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Cheat Sheet to Brain Health

By Rachel Kimball 

Introduction:

The brain is one of the most vital organs. From thoughts and tasks to involuntary actions, your brain doesn’t just make you, you, it keeps you alive. Many neurological diseases are in-part caused by habits that lead to worsened brain health. By keeping your brain healthy through various habits and routines, neurological disorders can be prevented, increasing your quality of life. So what can we do to improve brain health?

Brain Health Overview: 

Brain health is determined by genetics, environmental factors, and lifestyle. We’re going to focus on lifestyle, and  the role of physical activity, sleep hygiene, nutrition, mental stimulation, music, and substance use on your brain.

Physical Activity:

“We know that physical exercise, and aerobic exercise in particular, is very beneficial for maintaining brain health, even in people who are at risk for developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease (AD) …You can make a major difference in terms of how your body is functioning and, as a result, how your brain is functioning.” says neuropsychologist Aaron Bonner-Jackson, PhD. 

So how does physical activity promote brain health? Physical activity promotes cardiovascular health and helps your brain get the blood supply it needs. Blood delivers oxygen and glucose to the brain, and although your brain is a small part of your body’s total weight, it requires a lot of energy to function. 

In a recent study, researchers found that achieving 7,500 steps or more daily was associated with higher total brain volume that was equivalent to approximately 1.4 to 2.2 years less brain aging. 

Whether it’s going on a run or dancing, getting in those extra steps and making your heart rate rise is a great way to make your brain healthier.

Sleep Hygiene:

Two thirds of teenagers report getting less than 7 hours of sleep a night! We need at least 8 for the brain to function properly and stay healthy. Restorative sleep helps with executive function, reward sensitivity, regulation of emotions,  and learning. Sleep actually helps us form memories, as our brain replays moments from the day. Chronic sleep deprivation can put you at higher risk for stroke, and shuts down the production of essential brain proteins. 

Cellular timekeepers naturally prep synapses in the brain before sleep through the production of proteins. However, in the absence of a regular sleep schedule, neurons begin to curtail their own protein-making cycles, making it harder to get into the routine of restorative sleep, worsening the problem.

Sleep also enables the brain to do some “housekeeping” and clean up waste. The brain cleans out toxins that accumulate during the daytime hours. The space between the brain cells increases during sleep which enables all of those toxins to be flushed out. 

Make sure you get those 8 hours a night to keep your brain young and healthy!

Nutrition: 

Nutrients are absorbed through the cells lining the intestine and transported through blood vessel walls into the bloodstream. They travel in the blood through the liver, and must cross small blood vessels into brain tissue. This transport mechanism from the blood to neurons is restricted by the blood brain barrier which keeps many substances out. However, nutrients pass this barrier to reach your brain! 

Why do we need nutrients? 

Energy and nutrients from the food you eat help the brain perform its daily functions, as this is how the brain gets the glucose it needs. Lacking certain nutrients can be toxic, as they affect development, mood, cognition, disease, and aging. 

Here are 5 nutrients that are great for the brain: 

→ Omega 3 Fatty Acids: found in fish, flax seeds, walnuts, chia seeds, brussel sprouts, avocadoes

→ B Vitamins: found in meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy, legumes, leafy greens, seeds, fortified foods

→Vitamin E: found in nuts, seeds, avocados, tofu, leafy greens

→ Lycopene: found in red fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes, strawberries, bell peppers, red carrots 

→Zinc: found in pumpkin seeds, dark chocolate, potatoes, lamb, seafood 

Mental Stimulation:

Mental activity increases blood flow to the brain, which increases the brain’s supply of oxygen and important nutrients. Mental activity also acts as a signal to promotes brain-derived neurotrophic growth factor (BDGF), a protective chemical which promotes growth and survival of neurons. Many older adults are encouraged to stimulate their brains, but doing this at any age is super beneficial! 

Here are some ways to do this: 

→ Jigsaw puzzles

→ Listening to music

→ learn or teach a new skill

→ build your vocabulary 

→ Use your non-dominant hand

Listen to Music:

Did you know that listening to music can have major positive effects on your brain?! Listening to music is associated with decreased stress, reduced pain, better memory, and improved sleep quality. 

Music has a unique link to our emotions. When we’re happy, we tend to listen to upbeat music, and when we’re sad, we tend to listen to songs at slower tempos or in minor keys. Listening to music reduces levels of cortisol, a hormone that causes increased feelings of stress and anxiety. Additionally, according to researchers at Stanford, listening to music causes brainwaves to match those we experience during meditation, making us feel relaxed. Listening to music also triggers our brain to produce dopamine. 

Enjoyable music can trigger the release of opioids in the brain, the body’s natural ‘morphine’. This may explain why music decreases the need for pain-killers in those with pre-existing conditions. Researchers at McGill University in Montreal found that listening to music increased the body’s production of immunoglobulins, a natural antibody that fights off viruses, including those that cause pain. By listening to music we are increasing the release of natural opioids and immunoglobulins, decreasing pain!

Imagine this: you’ve been studying for hours but can’t remember anything. This may be caused by the stress you’re experiencing, so put on your favorite songs, relax (as it reduces stress,) and you’ll be able to remember a lot more. Also, in patients with dementia, many memories fade, but emotional and physical memories never do. By learning new things with music,  those with dementia are much less likely to forget those memories.  However, this is applicable to everyone. Learning new things in the presence of music enables us to engage our emotional memory, helping us remember them long-term.  

There’s a reason why babies listen to lullabies before bed, and music can make it easier for older youth and adults to fall asleep, as well. According to the NIH, adults who listened to music for 45 minutes prior to bed reported better sleep quality beginning on the first night.  In another group of participants with insomnia, time spent falling asleep decreased from 27-69 minutes to 6 -13 minutes when music was played in the background. So why does this happen? In addition to decreasing cortisol, music soothes the autonomic nervous system, making us feel relaxed and ready to go to sleep.

The Effects of Substance Use:

Drugs interfere with the way neurons send, receive, and process signals via neurotransmitters. Some drugs activate neurons because their chemical structures are similar to neurotransmitters that naturally occur in the body, so drugs can attach onto and activate neurons. This includes marijuana and heroin.  However, they don’t activate neurons in the same way as a natural neurotransmitter, so they can have huge negative impacts.

Our brains are wired to increase the odds that we will repeat pleasurable activities through the release of endorphins, such as dopamine, that make us happy. Drugs cause this cycle to continue, leading to addiction. 

Photo from NIH

Conclusion:

Physical activity, sleep hygiene, nutrition, mental stimulation, music, and substance use have major effects on your brain. In order to keep your brain healthy, we recommend following these tips and finding more information online from the NIH and CDC. Remember, brain health is in your hands, and it starts with YOU. 

Sources:

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Linnemann, Alexandra, et al. “The Effects of Music Listening on Pain and Stress in the Daily Life of Patients with Fibromyalgia Syndrome.”

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Gómez-Pinilla, Fernando. “Brain Foods: the Effects of Nutrients on Brain Function.” Nature Reviews. Neuroscience, U.S. National Library of Medicine, July 2008, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2805706/. 

“Nutrition and Brain Health.” HealthEngine Blog, 21 Mar. 2019, healthengine.com.au/info/nutrition-and-brain-health. 

Drugs and the Brain, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/drugs-brainneurotransmitters

Reynolds, Susan. “Have You Fed Your Brain Today?” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 7 Sept. 2011, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/prime-your-gray-cells/201109/have-you-fed-your-brain-today. 

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