Be a Sharp Thinker By Giving Your Brain What It Needs
By Terry Passano, RDN, LDN, CLT – University Dietitian
It's essential to keep your brain as healthy as possible. Your brain is sometimes referred to as the "control center" of your body. Beyond helping you to think and remember clearly, your brain helps to regulate the rest of your body, like your breathing, temperature, hunger, mood and hormones.
Your brain's health is influenced by six fundamental pillars:
- Stress reduction
- Sleep and relaxation
- Medications and supplements
- Food and nutrition
Exercise for brain health
Get moving. Exercise is incredibly beneficial for physical and mental fitness, de-stress, improving sleep, and keeping your heart, lungs and muscles healthy. It improves memory and enhances mood and learning. Being physically active is a fundamental pillar of brain health.
Aerobic exercise, also known as "cardio" or "endurance" exercise, helps to get your heart rate up and your muscles warm. This type of exercise benefits your brain because it helps to preserve existing brain cells and also promotes the growth of new ones. Examples of aerobic exercises include biking, swimming, running and climbing stairs.
Another type of exercise is strength or "resistance" training, such as weight training or lifting heavy objects such as groceries or some of the backpacks I see around campus. This is known to help build and maintain strong bones. Strength training also helps your brain by enhancing your concentration and decision-making skills.
Stress reduction for brain health
We all experience stress. Stress is how the body and brain react to a threat or demand (or "stressor"). These reactions are often called "fight or flight." They include increased heart rate and breathing and a heightened sense of focus. The brain initiates all these physiological reactions when it detects a threat.
Once the threat is gone, the stress response relaxes, and your body and brain can regain their normal ("low/no stress") balance. However, sometimes that stress lingers for days, weeks and months (or longer) and becomes long-term or "chronic" stress. It's this chronic stress that can negatively impact your brain. Chronic stress can effectively shrink the part of your brain responsible for memory and learning (your "prefrontal cortex") and can increase the part of your brain that is receptive to stress (your "amygdala").
While stress cannot be eliminated entirely (and that's arguably not an ideal goal anyway), you can learn practical techniques to better manage it and preserve your brain health. One efficient – but often complicated – strategy is to "just say no" to things you don't actually have to do. Turning down unnecessary opportunities to take on more responsibility may help reduce the amount of stress you feel.
Another strategy to reduce stress is to focus on the specific problem at hand in the present moment. This can help you see the current situation more clearly and make better decisions, to avoid turning it into an unmanageably large issue or perceiving the situation to be more difficult than it has to be.
Finally, calming the mind through meditation or guided imagery can help reduce the feelings of stress by refocusing your attention on something positive and soothing. The benefits of meditation stay with us well after our session has ended. Meditation helps us face the day with an increased sense of calmness, easing the stressful moments.
Sleep for brain health
Getting seven-nine hours of sleep each night helps your mood and ability to manage stress. Sleep also allows you to be better able to plan and run your busy life and ensure that you can have the energy to do what you need to do to maintain and improve your well-being (including the five other pillars of brain health).
One of the most important things you can do to get enough sleep is to foster a regular sleep schedule. By going to bed and waking up at about the same time every day – including weekends and when you're traveling – you "train" your body and brain to get on a healthy sleep schedule.
Another strategy to help you get more sleep is to create a relaxing bedtime routine. That routine can start an hour (or more) before you need to sleep and can include things like:
- dimming lights
- putting your screens away (no more TV, internet or smartphones)
- listening to soothing music or reading a book
- practicing meditation or relaxation techniques
- having a warm relaxing bath
Whatever helps you get your sleep is going to also help your brain.
Staying connected to a network of people you care about can help you reduce stress, improve mood and feel more supported. Your social network can include your spouse and/or partner, immediate and extended family members, friends, or others in your community.
You can socialize informally or spontaneously (like walking or chatting with a neighbor) or join organized activities like hobby groups, sports teams or volunteering opportunities. The brain benefits of socializing even extend beyond people to pets. Studies show that pets can help you feel calm, improve your health and enhance your social life, all of which can benefit your brain.
Medications and supplements
You may be advised to take medications or supplements depending on your health situation. These can be important in reducing your risks for serious conditions and slowing down the progression of diseases that may affect the brain.
