We mainly think of brain health in terms of ways to improve cognitive function but this central command center is integral to every function in the body. We often forget that the brain is an organ in the body that is highly affected and influenced by its surroundings. Looking at the brain through the lens of supporting the organ offers a multifaceted approach to optimizing the health of this incredible network system.
Perhaps one of the most critical factors in the health of our brains is our sleep. The reason quality sleep is so vital is it is the only time the brain repairs itself, clears toxins, gets rid of metabolic waste and builds new neural connections. The brain actually shrinks during sleep so that the glymphatic system (think lymphatic system for the brain) washes away waste and toxins as well as redistributes key nutrients to the brain. Good glymphatic flow should be a high priority for brain health. Quality sleep and a good circadian rhythm directly improve glymphatic flow.
A key way to improve your sleep and circadian rhythm is to use the most powerful circadian modulator, light. Viewing early morning sun outdoors for 10 minutes, 20 minutes for cloudy days, starts to improve your wake sleep cycle for the day, increasing melatonin production for later while lowering cortisol levels. Morning sun sets you up for a better night’s sleep and a more wakeful day. You don’t need to look directly into the sun and it should never be painful. Sunglasses nullify the benefits of sun exposure to the eyes. Similarly, getting late day sun improves melatonin release and helps improve your circadian cycle and signaling. This also means to avoid bright lights at night and especially avoid any bright light exposure if you wake up during your sleep. Bombarding ourselves with artificial light from screens in evenings, we disrupt the natural cueing for our wake/sleep cycles along with a cascade of biological processes vital to good health. Poor circadian rhythm is linked to mood swings, poor vision, weight gain, slower learning, IBS, migraines, impaired memory, increased inflammation, brain fog, just to name a few. For a healthy brain, minding your sleep must be a priority.
Your most important first cup of the day for good brain health is water. Pause on the coffee for just a few moments to get 16-20 oz of water first thing, pays brain dividends. Your brain has shrunk during sleep to remove waste and gone without fluids for 8 hours. Rehydrating your brain and helping move those waste products out of your system is a simple but vital morning routine.
Daily exercise has continued to show it surpasses any pharmaceutical intervention for brain health on the market, and it is free. Don’t limit your idea of exercise to a class or a gym, it is about movement and novelty, every day and throughout your day. With some easy shifts and tweaks, your movement can be brain power. One tweak is to simply pick up your walking pace. Studies are showing walking speed has a strong correlation to increased longevity. Challenging yourself to walk more briskly so you are still able to talk but not be able to hold long conversations is a good gauge. Taking the brisk walk outside makes it a double win with the benefit of sunlight exposure.
Adding balance exercises and novelty to your movement is also an essential and often missing piece. Think playful and fun. Heel to toe walking, single leg balance, adding a ball toss or eye movement while doing balance work are all ways to challenge yourself and stimulate the brain while providing needed stress breaks in your day. Think of them as movement snacks. Playing a game, learning a new skill, or simply finding different and unique ways to move throughout the day is an invaluable piece in enhancing your brain’s plasticity.
Fasting and Foods
Giving the body an extended break from food encourages the body to go into autophagy and eliminate the dysfunctional and unhealthy cells in the body and networks in the brain. There are various forms of fasting, but simply going 12 hours from your dinner to the first meal of the next day is a helpful step in promoting this process.
Foods that help fight inflammation to no surprise are also good brain food. Dark leafy greens, fatty fish, berries, cruciferous vegetables, along with fats like avocados, olive and coconut oil are all supportive to brain function. A lesser known brain food to include in the diet is broccoli sprouts. Broccoli sprouts are incredibly rich in compounds that help reduce oxidative stress. Bone broth and foods that support good digestive health are also key, considering the majority of serotonin is produced in the gut not the brain.
Assaults on the Brain
Chronic inflammation in the body also means chronic inflammation in the brain. It is important to address the stressors that are contributing to the inflammation. Blood sugar dysregulation as well as sugar consumption is highly inflammatory for the brain. It is why Alzheimer’s is often being referred to as Diabetes type III. Obesity, poor diet, chronic dehydration, alcohol, contribute to chronic inflammation.
A leaky gut can also mean a leaky brain. The same factors that contribute to a leaky gut and associated autoimmune conditions, also make the protective blood brain barrier more permeable and allow for increased assaults on the brain itself.
Exposure to environmental toxins, things like plastics, perfumes and scented products, pesticide laden food, petroleum products, cleaning products, as well as biotoxins from molds and bacteria impact brain health. The levels of chemicals and neurotoxins in individual products may be deemed safe, however the cumulative and repeated exposure to these chemicals creates a heavy burden on the body’s immune and nervous system. Look for ways to reduce the cumulative load and exposure, consider and don’t forget your wallet can direct change in industries.
Finding ways to ameliorate chronic stress is also a critical piece in reducing inflammation and improving brain health. Simple breathing practices throughout your day, gratitude journaling at the start of your day and/or before bed, meditation, moving meditation like qigong or tai chi, are a variety of tools to utilize. Being involved in your community, having deep and meaningful relationships with others in person, as well as having a sense of purpose can be some of the most powerful brain enhancing and protective measures out there.
Additional Brain Support
Spending some time in the sauna may be more than just a good sweat. The heat and perspiration allows for mild detoxification in the body and also increases circulation and vasodilation, which means more blood flow to the brain. There is also a release of endorphins which are the “feel good” hormones. A study has shown using a sauna 4-7 times a week resulted in a 60% reduction in risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
There are a host of supplements promising to improve cognitive brain health. However before looking for an easy pill, don’t forgo the concerted and consistent effort of lifestyle changes in diet, sleep,stress reduction, hydration and movement. Additionally, supplements are modulators in your body so check with an informed functional medicine practitioner who is well versed in what your specific needs are. That being said, a very high quality omega 3 supplement is an important addition to the diet. Considering the brain is 60% fat, providing essential fatty acids is critical for all aspects of the nervous system. It is especially important for those not consuming much fatty fish in their diet.
Lion’s Mane mushroom is a promising supplement that has been shown to be anti-inflammatory, containing chemicals that improve the production and release of neurotransmitters as well as promote the growth and health of neurons in the brain.
Moringa powder from the moringa tree is another product that is rich in antioxidants, helps fight inflammation and may aid in regulating blood sugar.
Optimizing brain health is a compilation of daily, often simple lifestyle choices. They may not always be easy, but are invaluable in moving you toward your best health. When making any changes and modifications to your lifestyle, it is important to first check with your health care professional who is also well versed in preventative and non pharmaceutical interventions to support your journey.