Keeping Your Brain Flexible and Fit

Staying young and fit doesn’t apply only to our physical body, but our minds as well. Just as bodies can change, so can the brain. The term brain plasticity refers to the incredible ability the brain has in adapting and changing. Think of plasticity as flexibility, the greater the plasticity the brain has the better it can absorb, retain and utilize information. The less plastic the brain is results in a stiffer, slower processing which is accompanied by loss in brain matter and function.

 Continuing to form new connections is vital in brain health and optimizing the brain’s plasticity.

The good news is that plasticity can be improved at any age. There are simple steps and activities that promote brain health, delay aging and keep our minds sharp and young.

“I’ll have the curry vegetables please”

Adding curry to your dishes not only adds great flavor, but may also be an important spice in keeping your brain healthy and young. One of the spice component in curry is turmeric. Turmeric is well known for its anti-inflammatory properties, which is reason enough to add more to your diet. New studies show it may also be key in supporting your immune system by boosting the work of macrophages in the body. Macrophages act like tiny garbage trucks in your body, picking up foreign proteins. Recent studies with Turmeric and Alzheimer’s showed decreased production of beta amyloid proteins, as well as increased ingestion of amyloid plaques. The amyloid proteins and plaques are significant in the onset and progression of the disease. 

Don’t just stop at the curry, please! Increasing your intake of vegetables along with fresh fruits is also an essential piece in keeping your brain sharp and fit. The high level of antioxidants in both fruits and vegetables can help reduce inflammation, offset oxidative stress and enhance cognitive and motor function. Choose a rainbow of colors in your vegetables and fruits to ensure you are getting a variety of antioxidants and organic wherever possible. More veggies equals more brain power.

Just Sleep on It 

Burning the midnight oil may help you get caught up on work or your favorite tv series, however it may be zapping precious brain connections as well. Getting a good night’s sleep between 6 and 9 hours appears to have the most beneficial effect on cognition, recall and verbal fluency. 

The brain works 10 times as hard removing toxins during sleep and clearing those plaques is key to good brain health. Unfortunately, trying to catch up on the weekends does not help and in fact regularly sleeping over 9 hours can be as detrimental as not getting enough sleep. 

To improve your sleep patterns, try to keep a consistent bedtime along with a bedtime ritual. Start winding down at least an hour before bedtime, dimming lights and moving away from digital screens. Preparing a cup of herbal tea, listening to soothing music or reading a printed book can help create a bedtime ritual that is helpful in getting your body and mind ready for quality sleep. 

Move it or Lose it

Exercise is one of the most important pieces in keeping your brain vibrant and young. The benefits of exercise go well beyond cardiovascular health, lower blood pressure and stress reduction. Though these are all factors contributing to good brain health, moving and using our muscles regularly has the added benefit of increasing  the oxygenation to our brain. It can also increase the development of new nerve cells and their connections. The results are more adaptive, efficient, better performing brains. If that isn’t enough motivation, studies have shown that regular exercise of just 30-45 minutes, 3x a week, increased volume in the area of the brain associated with memory. 

Chill Out and Meditate On It

Adding meditation to your day can give your brain a positive boost in more ways than one. Meditation is a powerful tool in lowering stress levels. When under stress the body produces cortisol. Over time the cortisol acts like a short circuit on neural connections termed synapses. Damaging these connections specifically impacts memory storage, including short term memory and processing. 

Meditation is also proving to have a positive effect on attention, cognitive function and may even create physical changes in the brain. Some promising studies show meditation can help you “re-wire” your brain for increased efficiency as evidenced through actual changes in the gray and white matter of the brain.

Meditating for as little as 10 minutes a day can have a positive impact on stress, sleep and inflammation. Carving this small amount of time in your day is well worth the benefits.

Step Outside the Box

The brain’s ability to change, be adaptive and sharp is achievable as long as the brain is continually challenged. One of the keys to brain plasticity is being challenged in new ways. Even though it may appear you are learning new skills in your job or career, most often these activities are not truly new, but adaptations to skills already learned.  

Your brain function may seem stagnant or even faltering, but do not fret. Think outside the box and find things you have never done before to truly challenge your brain in new ways. This helps create new neural connections, which is key in improving plasticity of the brain. Activities like learning a new language, learning to dance, learning a new sport, or picking up a new instrument encourages these changes.

Brain games like Lumosity and BrainHQ have studies supporting their effectiveness, but keeping your brain fit should not be limited to these games to optimize your brain health. Think outside your box.

Don’t Go it Alone-Get Social

As human beings we are social creatures by nature, thriving emotionally and physically when we are in community. As such, keeping engaged and involved in social connections and activities is vital in brain health. Evolutionary science has put strong evidence that the size of a species brain is directly related to the size of its social group. The human brain is disproportionately large for the size of its body indicating we are hardwired to be social beings. 

Our emotional health greatly improves with meaningful interactions and connections. Those with strong and active social connections tend to have lower anxiety, lower risk of depression and have a greater sense of satisfaction and overall happiness. Studies have shown cognitive decline was 70% less in those that were socially engaged versus those with low social activity. 

Though it is often tempting to wind down in front of the television, getting out with friends, volunteering and being involved in the community is far more important for long term physical and mental health.

Healthy Fats equals a Healthier Brain

While there is much emphasis on keeping fat intake low, new research may be disputing this idea as counterproductive to brain health. There are 2 types of fuels that the brain can use for energy. One type of energy is glucose and the other is ketones which is the energy source derived from fats. Newer evidence suggests that when the brain uses ketones it may actually restore and renew neurons and function in the brain. 

Research from the Mayo Clinic showed an 89% increased risk for developing dementia in those with higher carbohydrate diet versus those with higher fat diets.  The quality of the fats is essential. Coconut Oil, omega 3’s from wild caught fish, and grass fed meats top the list.

Reducing reliance on carbohydrates as a primary energy source as well as intermittent fasting or overall reduced caloric intake can have a significant beneficial impact on mental health and longevity. 

Taking some simple steps through diet, exercise, social interaction and new mental challenges, can go a long way in keeping your brain sharp and vibrant for the long haul.