If your doctor is recommending medications or supplements, be sure to take them as directed and go for routine monitoring or testing as required.
Food and nutrition for brain health
There are several foods and nutrients that promote a healthy brain by improving brain function. University researchers developed the MIND diet to emphasize foods rich in antioxidants and critical brain nutrients such as vitamins and other plant-based phytochemicals.
Let's go through a few of the key foods and nutrients to boost your brain health.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of essential fats that promote heart and brain health. Some of the best sources of omega-3s are fatty fish such as salmon, herring and sardines. If you don't love fish, omega-3s are also found in nuts and seeds such as flax, chia, walnuts and seaweed.
The MIND diet recommends at least one serving of fish each week. The FDA suggests 8 oz. of fish weekly, and the American Heart Association suggests two 3 oz. servings weekly.
Plants contain more than vitamins and minerals; they're also a source of fiber and antioxidant phytonutrients. Eating more plants helps more than your brain, it's also associated with better heart health, weight maintenance and gut health.
Some of the top plants for brain health are deeply colored fruits and vegetables like berries, leafy greens and broccoli. The MIND diet recommends colorful vegetables daily, at least six servings of greens each week and at least two servings of berries each week.
Aim to fill half your plate with colorful vegetables and fruits.
Spices and chocolate
Spices and dark chocolate contain antioxidants called flavonoids. These compounds can help improve blood flow to the brain and reduce inflammation. These can be found in high amounts in turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, and dark and unsweetened chocolate.
Coffee and teas
Did you know that coffee can help improve memory and prevent dementia? Up to three cups of black coffee per day is recommended. Black and green teas also contain antioxidants that boost your brain power.
Whole grains, beans, lentils
Whole grains like oats and quinoa, as well as legumes like beans and lentils, are all rich in brain-healthy B vitamins and fiber, making them an important part of the MIND diet. B vitamins are essential for the brain to create energy, repair DNA, maintain the proper structure of neurons (nerve/brain cells) and create vital neurochemicals in optimal function. B vitamins also act as antioxidants to reduce the harmful effects of free radicals that can damage brain cells (or any cells).
Fiber aids our digestion as well as supports our microbiome.
Aim for at least three servings a day of whole grains and one serving of beans or lentils.
Vitamin D is also known as the "sunshine" vitamin because your skin makes it when exposed to the sun. Higher levels of vitamin D are associated with a stronger memory. You can increase your vitamin D levels by going in the sun for 5-15 minutes three times a week. You may need slightly more time if you have darker skin or live in a more northern latitude. Try not to get too much sun without sunscreen, as it can increase your risk for skin cancer. Vitamin D supplements are also widely available. Talk to your health care provider to find the right one and the best amount for you.
Aim for quality proteins
Limit red meat
Consuming too many foods high in saturated fats is linked with an increased risk of heart disease and Alzheimer's disease. The MIND diet recommends no more than four servings of red meat per week.
Poultry and fish
Try to eat chicken or turkey at least twice a week and fish twice a week. Poultry provides lean protein. It is rich in choline, a B vitamin necessary for the brain. Eggs are also a good source of choline and vitamins.
Protein is an essential part of our diets. However, highly processed meats and fried foods are detrimental to our health. Aim to keep these choices to a minimum.
It's all about balance. It's OK to eat meats; just remember to have mostly lean and less processed meats and balance that plate with colorful fruits, veggies, healthy fats and whole grains.
Beans are a great source of protein and give us fibers that support our gut microbiome. The MIND diet recommends adding beans to meals four or more times a week.
There are many things you can do to bolster your brain health. They include healthy habits such as exercising, reducing stress, getting enough sleep, socializing with others (or with pets), and following recommendations for medications and supplements. When it comes to food and nutrition for brain health, try to get enough omega-3s, more plants, spices and chocolate, coffee and tea, and vitamin D, and choose quality proteins. Along the way, avoid highly processed foods and those high in sugar, avoid skipping meals, and aim to balance your plate with lean proteins, healthy fats, fiber and color.
If you're interested in learning more about how you can better your health through nutrition, contact me. My nutrition services are offered free of charge to the SU community.