Updated: May 17
The brain is by far our most precious organ — others are good, too, but they all pale in comparison to the mighty brain. Because the brain works so hard around the clock (even while we’re sleeping), it uses an extraordinary amount of energy, and requires a certain amount of nutritional support to keep it going. It’s high-maintenance, in other words.
So what does science actually tell us that can help our brains?
Physical activity is pretty 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. Older people who vigorously exercise have cognitive test scores that place them at the equivalent of 10 years younger. It’s likely due to the increased blood flow to the brain that comes from physical activity.
Exercise is also thought to help generate new neurons in the hippocampus, the brain area where learning and memory “live,” and which is known to lose volume with age, depression and Alzheimer’s disease. Starting an exercise routine earlier in life is likely the best way to go, and the effects more pronounced the younger one begins.
Related : Is Your Lifestyle Too Sedentary?
The brain is a massive energy suck – it uses glucose way out of proportion to the rest of the body. In fact, it requires about 20% of the body’s energy resources, even though its volume is just a tiny percentage. This is justifiable since thinking, learning, remembering and controlling the body are all huge jobs. But the source and quantity of the sugar matter. Eating whole, unprocessed foods leads to a slow, steady rise, and a more constant source of energy–and it makes the brain much happier.
Beyond giving energy, dietary sugar (especially too much of it) also appears to affect how plastic the brain is, or how capable of change. Interestingly, omega-3 fatty acids appear to reverse some of this damage. And in humans, fatty fish has been linked to cognition, presumably because the fats in it make the cells of the brain more permeable.
Related : Are Carbs Good or Bad?
Vitamins and Minerals
There are certain vitamins that the brain needs to function. Vitamin B12 is one of the ones critical for the function of the central nervous system, and whose deficiency can lead to cognitive symptoms like memory loss. Vitamin D is also critical for brain health and low levels have been linked to cognitive decline. Iron is another that the brain needs to function well (especially for women) since it carries oxygen.
This is a funny one. Many coffee lovers know instinctively that coffee does something very good for their brains in the morning, and indeed our cognition seems a little fuzzy without it. 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.
Meditation can help a person psychologically, and perhaps neurologically, the scientific evidence for meditation’s effects on the brain has really just exploded in the last five or 10 years. 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.
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, since it fortifies us with what’s known as cognitive reserves.
Related : Can You Help Your Brain?
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 unnecessary connections. Sleep deprivation, and 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. The more sleep debt you accrue, the longer it takes to undo it. Sleeping for about seven hours per night seems to be a good target to aim for.
The bottom line is that doing as many of these things as you can is good for your brain; but if you can’t do them all every day, don’t beat yourself up. If you don’t do any, just integrating a couple will very likely help. And your brain may appreciate it more than you think!
About the authors:
Madur & Anitha Jagannath are certified Nutrition Consultants, in addition to their professions in technology and human resources. When Madur started feeling lethargic and slowing down, he started exercising regularly, became conscious of healthy eating habits and nutrition. He is an avid runner and does half-marathons often. At Voyage to Wellness, they attribute our reputation to the lasting customer relationships they have developed throughout the years. They believe in health & wellness and being fit, at all stages of people's lives.
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