Brain fog. Senior moments. And more serious concerns: Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia that affect over 7 million Americans each year. It is important to be proactive about brain health − especially as we age. There are many aspects to our minds that remain a mystery. Yet there is also a lot about the brain that science has figured out, much of it relatively recently.
One important factor that we do know is that, even though the brain is technically not a muscle, in many ways it functions like one. For your brain to stay healthy operate at its best, it must be nurtured, nourished, and “exercised” every day. Here are 10 ways to keep your mind flexible and working for you at any age…
#1: Get Enough Quality Sleep. Studies conclude that most individuals need at least 7 hours of quality sleep each night. While you sleep, your brain is busy repairing, clearing out toxins, and organizing all the input from the experiences of the day.
In fact, recent research conducted by the University of Pennsylvania found that “extensive wakefulness” may cause permanent damage to neurons responsible for cognition and alertness. For deep, healing sleep to occur, delta and theta brainwave states are best.
#2: Eat a Healthy Brain Diet. This means staying away from too much sugar, processed foods, and simple carbs. Eat lots of non-GMO, mineral-rich organic veggies and fresh fruits, as well as minimal amounts of complex carbs.
If you eat meat, keep it hormone-free and grass-fed and eat it in moderation. Red meat in particular contains certain forms of iron that have been linked to cognitive decline when consumed in large amounts. Too much sugar may also adversely affect brain health. The brain requires the most energy of all of the body’s organs, mostly obtained through glucose. According to research conducted at the University of California, Los Angeles, however, too much glucose intake can cause premature aging of brain cells.
Other studies have linked excessive glucose with memory loss and cognitive deficiencies. On the other hand, foods such as avocados, nuts, and seeds can give your brain a serious boost. Blueberries in particular have been found to protect the brain from oxidative stress and may even help prevent Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
#3: Consume healthy fats. Consuming healthy fats on a regular basis is simply a must-do if you are striving for a sharp mind at any age. Omega-3 fatty acids in particular − found in organic, cold-pressed olive oil (not heated), avocado oil, fish such as salmon and sardines, flaxseed oil, and chia seeds, among other sources — have been shown to support speaking ability, memory function, and motor skills.
Other studies have found that Omega 3s are a good dietary choice for people suffering with neurological conditions such as ADHA, depression, and bipolar disorder. In addition, organic coconut oil has also shown signs of being a brain-healthy fat in addition to its many other benefits.
#4: Exercise. Not only is moderate quantities of exercise good for your immune system, cardiovascular system, and even your gut, it is also healthy for your mind as well, according to research conducted at the University of California, Irvine’s Institute for Brain Aging and Dementia.
A report published in the journal Neuroscience states that getting the heart pumping through moderate amounts of walking, jogging, biking, or other activities has an effect on many parts of the brain, but especially on the hippocampus region. Exercise can stimulate the production of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) in the brain which can lead to strengthening and increased production of brain tissue.
Exercise has also been linked to a lower risk of diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and depression. Most importantly, exercise decreases inflammation. Inflammation has been linked to declining brain function in studies by Yale University and others.
#5. Drink Plenty of Water. In addition to a healthy, whole-foods diet and plenty of exercise, keeping yourself hydrated is key for maintaining a healthy brain.
The body of an average adult is made up of around 65% water. Lack of water has been linked to problems with memory, focus, brain fatigue, and “brain fog,” in addition to headaches, insomnia, and even volatile emotional states.
There have been numerous studies which have also connected dehydration to depression as well since lack of fluids may affect the production of serotonin and dopamine.
How do you know how much water to drink? Many experts recommend this: take your weight in pounds, divide that number in half and that is how much water you should be drinking in ounces every day.
Water quality, of course, is paramount. Be sure your water is filtered properly, especially for chlorine and fluoride, two substances that can wreak havoc on brain health. And be sure to stay away from all water bottled in plastic containers that may contain BPA.
#6: Detox your body of neurotoxins. Aluminum, fluoride, bromide, mold spores, too much iron and copper… the list goes on as to the environmental toxins that exist in our air, water, food, and household products that can effect cognitive function and brain health. Aluminum, in particular, has been connected to the onset of Alzheimer’s.
