Your brain is sometimes referred to as the “control center” of your body. It not only helps you to think and remember things, but your brain also helps with regulating your body such as breathing, temperature, hunger, and hormones. It is essential to keep your brain healthy for as long as possible to keep chronic diseases like Alzheimer’s at bay. Science tells us the best way to do this.
The health of your brain is influenced by these 6 things:
- Stress reduction
- Sleep and relaxation
- Medications and supplements
- Food and nutrition
Let’s go through each one of these before diving deeper into specific and actionable strategies that surround food and nutrition.
1. Exercise for brain health
Exercise is incredibly beneficial for not only physical fitness but also mental fitness. It helps us to de-stress, improve sleep, as well as keep our heart, lungs, and muscles healthy. Being physically active is a fundamental pillar of brain health. There are several types of exercise and all are beneficial.
Aerobic exercise, or as most know it as “cardio” or “endurance” exercise, helps to get your heart rate up and warm up your muscles. Some examples of aerobic exercises include biking, swimming, running, and climbing stairs. This benefits your brain because it helps to preserve existing brain cells and also promotes the growth of new ones.
Another kind of exercise is strength or “resistance” training such as pushing or pulling weights or other heavy objects. This helps to build and maintain strong bones. Strength training also helps your brain by enhancing your ability to concentrate and improving your decision-making skills.
2. Stress reduction for brain health
Let’s face it, 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. All of these physiological reactions are initiated by the brain when it detects the threat.
Once the threat is gone, the stress response will then relax and your body and brain can regain their normal balance of low or no stress. However, sometimes that stress lingers on for days, weeks, and months (or longer) and can become long-term or “chronic” stress. It’s this chronic stress that can negatively impact your brain. Chronic stress can shrink the part of your brain that is responsible for memory and learning which is your “prefrontal cortex” and can elevate the part of your brain that is receptive to stress, your “amygdala”.
While you can’t eliminate stress entirely you can learn practical techniques to better manage it and preserve your brain health. One practical—but often difficult—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 is to focus on the specific problem at hand in the present moment. This can help you see the current situation more clearly and help you to 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 your mind through meditation or guided imagery can help reduce the feelings of stress by refocusing your attention on something positive and soothing.
3. Sleep for brain health
Getting 7-9 hours of sleep each night helps mood and the ability to manage stress. Sleep also helps you to be better at planning and running your busy life and ensures that you can have the energy to do what you need to do to maintain and improve your well-being.
One of the most important things you can do to get enough sleep is to set 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 basically “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, or having a warm relaxing bath.
Whatever helps you get your sleep is going to also help your brain. To read more about sleep, check out this post.
4. Socialization for brain health
Staying connected to people you care about can help reduce stress, improve mood, and help to feel more supported in life. Your social network can include your spouse and/or partner, immediate and extended family members, friends, or others in your community.
Some ways you can socialize informally or spontaneously include walking or chatting with a neighbor or you can join organized activities (hobby groups, sports teams, or volunteering opportunities). The 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. My daughter always says that our dog is her “support animal”.
5. Medications and supplements for brain health
Depending on your personal health situation, you may be advised to take medications or supplements. These can be important to reducing your risks for serious conditions and slowing down the progression of diseases. Some of the medical conditions that are linked to declining brain health include high blood pressure, diabetes, and excess weight. These can increase your risks of cognitive decline (reduced memory and ability to think) and developing dementia.
If your doctor is recommending medications or your registered dietitian is recommending supplements, be sure to take them as directed and go for routine monitoring or testing as required.
6. Food and nutrition for brain health
There are several foods and nutrients that promote a healthy brain by slowing cognitive decline and reducing your risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The MIND diet was developed by University researchers to emphasize foods that are rich in antioxidants and critical brain nutrients such as vitamins and other plant-based phytochemicals.
Here are a few of the key foods and nutrients to support your brain health.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are 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. The MIND diet recommends at least one serving of fish each week. If you don’t love fish, omega-3s are also found in nuts and seeds such as flax, chia, walnuts, and soy. For more on healthy fats, check out this post.
Plants contain more than just vitamins and minerals, they’re also a great source of fiber and antioxidant phytochemicals. Eating more plants helps more than just your brain, it’s also associated with better heart health and weight maintenance.
Some of the top plants for brain health are the deeply-colored fruits and vegetables like berries, leafy greens, and broccoli. The MIND diet recommends vegetables every day, at least six servings of greens each week, and at least two servings of berries each week.
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 to improve your memory and ward off dementia? Up to three cups of black coffee per day is recommended. When it comes to teas, black and green teas contain antioxidants for brain health.
Moderate consumption of red wine
Resveratrol is a compound found in red wine and the skin of red grapes. It is also an antioxidant and is thought to be able to reduce cell damage and protect against the formation of plaques in the brain. On the flip side, too much alcohol is not good for your brain, so it’s important not to overdo it. Try to stick with no more than one glass of red wine per day if you’re a woman and no more than two glasses per day if you’re a man. I love my red wine and this just confirms that is essential that I drink it. However, resveratrol is also found in red grape juice so you could enjoy a glass to get the benefit and it’s alcohol-free.
Whole grains like oats and quinoa are rich in B-vitamins and fiber, making them an important part of the MIND diet. B-vitamins are essential so that the brain can create energy, repair DNA, maintain the proper structure of neurons, which are the nerve and brain cells, and create essential neurochemicals for optimal function. B-vitamins also act as antioxidants to reduce the harmful effects of free radicals that can damage brain cells (or any cells for that matter).
Vitamin D is also known as the “sunshine” vitamin because your skin makes it when it’s exposed to the sun. Low levels of vitamin D are associated with increased risks for brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s. 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 registered dietitian to find the right one for you.
Limit red meat
Consuming too many foods high in saturated fats is linked with an increased risk for heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease. The MIND diet recommends no more than four servings of red meat per week. Try limiting your red meat, butter, and dairy whenever you can, and consider substituting with beans, lentils, and soy.
There are many things you can do to support your brain health. They include a number of healthy habits such as getting exercise, 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, vitamin D, and a bit of red wine. Limit the amount of red meat you consume.
If you’re interested in learning more about how you can implement these six essential brain health strategies into your life, consult a registered dietitian (like me) who can help. If you are worried about your risks for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia and you want to know which foods, nutrients, and other lifestyle choices will help your brain stay healthy for years to come, or just need a plan to help you embed these six strategies for brain health in your day-to-day life, book an appointment with me today to see if my service can help you.
To purchase a digital copy of Your Ultimate Guide to Nutrition & Brain Health to learn more about the MIND diet, click here.
To join my mailing list to receive free recipes and nutrition tips, click here. You will also receive a free gift just for signing up!