and anaerobic forms of physical activity multiple times per week. Most major medical and physical fitness organizations recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise and two strength training sessions per week. Doing so will improve brain function and protect, to some degree, against neurological degeneration leading to various forms of dementia.
For more information on the benefits of movement access this video.
The American Diabetes Association has a good website, even if you are not diabetic, helping you create and maintain a vigorous exercise schedule.
Healing Action 3
Sleep cleans out the brain
Sleep is essential to sustaining a healthy brain. Proper sleep helps cognitive function, memory retention, and overall brain neuroplasticity. Lack of sleep has been associated with neurodegenerative changes that may lead to Alzheimer’s. Sleep cleans out the brain of toxins that have accumulated during waking hours.
Having good sleep hygiene can better assure you get sufficient sleep each night. Here’s what you can do:
Limit napping to 20 minutes.
Avoid caffeine and nicotine close to bedtime.
Exercise! But not too close to bedtime.
Stay clear of foods that might trigger indigestion right before bed. Generally, you should quit eating three hours before bedtime.
Make sure you get enough sunlight during the day to keep your internal clock in-check.
Try to keep a regular sleep routine — this helps the body know it’s time to sleep.
Keep your environment pleasant. Make sure your environment matches your needs; optimal sleeping temperature is between 60- and 67-degrees Fahrenheit, consider investing in blackout curtains, and wear earplugs if you’re easily disturbed by noises.
Not getting sufficient sleep can have a profound effect on memory.
Insufficient or excessive sleep causes a disruption in the consolidation of our daytime activities. It is now thought that between 7 and 9 hours of sleep each night is sufficient for maintaining memory and brain function in adults.
If you have trouble sleeping, look at this video from the Mayo Clinic. It may help.
Healing Action 4
Downtime invigorates the brain
Any attempt to reduce stress must include what might be called mental downtime.
Downtime can come in many forms. It can be a 20-minute nap during the day, a walk in nature, and meditating or performing relaxation exercises regularly.
Simple but effective downtime can be accomplished through napping, meditation, and nature time.
Napping is good for your brain. Taking a nap between 2 and 4 PM is the best time to nap. 20 to 30 minutes seems to be the sweet spot. Longer naps tend to increase fogginess. According to the Sleep Foundation: “Naps lasting 10 to 20 minutes are considered the ideal length. They are sometimes referred to as “power naps” because they provide recovery benefits without leaving the napper feeling sleepy afterward.”
By napping you increase memory retention, lift your mood, become more alert, release stress hormones, lower your blood pressure, and promote creativity. Napping gives your brain the time to replenish.
Learn more about napping and if napping is good for you at Scishow.
Learning to meditate can bring many benefits to your brain and overall mental and physical health. Research has found that regular practice of meditation can increase volume in the hippocampus leading to better memory while it decreases activity in the amygdala which is the source of fear and anxiety. It improves concentration and attention while reducing social anxiety and reducing self-referential thoughts that distract and cause anxiety.
Meditation has also been found to reduce pain, manage depression, improve creativity, and even increase productivity.
Even one minute a day can be helpful as a start. Connect with Headspace to learn all you need to know about how to meditate and support a regular practice.
Spending time in nature is excellent for your brain. It has been shown to raise mood and enhance mental health and emotional well-being.
According to the American Psychological Association, taking time to be in nature can improve cognitive function and improve mood, as well as feelings of emotional well-being.
Populations with greater exposure to greenspaces are more likely to experience better overall health then those not so exposed. Such populations also demonstrated lower salivary cortisol (a stress hormone), lower heart rate, and better outcomes for neurological disorders, cancer, and respiratory conditions.
How long do you have to be in nature to reap the health rewards? In a 2019 paper published in Scientific Reports indicated that 120 minutes a week in nature or near greenspace is necessary to reap the benefits. According to the New York Times:
"The study examined data from nearly 20,000 people in England who took part in the Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment Survey from 2014 to 2016, which asked them to record their activities within the past week. It found that people who spent two hours a week or more outdoors reported being in better health and having a greater sense of well-being than people who didn’t get out at all."
Healing Action 5
Doing something different brings your brain to life
Learning a new and challenging skill seems to be the best way to maintain a healthy brain. Doing something challenging improves memory, increases mental well-being and a sense of happiness, and helps create denser myelin which maximizes learning. Having denser myelin is especially important as we age since it tends to decrease over time.
