Make a fist with each of your hands, and put them together with your wrists touching. Your brain is about the same size and shape. Made up of billions of cells called neurons, the human brain requires vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, fats, protein, complex carbohydrates and water for proper functioning. Our super-sensitive brains are both a product of biological evolution and a reflection of the world around us—including the choices we make every day.
Let’s take a look at how we can keep our brains as healthy as possible, from birth all the way through old age.
- Eat a smart diet. Nutrients are essential for building healthy brain tissue. Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as avocados, nuts, flax and chia seeds, along with foods rich in potassium like bananas, spinach, dried apricots and coconut water promote brain function. Our brains also depend on proper hydration to function optimally.
- Clear your head with movement. Physical exercise contributes to cardio vascular health, which allows the body to efficiently deliver oxygen and nutrients to the brain. Increased oxygen rejuvenates brain cells and increases their functioning. Exercise is also helpful in managing conditions such as depression. Another way to oxygenate the brain is with some simple deep breathing or yogic practices.
- Regular mental gymnastics. Did you know the brain can actually change shape? The neural pathways that our brains create over time are a direct result of the stimuli that we receive. Think of it like weight lifting for the mind. An active, regularly challenged brain is a “buff” brain!
- Sleep on it. Most of us know it already: lack of sleep equals lack of cognitive function. Sleep deprivation impacts memory, learning, retention and even mood. Long-term sleep deprivation can lead to actual changes in brain physiology.
- Plant an idea! Rather than expensive over the counter supplements, check out common herbs and how they can improve brain function. Start with turmeric, ginger, rosemary and sage: each of which can easily be made into tea. Essential oils are also excellent for helping boost mental capacity and to treat brain fatigue. Check out rosemary, peppermint and basil essential oils. (For more about essential oils see my April 2018 blogs!)
- Healthy Gut Flora. A theory called GAPs—Gut and Psychology Syndrome—suggests that there may be a connection between abnormal gut flora and irregular brain development. If your diet is high in processed foods and sweets, for instance, the bacteria in your gut is likely to be compromised because processed foods destroy healthy microflora and sugars feed bad bacteria and yeast.
Things you’re smart to avoid
Some foods are known to have a devastating effect on your brain functioning. This means it is good to avoid them. Here are the five foods that could kill your intelligence, slowly but surely:
- Sugar. The worst offender on the list, high sugar products are bad not only for your waistline and teeth, but for your brain function as well. Long-term consumption of sugar can interfere with memory and ability to learn. The brain runs on blood sugar, but it likes its nutrition in a steady, even supply. Simple carbohydrates—processed flour products and sugary foods—cause a rush of sugar into the bloodstream.
- Alcohol Most people realize that heavy, long–term drinking can damage the liver, but did you know that prolonged liver dysfunction can harm the brain? Alcohol directly affects brain chemistry by altering levels of neurotransmitters—the chemical messengers that broadcast the signals throughout the body that control thought, behavior and emotion. Alcohol also compromises sleep quality. The diuretic effects of alcohol deplete vitamins and minerals such as zinc, magnesium and potassium.
- Fried, processed and junk food. Almost all processed foods contain chemicals, dyes, additives, artificial flavors and preservatives. These can affect both behavior and cognitive functioning. Just think about how kids behave after too much “junk” food!
- Artificial Sweeteners. Sugar substitutes work in the part of the brain that causes us to perceive a sweet taste. An artificial sweetener is a chemical food additive that mimics the effect of sugar in taste, but contains less food energy. Some studies indicate that these chemical sweeteners over-stimulate the neurons in the brain, to the point where they literally self-destruct.
- Nicotine While not really a food, the fact that nicotine is ingested, makes it worth a mention. Nicotine not only causes premature aging and poses an increased risk for lung cancer, it also affects the production and function of neurotransmitters by tightening the capillaries—important tiny blood vessels that play a pivotal role when it comes to brain function.
By choosing the best foods, optimal activities and right input, we can each take control of building the brains we want to take with us into old age.