A vital part of protecting and optimising mental health and ageing well involves keeping the power pack in your head, your brain, healthy and strong. The exciting news is that there is plenty you can do to ensure this.
Your brain produces new brain cells throughout your life span. Its capacity to grow and strengthen is incredible. The degree to which it does this though, depends on the things you do.
The more you do the things that support the regeneration of brain cells, the more protected you’ll be against a whole list of things, including depression, anxiety and physical pain, and the stronger your overall cognitive functioning (such as memory and learning) will be.
Science has given us a hand with this, finding the foods and activities that will help to keep the brain happy and high performing. Here we go:
The foods to eat for brain health.
Cocoa flavanols can improve memory by effecting a part of the brain called the dentate gyrus.
Find it in: dark chocolate. (Does that make you happy? Me too.)
Omega-3 Fatty Acids.
We’ve been aware of the magic of Omega 3 for a long time. Its long list of superpowers includes the way it works to protect against anxiety, improve memory and encourage neurogenesis (the growth of new brain cells).
Find it in: salmon, flaxseed oil and chia seeds.
Phosphatidylserine and Phosphatidi
Improves memory, mood and cognitive function, and is used in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.
Find it in: cabbage and soy.
Research has found that eating a handful of walnuts each day can help to improve memory, concentration, and the speed at which the brain processes information.
Find it in: the packet that says ‘Walnuts’. (Yeah I know you knew that.)
Supports the brain during ageing and fights cognitive decline by preventing changes in brain chemistry.
Find it in: eggs, prawns, scallops.
Magnesium is crucial for brain health and helps with the bounce back from stress. It also helps to protect against depression and anxiety, and strengthens memory and learning. The problem is that stress can carve crazy quick through our natural stores of magnesium, so it’s important to eat enough of the right foods to restore the magnesium that stress depletes.
Find it in: avocado, soy beans, bananas and dark chocolate.
Stimulates blood and oxygen to the brain, and promotes the growth of new brain cells.
Find it in: Blueberry muffi.. yeah, no. It would be nice to think that blueberry muffins had evolved into a high-powered superfood, but no – you would need to eat a truckload. Every day. And you’d soon get sick of that – or just really really sick (oh life, you can be so cruel sometimes) – so best stick with the real thing – real blueberries I mean, not real muffins.
Research found that the closer older adults were to taking in three servings a day of dairy, the higher their levels of glutathione in the brain, an antioxidant that seems to protect against diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinsons, and many others.
Find it in: milk, cheese, yoghurt, cream.
Other ways to keep your brain healthy:
Learn something new.
Anything that will stretch you at your edges is perfect – whether it’s learning to cook Argentinian, how to speak Italian like a local, or how to belly dance like you were born to do it, learning something new will build new neurons and encourage the existing neurons to strengthen connections and form new pathways. The more neurons and pathways you have, the quicker and better your brain will function.
The best things to learn are those that are completely new to you. If you’re already multilingual, for example, learning another language won’t have the most value for your brain. Similarly, if you can already play the violin, rather than learning the piano learn something entirely different, like how to dance, play soccer, paint or make something sparkly, wearable and perfect for your wrist.
Aerobic exercise is anything that gets you puffing (so walking to get your dark chocolate from the fridge doesn’t count. Pity.) Research has found that it increases the growth of neurons in the hippocampus – the part of the rain that looks after memory, organizing and storing information. Exercise also works to reduce stress, which decreases the growth of new neurons.
During stress, activity increases in the amygdala, hypothalamus and anterior cingulate cortex (the areas of the brain that initiate the body’s physiological stress response). At the same time, there is decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex (the thinking, creative, rational part of the brain). Cutting edge research by David Creswell of Carnegie Mellon University has found that mindfulness seems to reverse this – by increasing activity in the prefrontal cortex and decreasing the physiological stress response. That means less of the neurochemicals that are triggered by stress surging through the body and causing trouble.
Share the love.
Being with friends can provide opportunities for new experiences and new learning. Aside from the huge emotional benefits (as long as they’re tribe-worthy people of course) the benefits to brain health are plenty.
But not with toxics.
Toxic people create toxic environments, and when the brain is in a toxic environment it will shut down to protect itself. What this looks like is a slowing down of growth and the rate at which it produces new neurons (neurogenesis). Though people can and do still function when this happens, they become vulnerable to anxiety, depression, cognitive impairment, memory loss, reduced immunity, loss of vitality, reduced resilience to stress, and illness. Research has also shown that migraine and other pain conditions are more prevalent in people who were brought up in abusive environments, though the exact reason for the relationship is unclear. It’s not always possible to keep toxic people away, particularly if they are work colleagues or family, but in these instances it’s even more important to nurture brain health in other ways, to make up for the effects of the toxic person in your life.
Get plenty of pillow time. (On your side if you can.)
During sleep, brain cells seem to decrease in size, which opens up cave like structures between them. Cerebral spinal fluid, which covers the surface of the brain during the day, flows through the brain and flushes out neurotoxins. This takes an enormous amount of energy and because the brain has enough to do while we’re awake, the flushing out happens while we sleep. More research is needed to confirm that this is what happens, but the early findings have our attention.
There’s a lot in life that we can’t avoid – ageing, illness, stress, pollution, idiots – but there are things we can do to strengthen and protect ourselves against those things. Our brain is the holder of our thoughts, memories, who we are and the way we are in the world. Looking after it is one of the most empowering and effective ways to make sure we’re the best version of ourselves that we can be.
That was lots of fun to read, particularly Where to find it: lol
thank you, Karen. As someone who prefers to use food as medicine your article is much appreciated. I am looking for ways that naturally increase serotonin to help manage depression and also an eating disorder. What came first the eating disorder which I have had since early childhood or the depression? Mnn? Doesn’t really matter if I can get a better handle on it, hey. Thanks again.
Thanks Judith – Such a great question. I’m so sure that as research keeps moving ahead in this area, we will start to see so many more connections between different illnesses. The gut is so important for mental health, so it makes sense that if you have had an eating disorder, this would impact the environment of the gut which would in may create a vulnerability to mental health issues like depression – not cause, but possibly contribute. There’s still so much to discover. It’s great that you’re looking for ways to naturally strengthen the health of your brain – it’s something we could all benefit from. All the best to you.
As always, I learn something new in each of your articles, and the advice is easily applied. I like your sense of ha-ha, too! Somehow it’s as though you know what I need to read for at least one person in my family, thank you SO much <3 <3
Thank you! I’m so pleased the articles are helpful for you.
Informative, interesting & accessible piece.