The key seems to be to attempt to do new things that are challenging rather than doing things are may be difficult but about which your brain is familiar.
Ping pong is one of the best activities you can focus on. Not only does it help through the beginning stage, it keeps your coordination and brain acuity in top shape. Quilting is another valuable activity, especially as you are learning to coordinate complex shapes, sizes, and colors. For older people, learning to work a computer or digital photography has a similar effect. Learning to dance has powerful effects on brain function by improving balance, coordination, and movement. Taking up an instrument is a powerful tool that affects the brain in positive ways.
Scientists recommend that you not overlook daily tasks such as switching dominant hands, using chopsticks, doing things backwards or upside down or reading aloud. In other words, doing everything you can to disrupt normal patterns of behavior. This approach creates beneficial changes in the brain and supports long-term brain health.
Learn how you enhance neuroplasticity through learning new things from this Halo Neuroscience video.
Healing Action 6
Getting social invigorates the brain
The importance of healthy social relationships cannot be overestimated when it comes to brain health. The Cleveland Clinic’s Healthy Brains website says it best:
"A rich social network provides sources of support, reduces stress, combats depression and enhances intellectual stimulation. Studies have shown that those with the most social interaction within their community experience the slowest rate of memory decline. Happy marriages or long-term relationships and having a purpose in life have shown significant protective effects against age-related cognitive impairment."
Much of the negative effects we see in our brains are due to loneliness and failure to sustain close, supportive relationships. We are all social beings. There are tremendous health benefits to reaching out to friends and family, creating social rituals that bring us together, and developing hobbies and interests that connect us with other like-minded people. Pets can be source of great comfort and a sharing of affections.
There has always been a close relationship between mental health and brain health, as well as heart disease, cancer, and stroke. It’s important then to work at initiating and sustaining social interactions. There are three types of relationships you can work at:
intimate connections – with people who love and care for you, such as family and friends
relational connections – with people who you see regularly and share an interest with, such as workmates or those who serve your morning coffee
collective connections – with people who share a group membership or an affiliation with you, such as people who vote like you do, or people who have the same faith.
Each of these relationships provides a different type of connection that is beneficial to the health of our brains and our overall health. Each demands a different set of skills and approaches. Peek at the website highlighted above for hints at how you can reap the rewards of all three relationships.
Social relationships, according to neurophysiologists, include all the verbal and nonverbal communications between people such as gestures, facial expressions, and postures. They include “cooperation, competition, imitation, helping, playing, informing, questioning, negotiating, bargaining, voting, and bluffing.” All your interactions involve multiple brain functions. Without this social stimulation your brain health declines.
One thing you can do right away to foster social connectedness is to put down your phone, look up and start talking to people. Social isolation is increasing as our use of smart phones grows. Buck the trend. Our brains were not meant to stand alone.
Brain Health depends on a series of healing actions: the kind of the food you eat, the amount and quality of bodily movement and exercise you perform, the quality of your sleep, the down time you allow yourself, the the variety of new and challenging activities you indulge in, as well as the quality and intensity of the social relationships you forge in your life.
Without these 6 healing actions, you run the risk of a quickly deteriorating brain and a vastly reduced quality of life. As I mentioned above, taking heed of the 6 healing actions replentishes the major neurotransmitters such as serotonin, glutamate, dopamine, acetylcholine, norepinephrine, and GABA and assures they are in proper balance. BDNF is released that helps neurons survive and stimulates the growth of new neurons.
There is very little difference between what is good for your heart and what’s good for your brain. Don’t settle for poor memory, declining cognitive skills, and brain fog. If you adopt the 6 healing actions outlined in this post you can improve your entire health profile, including a dynamic, vital, and well-functioning brain. In other words, you will experience a more resilient, creative, and healthy you.
Use the websites, videos, and apps I have provided to give you the solid, scientific information you need to create a brain health regimen that you, your family, and friends can use now and in the years to come. purpose in age-
Extra Brain Reading
Daniel G. Amen: Change Your Brain, Change Your Life
Daniel Goleman: Altered States
Sanjay Gupta: Keep Sharp
Daniel E. Lieberman: The Story of the Human Body
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The information contained in this post is not meant to diagnose or treat any disease or to replace the advice of medical and health professionals. Information contained in links are the sole opinions of the owners of the websites referenced. Information on this site is for educational purposes only.