By Rosie Main
The brain is involved in everything we do, and like any other part of the body, we can strengthen it through exercise. The strength of your memory and ability to zero in on tasks depends on the health and vitality of your brain. What’s most remarkable, if not miraculous, is that our brain has a staggering capacity to adapt and change – even as we grow old. The ability of the brain to form and reorganize nerve connections in response to activities that cause us to learn, memorize, or experience new things is called neuroplasticity.
In this article, we’ll review different activities that will stimulate your brain and form new nerve pathways, as well as strengthen existing connections to expand your memory and sharpen your focus.
Brain stimulation – The brain continues to learn new skills and information throughout life and benefits from frequent intellectual stimulation. There are many options available, from brain games to reading books.
Brain games – By playing word games like Sudoku or crossword puzzles, stimulating your brain can be serious fun. Many board games that require memorization or strategy are also great for exercising your brain.
Make it a habit – Get into a daily habit of learning an unfamiliar word or fact. You can do this by looking up words as you read anything from biographies to news that discuss topics you want to know more about.
Get a new hobby – This can help you master a new skill or subject. You can also start on that do-it-yourself project you’ve been thinking about.
Un-stimulate – Chronic stress is the wrong brain stimulation. Meditation has shown to reduce stress and body inflammation by soothing the vagus nerve, an important nerve which controls the body’s immune response.
Brain–body connection – Besides brain stimulation, research has shown that overall physical health is linked to brain health. Regular exercise aids in the maintenance of a healthy weight range. In addition, it maintains stable blood-sugar regulation and normal cholesterol levels. Most importantly, it optimizes blood flow throughout the body and the brain, supporting the growth of new brain cells.
The benefits of physical health stem not only from regular exercise but also from other good health practices. Support your brain’s health this way:
- Exercise at least 30 minutes daily to relieve stress
- Get between seven to eight hours of sleep each night
- Refrain from using tobacco
- See a chiropractor regularly
- Maintain a healthy weight
Social stimulation – Relationships with family and friends are key factors in a person’s happiness. Regular social interaction promotes the formation of new brain cells and aids in brain repair. One study revealed that men and women who had the most social interaction had less than half the rate of memory loss as those who were the least socially involved. By visiting friends and family and being involved in community activities, you will protect brain health.
Social brain boosters:
- Spend time with your family and friends regularly and make them a priority
- Volunteer for an organization which surrounds a cause which you are passionate about
- Join clubs and become involved in community or spiritual activities that resonate with you
Finally, research shows that inactivity due to retirement leads to a condition called mild cognitive decline (MCI). This means your brain is performing as if you were much older than your actual age. To avoid this disorder, work for as long as you can and for as long as you feel motivated to do so.
Fuel your brain – As we’ve learned, brain exercises can increase the strength of your brain. Now, let’s discuss how to use nutrition to turn that exercise into noticeable changes.
The primary macronutrients in your diet needed to support brain structure and function are complete proteins and healthy fats. Protein is the second largest matter in the brain, second only to water, so it is important to nourish your brain with protein-rich foods. Proteins help neurons within the brain communicate with each other through neurotransmitters that are made from amino acids.
Fats from foods and supplements, including long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, are essential nutrients for brain structure. The body, however, cannot synthesize them. Instead, these long-chain omega-3 fatty acids come from short-chain omega-3 fatty acids found in the diet. Brain function relies on dietary intake of DHA, a key omega-3 fatty acid. DHA is a building block of the brain and is important to brain development and health. In addition, it is also important in development of the brain, as it is a key component of breast milk.
Food and the brain – The food you eat not only gives you energy to go about your day, but it is of crucial importance to cognitive functions and emotional stability. The smell and sight of food can alter the emotional states of the brain through, for example, the recollection of good memories.
The body produces hormones in response to eating, such as insulin and glucagon-like peptides (GLP) that enhance synaptic formation and signal transduction in the hypothalamus and hippocampus, the areas of the brain in control of learning and memory.
The parasympathetic activity by the vagus nerve, when stimulated by food intake, provides sensory information to the brain, influencing emotions, something that is being used therapeutically nowadays as a way for treating chronic depression.
