Today, thanks to advances in neurological and behavioral science, we know more about the brain than ever before. While your brain weighs in at just three-pounds, this organ is the most complex part of your body. The three sections of your brain, the forebrain, midbrain, and hindbrain, work separately and together to influence your entire body. Your brain controls your thinking, learning, remembering, speaking, seeing, hearing, emotions, sensing touch, balance, coordination, and more. Your brain continues to develop throughout your entire life, and influences from diet, sleep habits, exercise, and stress can help or hinder this process.
- Small but mighty: Consider that the human brain represents a mere two percent of a human’s body mass but uses a whopping 20 percent of your total energy budget each day.
- Strategies for best brain health: Incorporate a multidisciplinary approach that includes physical exercise, nutrition, sleep, mental fitness, and social interactions for your best brain health.
- Enhance mental functions with exercise: Physical activity can indirectly help brain health by enhancing just about every other function in your body.
- Nourish your noggin: The more high-quality foods you get, the more vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants you and your brain get.
- Slumber to recover and repair your brain: Sleep is as important to your brain’s health and survival as are food and water.
- Strategies for better cognition over the lifespan: Research shows that mentally stimulating activities are linked to better brain function. Studies show that social engagement improves brain health.
Most of us already know to eat healthy, stay active, sleep seven to nine hours, and manage stress levels, but you probably don’t know that when you do these activities matters a great deal. Scientists are now discovering that your body relies heavily on the 24 hour day/night fluctuations we experience each day. Your body is a magnificent machine, and a complicated one that works best when all its parts work in harmony, like musicians in a symphony. Your body can’t function optimally if all its “instruments” play at one time.
However, when your body’s instruments perform in a complex but synchronized manner, the result is beautiful music. Your brain works like the conductor, and your body relies on receiving the correct instructions at the right time to carry out its many complex roles accordingly. If your parts flow, you thrive; if they don’t, your health suffers.
To synchronize your clocks and to get your brain back to peak performance requires a multidisciplinary approach that includes exercise, nutrition, sleep, and daytime habits, as well as mental health and social interactions. Thankfully, most of what’s required for a healthy brain is within your control. Here’s what you need to know:
Timing is important
When it comes to your brain, it’s all about timing, says an increasing number of scientists who study circadian rhythms. These biological clock-like devices are found in all cells and are most strongly governed by the information we receive from the natural 24-hour light/dark environment in which we live. Your brain has a master clock, called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, or SCN. The SCN is located in your brain and receives direct input from the eyes. The input received by the SCN triggers a cascading effect that directs the rest of your body’s clocks. The problem today is that most of us no longer follow our biological timing systems—the SCN gets the wrong information, and therefore, so does your body—and the result is poor health in countless forms.
Your great-great-grandparents followed a natural “clock” set by each day’s sunrise and sunset. These distant relatives worked, were active, had meals, and socialized from dawn until dusk. Once it got dark, your ancestors rested and slept. In today’s modern world, we work, eat, live, and play at all hours of the day and night with little regard to the natural cycles of light and dark. This disregard for the natural environment throws our biological clocks out of sync. People who have out-of-sync circadian rhythms (your biological clocks) are more likely to struggle with excess weight, diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol, poor heart health, chronic pain, and many cancers compared to those who have synchronized clocks. Thankfully, there’s much you can do to get your body back in balance, including the following:
Regular exercise is essential for keeping all your highest neural structures healthy. Physical activity relaxes your brain by increasing endorphins and reducing stress hormones, which reduces depression and anxiety. When you move your body, you increase circulation and oxygen, which improves cognition and clarity. Exercise also indirectly helps brain health by enhancing just about every other function in your body.
These improvements include your heart health, blood sugar levels, insulin sensitivity, weight management, mental health and mood, better digestion, stronger bones and muscles, and living longer in general. Aim to exercise for 30 to 45 minutes at a moderate activity most days of the week. If that seems overwhelming, begin with five to 10 minutes a day and gradually increase the amount.
Nutrition here stands for two things: Time-restricted eating (TRE) and a Mediterranean diet (it’s one of the healthiest). By eating all your meals within a 10-hour window each day (as you’ve been asked to do) is TRE, and you may have already noticed that you feel more clear-headed since you began this style of eating. What you might not know is that a growing body of research shows that TRE significantly and positively influences brain functioning.
Studies link the benefits of TRE to increases in brain function, sleep, energy, and metabolism, and decreases in stress, depression, obesity, overweight, heart disease, diabetes, and gut disturbance. You can boost this TRE response by getting more high-quality foods such as fresh vegetables and fruits (organic whenever possible), lean protein and fish, whole grains, legumes, healthy fats (think, extra virgin olive oil), and nuts and seeds.
With TRE, you don’t have to worry about following a strict diet or eating regimen. The keto diet (a high fat, moderate protein, and low carbohydrate diet) has been touted as a style of eating that improves brain functioning. The claim is that Keto-eating promotes ketone bodies (which are breakdown products of fat), which some say provide a more potent energy source for your brain and body. Ketones are an alternative energy source when the body is short on glucose.
However, research findings as to whether or not it truly provides better brain energy, especially long term, are still being investigated. Here’s the thing: Eating within an 8 to 10-hour window each day appears to promote ketone bodies without you having to live a bread-free existence. That means that you can keep eating whole grains, fresh fruit, and vegetables. You’ll naturally get the benefits of a keto-like diet while keeping your brain and body balanced, and you won’t need to live a bread-free existence.
Sleep and Stress
The adage, “I can sleep when I am dead,” should permanently be put to bed. Sleep is as vital to your brain’s health and survival, as are food and water. Lack of sleep reduces memory, increases fatigue, and damages reaction times, concentration, focus, and clarity. Sleep deficiency has also been linked to weight gain, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, your entire immune system, and other issues that affect brain health.
Sleep flushes out toxins, modulates stress, consolidates daytime experiences, preserves memory, organizes and stores information, and provides time to repair and replenish all your cells. While relaxing is good, it isn’t the same as sleep, especially when modulating stress. If you aren’t asleep, even if just reading a book, you are still connected (you can be disturbed by pings, tweets, rings from your phone, or other disturbances).
Sleep is a time when you literally take yourself “offline” and give yourself time to release the stress you build up during the day. If you can’t get all the benefits from sleep at night, then make it up with napping for 30 minutes at other times of the day.
Mind Games and Brain Health
Research shows that any mentally stimulating activity is linked to better brain function. This includes doing a daily crossword, working on a puzzle, or playing games with other actual people (think, Scrabble). These simple daily activities can stimulate brain health, as can memorizing a phone number or writing a letter by hand.
Studies show that social engagement improves brain health by lowering stress, enhancing motivation and mood, enhancing heart health, and stimulating your brain better than isolation. Making new connections with people provides you with the opportunity to remember names and learn new information about people. One caveat: the benefits of social ties are influenced by the quality of the connection. Negative people and toxic relationships increase stress and hurt your brain—avoid them.
In a perfect world, you’d put all of the above practices into action every single day, but don’t beat yourself up if you fall short. Strive to accomplish as many healthy behaviors as you can, but keep in mind that doing any one of the above will help to keep you in balance. For example, on a day when you have no time for exercise, be sure to eat healthy and get enough sleep. Or, if you fall short on sleep, make sure to get out for a walk during the day. One healthy behavior is better than none.