You know your brain is one of the most essential organs in your entire body, but do you know how to best support it? The right foods can go a long way in promoting optimal brain health, and we will discuss all of them in the next blog. For now, what’s equally important to boost your brain function, is to stop doing what’s hurting it.
Ask five cognitive neuroscientists what cognition is, and you'll get 5 different answers — and some of them may take hours to explain.
Simply put, cognition is thinking. That includes knowledge, learning, memory, problem solving and any other thing your brain does that you have to think about.
Brain plasticity — the state of your brain when you're able to learn new things and integrate new knowledge — is the essence of healthy cognitive brain function
Breathing, digesting, moving, and everything else your body does by itself are all controlled by the brain, but these are part of your autonomic nervous system — the flip side of cognition.
You probably don’t notice your cognition when things are running smoothly. It’s when you aren’t thinking clearly that you typically notice your cognitive function most.
Like with any other issue with your health, I want you to be thinking about thinking when you’re at your best, not just when you can’t formulate a thought for the life of you.
We usually think about cognition issues in terms of short-term and long-term.
Short-term brain function is related to your day-to-day activities. You wake up on the wrong side of the bed, you're feeling reactive or more closed off, perhaps you’re hungover? These are all related to the actions you make everyday like what you eat, how you sleep, and others.
When you consider long-term brain health, you're probably thinking about what you can do to prevent cognitive decline associated with aging. The things you do on a daily basis add up, so you may not see a drastic change with eating certain foods or doing certain things for your brain health today.
In the long run, what you do now has a major impact on your thinking ability late in life. With cognitive decline being so common in older age, I hope you're doing everything you can to prevent that from happening early on. Let me show you how, starting with what not to do.
Think of your brain as a muscle. In order to strengthen, you need to flex it and you need to let it recover properly. Similarly, challenging your brain leads to new neurons; not using your brain can make neurons fade or even die off.
You see where I’m going with this: cognitive function depends on how you use it. When you don’t use it, you lose it. Just try to remember what you learned in your 8th grade history class, and it’s obvious.
You can also think of your brain like you think about your weight, after all your brain is affected by your metabolism. In the state of energy excess —- when you are gaining weight —- inflammation in the brain over-excites those neurons.
On the flip side if you are malnourished and you don't have enough nutrients or calories to function properly, your brain doesn't have the energy to do its job.
Just like with your physical health, there's a happy medium for calories and brain health: not too much, not too little, and getting enough of the right food goes a long way in having a healthy brain — tomorrow and decades from now.
Nitric oxide is a molecule that we all have in our bodies, it helps get blood to critical tissues with tiny blood veins. It starts out as arginine (an amino acid) or nitrate/nitrite (natural plant-based source that is directly converted to nitric oxide).
Nitric oxide is especially important for brain health because of the way it opens up blood vessels and allows nutrients to flow.
Nitric oxide and its precursors nitrites and nitrates do more than just help out the blood vessels in your brain though, they also help your nervous system transmit electrical and chemical signals as neurotransmitters.
When brain cells aren’t functioning properly and nitrite levels are low those brain cells aren’t able to transmit information effectively. But when you take those cells that aren’t firing right and you raise nitrite levels to normal levels, the brain cells are once again able to connect and fire.
No wonder Tufts University research shows that getting your nitrate-rich green and red leafy veggies is so important for long-term brain health! More on that in the next blog, so make sure to check it out.
Your brain is a voracious consumer of sugar, eating up to 20% of your daily calories from glucose. But I’m talking about blood sugar, here – your body’s main source of energy — not added sugars, which are one step down from poison for your metabolism.
Too much added sugar and simple carbs wreak havoc in your body due to the spikes of blood sugar they can cause. These blood sugar spikes cause your nerves to be super excitable, essentially short-circuiting the electrical signals from your brain.
In the long run, research links blood sugar dips and spikes to cognitive decline, even after taking into account average blood sugar levels.
What is the best way to limit blood sugar spikes for better brain health? The answer is something you have already heard: the right diet and enough exercise. Cut out sugar and fast carbs and you could see a spike where you want it: in your cognitive abilities.
We all need alone time, don’t we? Sleep is your body and brain’s space away from everything you throw at it.
Sleep is your brain’s time to strengthen neural networks, recharge energy stores, and weed out mundane memories from the day and store the important ones. Not enough sleep equals not enough cognitive recovery.
Too little sleep is also just like being drunk. According to the CDC, going 18 hours without sleep is the equivalent of a blood alcohol content of about .05%. Still legal to drive, but not a good idea!
Sleep deprivation hurts your executive functioning more than almost any other single thing you can do.
Try it! Get two more hours of sleep every night and tell me without lying that you don’t look better, feel better, and think better. You can’t do it; the benefits are undeniable and they translate to long-term brain health too!
Stress is fickle. Too little and you’re sure to be unmotivated, unfocused, and lethargic. Too much, and it can kill you, literally and figuratively.
Let’s be real though, who’s walking around in today with “too little stress”? It’s almost a cruel joke to say it because our lives are so filled with stress at every moment. There’s no escape: it’s in our relationships, our deadline-centered workplaces, the driving to and fro… On and on, stress drives our modern lives.
Stress hormones ramp up what’s called your sympathetic nervous system. That’s your fight-or-flight response, essential for running away from tigers and hunting wildebeest. But you probably don’t want to be doing the same to that boss breathing down your neck, no matter how much you may want to.
With so many demands pulling us from every angle all the time with the utmost of importance, stress is the defining feeling of modern society.
You have to keep in mind, though, that even if you can't change your surroundings, only you can change how you react to them. Take a deep breath (or three!), and see how you feel.
Better yet, focus on your breathing every morning and see how you feel throughout the week. The change is going to be impossible to deny.
Activating your parasympathetic nervous system — the so-called “rest and digest” side of your brain — is a powerful tool for a long and happy life. Pair that brain relaxation with slowly eating the most nourishing foods for your brain and you’ve got a winning combination for a sharper mind.
As you can tell, everyday choices, can change the way you think, feel, and perform.
Remember Resync is here to help you live a healthier life.
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Helping you lead a healthier life,
The Resync Team
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Written by Barbara Depta and registered dietitian, Detrick Snyder, MPH, RDN. Updated on 5/17/2021.
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