You can rid your body of these toxins by being proactive on several fronts. Include a regular detoxing protocol as part of your regimen for good body and brain health. Take probiotics and prebiotics to balance gut flora and eliminate the production of internal gut-related toxins which may break through the blood-brain barrier.
Remove any amalgam fillings you may still have in your mouth. Most importantly, begin the process of eliminating neuro-toxins from your environment, such as sources of mold and aluminum. Replacing commercial deodorants and aluminum foils is a great place to start. As is replacing toxic household cleaning supplies and other personal care products with eco-friendly, and health-promoting options.
#7: Meditate. Study after study over the last 20 years has confirmed the amazing effect of regular meditation. The most amazing connections between meditation and mental health has been findings by the University of Calgary in Canada and others regarding telomeres.
Telomeres are tiny bits of DNA found at the end of cellular chromosomes which protect genetic information. Shortened telomeres are associated with stress, disease, and depression. Regular meditators, on the other hand, were found to have longer telomeres overall, which is a very good thing!
There are dozens of ways to meditate, which is basically just the act of slowing down and going into a beta or theta brainwave state so that the brain and body has a chance to rest, relax, and heal. Some meditative modalities include present moment awareness, “open focus” meditation, transcendental meditation, deep breathing, visualizing, reciting mantras or affirmations, prayer, walking in nature, focusing on a creative act such as doodling or music-making, slow stretching, and certain kinds of marital arts such as tai chi. Even coloring has been found to have meditative effects!
#8: Keep learning. Keep your brain sharp by using it every day. Do crossword puzzles, play challenging games like Scrabble or Soduku, take up a new language, learn how to play an instrument, or read a book (especially on a new to you topic) instead of turning on the tube. Research has found that flexing the “brain muscle” through focused brain activity stimulates connections between nerve cells, increases neural “plasticity,” and may even lead to the production of new brain cells.
In addition, practice using all of your senses on a regular basis, including sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. Doing so will activate different areas of your brain. One of the best (and most fun) ways to do this is to vacation in places you have never been to before and expose yourself to the sights, sounds, and tastes of a whole new culture
#9: Spend time in nature. The Japanese have a practice called Shinrin-yoku, which literally translates to “forest bathing.” According to studies conducted at Chiba University and elsewhere, forest trees emit healing substances called phytocides which can ease anxiety, lower cortisol levels, and promote healthy sleep.
But what if walking in the forest isn’t your thing? That’s okay, just make a pledge to get your “hands dirty” in the earth at least once a week! A 2007 study published in the journal Neuroscience made a surprising discovery: the common garden soil bacteria Mycobacterium vaccae not only reduces inflammation but also seems to have an effect on serotonin-releasing neurons.
Gardening, yard work or even helping your kids make “mud pies” should do the trick to put you in a “jolly state of mind!”
Another easy way to get at least some of the effects of “forest bathing” is to inhale the aroma of trees oils such as pine, spruce, or eucalyptus essential oil. Place a few drops of essential oil in an essential oil diffuser and recreate the smell of the forest in your home!
And finally, here’s one more tip to keep you on the path towards brain health…
#10: Keep a positive attitude! Researchers have long known what negative thoughts do to the brain. In a nutshell, they narrow focus. This may be a good thing when your life is in danger. Then, an emotion such as fear may help you survive. But keeping a positive, upbeat attitude in general is way more beneficial in the long run.
Ground-breaking research conducted in 2011 and led by “positive psychology” pioneer Barbara Fredrickson (director of the PEP Lab at the University of North Carolina) found that a concept called “broaden and build” relates to the long-term benefits of thinking positive. An open attitude leads to greater skill building, connections with people, and flexibility and strength in all areas of life − both mental and physical. And according to the Heart Math Institute, a flexible mind is also equated with being able to “bounce back” quickly when challenges arise. This is called “resilience” and it is connected to not only brain health, but cardiovascular health and a longer, more fulfilling life in general.
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