Want to keep your brain sharp, get rid of mental fog and slow mental decline? Of course, you do! Aging is inevitable, but we all want to live as rich a life as possible, and keep your mental clarity as we get older. The brain is an extremely complex machine, capable of imagination, reasoning, and detailed thought processes, but it’s delicate as well, and to keep it healthy as we age can be tricky.
Researchers now know that there are several key components to maintaining brain health. Each has a strong impact on the health of your brain and on overall wellbeing. They have developed six questions to help you get a reasonable assessment of your brain health. How you answer them can provide key insight into how healthy your brain is now and how well it may be aging.
Question one: What do you eat?
We often use food as a means of relieving stress or satisfying a craving, instead of for nutrition. Food is supposed to be the fuel for our body and brain. Our body is capable of many great and wonderful things, but without the correct fuel, it can’t reach its full potential, and the consequences to our physical and brain health can be serious.
Eating healthy foods allows your brain to function in a more optimal state. For example, foods that are high in healthy fats — monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats — are great for brain health. Because the brain is made up of mostly fat, you should keep it strong by feeding it healthy fats like those found in walnuts, avocados, and some fatty fish.
Fish and eggs are also great for the health of your brain for other reasons — they are high in omega 3 and choline, respectively. Additionally, berries that are high in antioxidants, such as blueberries, are also great for your brain health. The powerful amounts of antioxidants in berries and certain dark skin fruit help fight inflammation that is associated with neurodegenerative diseases, while aiding your brain development and even helping to re-grow brain cells. Scientists once thought when brain cells die off then they’re gone for good, but new research has demonstrated that they can grow back... and the antioxidants found in blueberries can help!
So make sure you’re eating brain-healthy foods that ward off brain fog, and keep you sharp.
Second Question: How much do you drink?
This isn’t just about alcohol, but about anything you’re drinking. It’s important to be really mindful about what we’re using to satiate our thirst. Are you grabbing for soda, tea, alcohol, water, or a sugary drink? Once you are aware of what you are drinking and when you are drinking it, then you can begin making changes and start doing things that are going to be beneficial to your brain. While drinking soda or tea can satisfy our thirst momentarily, in the long-run it will actually dehydrate you. For optimal brain health, we need to drink plenty of water — by the time you’re thirsty, you’re already dehydrated! To jazz it up a bit, try lemon wedges or some fruit infused water, but pick water first; most other liquids are not a good substitute. Our brain uses this water to operate efficiently, and without it, our thinking, decision-making skills, reasoning, and reaction time can become slower. It’s difficult to overstate the importance of hydration when it comes to overall health and brain efficiency.
The other drinking question that needs to be answered is how much alcohol you drink. Not only is alcohol full of sugars, and dehydrates you, but it also can lead to serious mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. Alcohol can have many physical effects on the brain as well. Intoxication can bring on symptoms of the brain’s poor level of functioning through the typical symptoms of blurred vision, loss of hand-eye coordination, and slurred speech, but there are also long term repercussions. These can include loss of memory and some other permanent debilitating conditions.
Question 3: How often do you exercise?
The Department of Health and Human Services recommends that you get at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day. This could be as simple as walking around a neighborhood park with a friend, watching the after-dinner tv show while walking on the treadmill, yoga, resistance exercise, or strengthening your core. We all know exercise improves our health, but it has a major impact on our brain as well. Exercise increases blood flow by increasing the heart rate, which brings more oxygen to the brain allowing it to work more efficiently. Additionally, exercise increases healthy feel-good hormones that can combat mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
Another lesser known form of exercise that is good for your brain is brain exercises. When we are kids the world around us seems magical. We seem to constantly be in a state of wonder. As we grow up, our view of the world seems to shrink. This can occur because we aren’t facing as many daily mental challenges when we get older. You can exercise your brain by playing sudoku or crossword puzzles during your lunch break or reading a book before you go to bed, or perhaps learning a new instrument or even brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand. These improve the communication between your brain cells as well as the development of new ones. All of these are great for optimal brain health.
Question 4: How well do you sleep?
The national sleep foundation recommends that adults should get 7 - 9 hours of quality sleep each night. Recent studies show that Americans get on average only about 6 hours of sleep per night, and often it’s not good sleep. This means that each night we are adding an hour to our sleep deprivation. Not sleeping enough has many negative effects on brain health that include depression, forgetfulness, inability to concentrate, and weight gain.
When we don’t get enough sleep, our brain does not work as efficiently as it could. We know this to be true when we try to pull all nighters, travel into another time zone, have a huge pending deadline or life event that is creating stress, or even when daylight time savings begins. Our brain cells run slowly, unable to communicate well with each other. Plus, our brain uses sleep as the time to sort through our life events, storing memories in short term and long-term memory. If we’re not sleeping well, we’re unable to obtain REM sleep, and thus the brain is unable to complete this process. This means that our brain will not be storing information that is pertinent, which can result in mental decline.
Question 5: How do you socialize?
Maintaining your social life is one of the key components to overall health and brain optimization. Similar to sleeping well, socializing aids your brain in processing memories. Maintaining your active social life is as simple as making a phone call, or better yet, engaging in stimulating conversation with a friend face to face. It can also mean trying new experiences with new and old friends. Nature intended us to be social creatures and we need consistent interaction to release good hormones within your body that help you fight depression and anxiety. This doesn’t mean it’s bad to be an introvert! Recent studies show that those who engage in active socializing can combat memory decline, longer than those who aren’t active socially. We all need community, but it looks different for everyone. Find the type of interaction that is meaningful to you.
Final Question: How do you manage your stress?
One of the most beneficial things that you can do for your brain health is to manage your stress in a healthy way. Often, we turn to food or alcohol for temporary relief from stress, as a way to self-medicate, or as a distraction from our troubles. But in the long run, this can just create more stress, without solving anything. Managing looks different for different individuals, but it always involves self-care.
There are plenty of methods for combating and managing stress, including yoga, reading, getting better sleep, relaxing baths, massage, exercise, or just taking a walk. Whatever you do, just make sure you take a few minutes every single day to do something that will dissipate your stress.
Don’t ask yourselves these questions just once. Revisit all six questions regularly, in order to assess your brain health and progress. And maintain a healthier brain by integrating the brain healthy practices in this article into your regular routine. If you’re intentional about these healthy practices, your brain won’t be the only thing that stays stronger for longer.