The impact of food on brain development starts from prenatal life as the mother is responsible for the well-being of her fetus through proper nutrition, which means that malnourished mothers during gestation negatively influence the brain development in this important stage of life. Even during the early 2 years of development, good food is needed for proper neurons, glial cells formation, and proper nerve oxygenation for fast signal transduction.
Fat and brain health – Half of the brain is made up of lipids, and about 50% of the fatty acids in the brain are polyunsaturated fatty acids – either arachidonic acid or docosahexaenoic acid DHA. They regulate the formation of glutamic synapses responsible for plasticity and cognitive ability and neuronal differentiation. That is why omega 3 fatty acids, which we obtain mostly from fatty fish, are among the most important supplements that we need to incorporate into our diets to renew our brain membranes and protect it from the effect of aging and even improve the cognitive functions in people with Alzheimer’s disease.
We should stay away from saturated fats and trans fats as these types are extremely harmful and have been linked to exacerbation of cognitive decline in aging individuals.
Micronutrients and brain health – Micronutrients like vitamins and trace elements are of essential importance to brain development. Some mental disorders have been linked to lack of sufficient amounts of vitamins like vitamin B6, vitamin B9, vitamin B12 and folic acid which are responsible for the breakdown of homocysteine, a substance that accumulates in the brain of people suffering from Alzheimer disease and dementia.
Vitamin D is one of the main regulators of calcium homeostasis. If vitamin D levels are low, it leads to reduction of the buffering of accumulated calcium in the brain, which has been linked to depression as well as the buildup of amyloid peptide related to dementia.
Zinc is one of the most important metals in the brain necessary for nucleic acid formation and brain tubules growth. If its levels are low, it leads to learning and memory deficits and progression of some neurodegenerative disorders.
Iodine, the main element used for thyroid hormone formation, plays a great role in brain development and neuronal oxygenation in fetal life. Iodine deficiency can lead to irreversible mental retardation, in a syndrome known as “cretinism,” one of the most prevalent and preventable causes of mental impairment in the world.
Choline, the main source for the production of acetylcholine, is the most important neurotransmitter in the body. Low concentrations of choline can lead to neuromuscular problems and neural tube irregularities in children and dementia thereafter. It is very easy to obtain choline from the diet to improve brain health and banish brain fog, as choline supplements activate the biosynthesis of structural phospholipids in the brain and increase dopamine levels.
Another essential mineral that is very beneficial for brain health is selenium. It is a powerful antioxidant that helps relieve some of the oxidative stress on the brain, which is responsible for the onset and progression of many neurological diseases like Parkinson disease and multiple sclerosis. It was also found that selenium deprivation leads to depressed mood so it seems to help stabilize mood swings.
Amino acids and brain health – Neuronal signaling is done through neurotransmitters at synapses between axons and dendrites. Many of these neurotransmitters like glutamate, GABA, dopamine, catecholamines, monoamines, and purines like adenine are influenced by food and are the target for treating many neuropsychiatric disorders.
The amino acid tryptophan is converted into the neurotransmitter serotonin, whose lack ncreases pain sensitivity and development of bad behaviors such as increased aggression and anxiety, so its supplementation in the diet is beneficial in treating depression and improving mood.
The amino acids tyrosine and phenylalanine, the precursors to dopamine and norepinephrine, are responsible for enhancing cognitive performances, especially during stressful situations, making you more alert, attentive and focused.
Antioxidants and brain health – Turmeric with its main active ingredient curcumin is also a very powerful antioxidant and a strong anti-inflammatory. It increases brain levels of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), whose deficiency has been linked to depression and Alzheimer’s disease. It also helps clear the buildup of amyloid plaques in the brain, so it delays the degenerative process that occurs in dementia.
Flavonoids have neuroprotective properties by saving the neurons against the injuries promoted by neurotoxins and inhibiting neuronal cells apoptosis, along with suppressing neuro-inflammation and promoting memory, learning and cognitive functions. They also induce beneficial effects on the cerebrovascular system by promoting angiogenesis and subsequently new nerve cell growth.
If you have questions or need more information, text Rosie Main at (208) 859-6170 or email her at [email protected].