Our society is consumed with messages about staying healthy and fit. There are lots of resources available to help us keep our bodies working up to their highest potential through diet, exercise and drinking enough water. Meanwhile, many are concerned with taking enough time for self-care so we can keep our hair, nails and skin healthy.
But what about brain health?
It shouldn’t be overlooked. Our brains are in charge of all our organs and their functions, so keeping them healthy is essential to our overall health.
“Simply put, our brains and bodies are connected. An injury to the body is an injury to the brain and vice versa. Taking care of the brain by protecting it, feeding it properly, giving it plenty of rest and avoiding noxious rewards, we can help promote brain-health while preserving our identity and sense of self,” said Patrick McFarlane, director of Integrated Behavioral Medicine and Primary Care Psychiatry at Eastern Maine Medical Center.
Moreover, while our heart, liver, and lungs can be replaced, our brains are irreplaceable.
So where do you begin with practicing good brain health?
Practice a good diet
Eating well is a good place to start, according to McFarlane. He suggests a well-balanced diet that is mindful of the updated USDA regulations is the best way to “feed” our brains.
Since our brain is our master organ, it needs the same nutrients as the rest of our organs although certain foods have been coined as ‘brain foods.’ McFarlane said the term brain food refers to a diet rich in vegetables, grains, and Omega-3 fatty acids (as found in oily fish like salmon).
“There are not definitive random controlled trials which support the notion of ‘superfoods’ for the brain,” McFarlane said. However, he does recommend avoiding processed foods when you can along with sticking to a balanced diet for brain health.
Consumer Health Digest reports that spinach can help fight against dementia and improve brain function, and dark chocolate can keep our memory sharp.
Commit to exercise
When you get moving, you aren’t just benefiting your body — it’s also good for your brain, experts say. “Regular exercise that promotes movement, balance, breathing, and makes one sweat is generally good for the brain,” McFarlane said.
So take a walk, go for a bike ride or head out on a hike. Your brain will thank you.
But physical activity isn’t the only way we can exercise our brains. Anything which encourages us to socialize is good for the brain as well, McFarlane said. Our brains were created to make stories, and connections — so socializing works that storytelling and connection-making muscle.
Likewise, we can also give our minds a workout by playing games or doing crossword puzzles, for example. Playing games of memory and skill have popular efficacy for promoting brain health, McFarlane said.
Tired? Do your brain a favor and give in. Sleep, too, is imperative for good brain health because while we are sleeping, our brain repairs itself, McFarlane said.
If you’re feeling like you’re extra forgetful, your sleep habits could be the culprit. Sleep also seems to be where we consolidate memories, according to McFarlane.
Good sleep hygiene will set the stage for a restful night. To achieve this, McFarland said slightly cooler temperatures where you are sleeping will help. Darkness is also important as it’s a signal for our pituitary gland to release melatonin to relax for sleep. You should avoid artificial lights, including screens an hour or two before sleeping as it will help you rest more soundly, McFarlane said.
Stress was also “inversely associated with cerebral brain volume,” according to a study published in November of 2019 in the journal Neurology. In other words, our brains actually get smaller due to stress.
According to McFarlane, stress affects all the systems of the body and definitely has an impact on the brain. “Specifically the brain can be affected by cortisol or what we call ‘stress hormones,’” he said.
In another study for Neurology , researchers from Harvard Medical School in Boston, Mass., reported, “Higher cortisol was associated with worse memory and visual perception, as well as lower total cerebral brain and occipital frontal lobar gray matter volumes.”
As social animals, it’s important we get social support while we are stressed. Go to coffee with a friend, talk with your partner, or simply get out of the house. “This can help reduce your stress hormones and promote a return to pre-stress functioning,” said McFarlane.
You may notice while you are in distress you crave more sleep, food or have the urge to isolate yourself but McFarlane suggests keeping up with a normal exercise routine, getting reassurance from others through socializing, and proper eating and sleeping can get you back to baseline functioning.
If we take care of our brain, it will take care of us. It’s comforting to know that a few simple things like doing puzzles, keeping stress under control and eating a healthy balanced diet can help keep our brains healthy.