Good brain health is a pillar of wellness. Our brains are deeply involved in our mental, emotional and physical health, and color how we perceive ourselves and the world around us. We want to do what we can to take care of them!
However, many of us struggle with brain health because of the way we live. Modern life offers many benefits and conveniences, but support for our brains? well-being is often not one of them. Factors ranging from stress, work and screen time, to poor diet, environmental toxicity and lack of community come together to put a great deal of strain on our brains, even as more of us work jobs that ask us to lean heavily on our cognitive abilities.
As a result, we may struggle with brain fog, depression, anxiety, ADHD, or a nagging, unquantifiable sense of low energy, poor focus and general malaise. Because of the intimate connection between brain health and gut health, we also often find ourselves facing digestive troubles along with poor brain function. This can all make life heavy going.
Fortunately, there is a lot we can do to improve our brain health. Even better, what we do to benefit our brains also helps improve our overall health and wellness. Best of all, perhaps, many of the most important steps we can take are simple and straightforward.
How can I improve my brain health?
What can you do to improve your brain health? A lot! If you're struggling with a specific health condition, a holistic physician or other health professionals can give you detailed, personal guidance.
However, the basics apply to everyone. Here are five rules of thumb that can help you feel more clear-headed:
Get enough Sleep
Sleep is essential to your overall health and wellness, however, no organ in your body benefits more from a good night's sleep than your brain. Sleep is when your brain resets and recharges, clearing away the waste from yesterday so you can wake up refreshed tomorrow.
Research shows that when you fall asleep, your brain actually gets busy. The gaps between your neurons or brain cells widen, allowing an influx of what's called cerebrospinal fluid to flow between them. This washes away the toxins that have accumulated during the day, cleansing your brain. This is part of why going too long without sleep feels so debilitating, your brain is overflowing with trash that it hasn't been able to clean up.
Sleep is also when we lock in memories, solidifying what we learned during the day. Scientists connect sleep to processing emotions as well, something anyone who's ever gotten a good night's rest after a long day can attest to. In short, if you want a healthy, happy brain, sleep is critical.
How much? Listen to your body, it will tell you. Most people need at least 8 hours a night, but it's not uncommon to need more like 10. Some people can thrive on 6 or 7, but studies consistently show that for most of us, brain health directly correlates with getting a full, restful night of shut-eye.
Most of us don't move around enough. We may spend all day sitting behind a desk, only to get in the car, drive home, and plop down on the couch with our phones or turn on the TV. Indeed, sitting is perhaps the default state of modern life.
Unfortunately, it's also terrible for our health. Sitting is linked to a host of health conditions ranging from obesity to heart disease, and the more time we spend sitting, the worse it gets. Specifically for our brains, a sedentary lifestyle makes us more likely to develop depression, brain fog, and other mental health or cognitive issues.
Fortunately, there is a really simple cure for sitting, move more! Exercise, whether simple or complex, is a pillar of good brain health. Exercise can help you think more clearly, improve your mood, and lift feelings of depression or anxiety. There is no right way to exercise either, go to the gym, go for a walk or a swim, do some yoga asanas, or play basketball with friends. Whatever works for you.
Stress does our brains no favors. Well, that's not entirely true - episodes of acute stress are a normal part of life and are often no big deal. Mild stress, meanwhile, can help motivate us, providing just the right amount of pressure to help us accomplish our goals. But if we're constantly, heavily, chronically stressed, our brains suffer.
Research shows that chronic stress, sometimes appropriately referred to as toxic stress, can significantly interfere with the functioning of the brain. Cortisol, a hormone released into your body as a part of your stress response, is toxic to brain cells over an extended period of time. Studies have shown that chronic stress can actually cause your brain to shrink, as well as worsen your memory and ability to focus. Stress also makes you less likely to enjoy being around other people.
So do your brain a favor, and relax. This doesn't just mean distracting yourself by pulling out your phone, but setting a genuine intention to take it easy on yourself and putting that intention into practice. There is a whole world of wonderful ways to relax: doing yoga, taking a warm Epsom salt bath, going for a walk in nature, having sex, watching a funny movie and spending time with friends or loved ones are just a few examples. As with exercise, find ways to relax that work for you! Your brain will thank you.
Start Eating the Right Foods
What we eat directly impacts our brain health. Many of us struggle on that front: poor nutrition is rampant in contemporary society. Most people live on diets full of processed foods, factory-farmed meat and dairy, sugar, corn syrup, caffeine, vegetable oils, trans-fats and artificial food additives that are best described with language not fit for polite company.
But what we eat is what fuels our brains. When we put in poor fuel, we get what we pay for. Poor diet not only leads to everything you would expect poor diet to lead to: weight gain, chronic disease, and digestive trouble - but also to mental, emotional and cognitive conditions like depression, anxiety, and brain fog.
More than one expert has noted that "if your ancestors wouldn't know that it's food, don't eat it".
But when we change our diet, we often affect our whole experience. What should we eat? Whole, natural foods. This means lots of vegetables (especially greens), as well as fresh fruits, clean proteins like beans, lentils, almonds or walnuts and healthy fats like coconut oil, avocados, or olive oil. Eat whole grains or pasture-raised meats, eggs and dairy in moderation.
The more colorful your plate, the better. This gives your brain the raw materials it needs to thrive.
Emphasize community and connection
An often overlooked source of stress in modern life is the lack of community. Human beings evolved over millions of years as tribal creatures - we're used to having a large group around us to help us through life. Even after we developed civilization, most people lived their whole lives surrounded by a large extended family, near neighbors that may have been there for generations. This meant we always had people to turn to, in good times and in bad.
Many of us no longer have that sort of support. As it becomes more common for people to move from city to city in pursuit of their careers, that connection to a larger community gets lost. We may have co-workers or colleagues, but that's not quite the same, at least most of the time.
That lack of connection means we're often suffering from a certain amount of stress. Somewhere, in our minds, we're wondering where our tribe is - it's baked into our very nature. And as we already know, stress has a toxic effect on the brain.
So it's a great idea to do what we can to build a tribe around us. Make the extra effort to connect with your co-workers outside of work, meet your neighbors, become a regular at your local yoga studio, meditation center, AA meeting, or church. Volunteer. Put less attention into your career, and more into nurturing your relationship with your partner or your friends. You'll notice your stress levels falling, and your mood and mental clarity rising.
If you want to go deeper, take up a spiritual practice. Meditate, pray, direct your attention inward, practice loving kindness, and accept the present moment. These sorts of actions and intentions can help you develop a larger, more generous perspective on yourself and your place in the world that only strengthens your sense of connection and community, no matter what your circumstances.
Who should I go see?
If you're struggling with your mental or emotional health or your cognition, scheduling a visit with a holistic health professional is a great idea. A functional, integrative or naturopathic doctor, or chiropractor can address the medical side of things - they can help you get proper nutrition and treat any specific health conditions. A psychotherapist can be a great resource as well, especially for working through chronic stress, emotional pain, depression, anxiety and other mental and emotional health issues.
12 Ways to Keep Your Brain Young
Harvard Health, 2018
Here's How to Heal Our Broken Brains with Nutrients
Dr Hyman, 2018
Stress Kills Brain Cells
Nicole Branan for Scientific American, 2007