The human brain is an extremely complex organ. Despite rapid scientific progress, the knowledge about how the brain works in still evolving.
The brain contains about 100 billion neurons, which are highly specialized nerve cells responsible for communicating information throughout the body. For each neuron, there are roughly anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 synapses. A synapse is the connection between neurons that permits a neuron to pass an electrical or chemical signal to another neuron. Hormones and neurotransmitters are examples of chemical signals.
The old adage of humans only using 10% of our brain is not true. Every part of the brain has a known function. Humans continue to make new neurons throughout life in response to mental activity. When you learn something new, your brain undergoes physical changes. The brain keeps growing in the frontal and temporal lobes well into middle-age, which can be associated with better emotional development and wisdom.
The brain is, in fact, very much like a muscle which can be “bulked up” through exercise. Hence, it is possible to stimulate and challenge your brain as you get older to promote its continued growth. This means that the opposite also holds true – drug use, poor nutrition, or other assaults on your brain can interfere with its development and health. This may be the explanation why Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia cases are skyrocketing in the U.S. and many developed countries.
So even if you haven’t been leading the healthiest lifestyle thus far, making some positive changes now may still provide your brain what it needs to stay healthy as you age. The following are tips on how to keep your brain young and healthy.
Control Your Blood Glucose Levels
Latest studies show that people with type 2 diabetes are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s compared with people who are non-diabetic. There is increasing evidence that even pre-diabetics are already at increased risk of cognitive decline.
Diabetes is normally associated with insulin resistance, a condition by which the cells in the body have become unresponsive to insulin. Recently, researchers have discovered a new type of insulin resistance called brain insulin resistance.
In this case, the brain is unable to access the insulin in the blood. As a result, brain cells are unable to utilize glucose which is its main source of fuel, causing them to degenerate and die. As neurons in the brain are lost, the brain shrinks, and memory and cognitive skills decline. Scientists are now labeling this new type of brain insulin resistance type 3 diabetes.
Lifestyle choices are a major contributing factor to insulin resistance. Being overweight, consuming excess foods loaded with carbohydrates (sugar, fruits, grains, legumes, starchy vegetables), and being sedentary are all known factors leading to insulin resistance.
Lose Your Spare Tire
There is a connection between abdominal fat and your brain. The deeper layer of visceral fat cells around your waist is like an active organ producing hormones that can cause higher insulin levels.
The brain has a lot of insulin receptors and they are concentrated in the hippocampus, which plays important roles in the consolidation of information from short-term to long-term memory and spatial navigation. Scientists found that the enzyme that breaks down insulin also breaks down beta-amyloid, the sticky protein that mucks up the brains in people with Alzheimer’s.
However, this enzyme prefers to break down insulin. So if you have excess insulin, the enzyme will work on the insulin rather than the beta-amyloid, resulting in its accumulation. For this reason, in Alzheimer’s patients, the hippocampus is one of the first regions of the brain to suffer damage. Memory problems and disorientation often appear among the first symptoms.
Research finds that with dementia, there is a shrinkage of the dendrites (branched projections of a neuron) that connect the neurons. There is also less production of neurotransmitters and the hippocampus gets smaller.
Numerous studies found that aerobic exercise encourages your brain to work at optimum capacity by causing nerve cells to multiply, strengthening their interconnections, and protecting them from damage. For older people, aerobic exercise is very effective in boosting executive skills that includes planning, scheduling, multi-tasking, dealing with ambiguity and working memory (the ability to store short-term memory and process the information). So, if you want to boost your brain size, go for a brisk walk every day.
Eat A Clean, Healthy Diet
Like the rest of your body, your brain depends on clean, healthy foods to function. While protein is the main source of fuel for your brain, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals from fresh vegetables are just as important, as is limiting sugar intake.
Nutrients that benefit your brain:
- Omega-3 fats are essential for the health of the protective myelin or sheath (which is made of 60% fat) that covers the communicating neurons. Wild Alaskan salmon is a rich source of omega-3 fats. If you take a supplement, make sure the fish is sourced from clean, pristine, and uncontaminated water.
- Vitamin B12 is critically needed to form healthy myelin and prevent brain shrinkage. B12 is available in natural form only from animal sources (meats, eggs, dairy products). Many supplements and fortified foods use the synthetic form of B12 which is not as well absorbed by the body.
- Coconut oil. Brain cells of people with Alzheimer’s don’t utilize glucose well. Glucose is the brain’s primary fuel, enabling neurons to produce acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter necessary for coherent thought. Without acetylcholine, you experience mental confusion and memory loss. Coconut oil provides ketones as an alternative fuel source to glucose that feeds the brain, restores and renews neurons, and prevents brain shrinkage.
Avoid these neurotoxins in your diet:
- Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame
- Pesticides and herbicides
- PCBs (common in farmed salmon)
- Heavy metals such as mercury (dental amalgam fillings, many fish species), aluminum (antiperspirants, aluminum cookware), lead (paint, lead pipes), and copper (copper cookware, copper pipes)
- Trans fat (hydrogenated polyunsaturated vegetable oils)
Get Sufficient Vitamin D
Researchers have uncovered strong links between low levels of vitamin D and increased risk of cognitive impairment. In addition, there is ample evidence that suggests vitamin D is neuroprotective by reducing inflammation and promoting healthy brain development and function.
Since most people, especially the elderly, don’t get much sun exposure or are always wearing sunscreen, it is vital to take a vitamin D3 supplement. Dosage will vary from person to person but it is generally safe to take up to 10,000 IU per day. The only way to know is to get a blood test for your 25(OH)D level. The optimal range is between 50-70 ng/mL.
Protect Your Brain From Cell Phones
The World Health Organization has recently announced that radiation from cell phones is a possible carcinogen to the brain. The agency found evidence of increased glioma (brain tumor) and acoustic neuroma (tumor on your auditory nerve) for mobile phone users. It now lists mobile phone in the same “carcinogenic hazard” category as lead, engine exhaust, and chloroform.
- Don’t hold the phone next to your ear, instead, use a wired earpiece or the speakerphone function. The further the phone is from you, the less radiation is absorbed.
- Cell phones emit the most radiation when they are attempting to connect to cell towers. A moving phone or a phone in an area with a weak signal has to work harder, emitting more radiation. To reduce your radiation exposure, avoid holding cell phones close to your head in elevators, buildings, and rural areas.
Challenge Your Mind
The brain is like a muscle. If you challenge it, it will get stronger. Mind-training activities stimulate blood flow, strengthen the synapses between neurons, and keep your brain fit as you age.
- Reading challenging books
- Learning a new language
- Playing a musical instrument
- Playing games such as crossword puzzles, Scrabble, and sudoku
- Mastering a new hobby
- Engaging in friendly debates
Last but not least, when you watch TV, your brain goes into neutral. People watching TV have increased alpha brain waves, meaning their brains are in a passive state as if they are just sitting in the dark. It is no wonder that too much TV watching has been linked to low achievement.