Conversations about anti-aging tend to focus on our physical appearance and physical stamina, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, we often overlook our dear brain. Responsible for all the things, the brain certainly deserves more of our attention and love to help protect it from decline.
Not convinced? In 2015, heart disease became second to dementia and Alzheimer’s as UK’s number one killer. The medical field has made enormous strides to improve patients’ chances of surviving heart disease and other common killers, so it’s no wonder that we’re beginning to see the rest of our bodies “outliving” our brains.
Fortunately, there are several simple measures you can start taking today that will benefit your brain for years to come.
Scrap these three unproductive misconceptions about the brain. Before embarking on any brain-care regimen, it’s important to forget the notion that the brain is unchanging/ only possible of degradation. Our brains are dynamic. Regardless of our stage in life, they can grow and improve. In fact, the more we use one area of the brain, the larger that region becomes. The famous London cab driver study illustrates that the brain is somewhat “plastic” and therefore able to adapt to new tasks. Let this inspire you to take on new learning challenges!
Second, let’s stop thinking that our brains “turn off.” Unlike computers, they keep working (and work in unique ways) when we’re in “sleep mode.” Sleep, discussed further below, is prime time for our brain to do some of its most important work.
Finally, we’ve got to stop talking about the mind and body as two separate entities. (Thanks but no thanks, Descartes.) Although certain aspects of the brain remain mysterious (even to science!) and there’s nothing wrong with attaching a spiritual association to our thinking, dreams, and insights, we’ll be more successful at caring for our whole selves when we understand that what we do for “our body” we do for our mind.
Care for your gut flora. Our stomachs and brains are intricately connected–so much so that the stomach is sometimes referred to as the “second brain.” The vagus nerve, which runs from the brain stem to the centric nervous system (the nerves in the gut), transmits information between the stomach area and the brain. And it’s more complicated the business of digestion. In fact, 90% of the fibers in the vagus nerve carry information from the gut to the brain—rather than the other way around.
This is why a healthy diet is critical is caring for the brain. In addition to eating a whole-foods diet rich in protective antioxidants, pay special attention to your gut flora. Optimal gut flora (a.k.a. probiotics) help support the function of our brain and our “second brain” insofar as the presence of these friendly bacteria may affect our mood and brain development.
Enjoy probiotic-rich fermented veggies and consider a high-quality probiotic supplement. While you’re at it, limit processed foods and simple sugars—these compromise healthy gut flora and, over time, may reduce cognitive function.
Get serious about sleep. Even though we tend to think of sleep as our most inactive state, our brains are actually pretty busy when we’re getting shut-eye. While we’re dreamily snuggled in our sheets, our brains are working on creative solutions to existing problems, helping equip us to more efficiently tackle those problems in our waking hours (even if we don’t realize it). Researchers at Harvard found that regular, adequate sleep increases people’s ability to infer connections between seemingly unrelated ideas by 33%.
The flip side of the sleep issue is just as dramatic. Sleep deprivation may cause prefrontal atrophy, resulting in impaired long-term memory function. Try these pre-bedtime rituals to help you establish healthy sleep habits.
Exercise (but no need to go wild). With fitness culture inspiring many to keep pushing their physical boundaries, you’ll probably be relieved to know that your brain doesn’t require anything too fancy. Regular, moderate exercise with a bit of variety goes miles to help your gray matter. No only does exercise improve circulation to the brain, it also has particular effects on learning, emotions, and long-term memory. Specifically, strength training produces insulin-like growth factor-1, which helps promote the growth of neurons. Meanwhile, aerobic exercise produces brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which supports the hippocampus’ learning and emotion functions—so be sure to get a little of both strength training and cardio (your hormones will thank you, too!).
Ways to care for your brain don’t stop here–there are seemingly endless dietary and lifestyle tweaks that can benefit your thinker–so keep researching (and building neural connections in the process!).
What other ways do your care for your brain?
Related: Why Being Hungry Can Be Good for Health and Wellness
How to Engage Your Brain for a Better Workout
Only Have 3 Minutes? Try Superbrain Yoga
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