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New Year, New Brain

5 Resolutions to Improve Your Brain

New Year's resolutions are a great way to focus your brain on what you want to accomplish in the coming year. The more time you spend pondering and writing down your goals, the more you engage your brain in the process. Basically, you're enlisting your brain's help, and, lucky for you, your brain is easily your strongest ally in the accomplishment of those goals. To prime your brain for the tasks ahead, make sure you establish some goals that will specifically benefit your brain. We're offering up five suggestions for resolutions that will have your brain humming along all year.

Resolve to Widen Your Perspective

If you understand the inner workings of your brain, particularly in relation to its continual ability to grow and change, you can choose activities and strategies that will tamp down negative behaviors and bolster the areas you want to improve. For instance, thanks to plasticity (see a prior blog, "Plastic Is Fantastic . . . for Your Brain"), your brain has the ability to grow new neurons, make new connections, and tamp down dysfunctional or unproductive connections. If you pinpoint the problem areas in your brain (too unfocused, too susceptible to stress, hyperactive, difficulty remembering crucial information, and so on), you can choose activities that will tamp down the unwanted responses and increase those that will bolster the new responses you desire. In our books, we make everything you need to know about your brain simple to comprehend and offer many suggestions for things you can do to get happy and rich . . . or simply to have a more smoothly functioning brain. There have been major discoveries in the last few decades about how your brain functions, and learning more about them will help you maximize your brain's potential. It's also highly productive to widen your perspective in other areas of learning, as the more your brain knows, the more it can help you on your quest for success or happiness or whatever else it is that you want to manifest in the new year.

Your brain is your ally, resolve to get it up to speed and reap the rewards.

Resolve to Challenge Your Brain

Giving your brain new (novel) experiences helps it to form new neuronal pathways, i.e., whatever you focus on will generate activity and growth in the areas of your brain that are required for that activity, particularly if it's something you've never done before. The more you do something, the more synapses your brain fires and creates. Novelty is great because it will stimulate synapses that have lain dormant or create entirely new ones, because your brain is trying to adapt to process and understand whatever it is that you deem important.

If you're athletic, try something that will flex your cerebellum more than your biceps, something requiring precise movement and muscle control, like dancing. If you're an obsessive reader, try learning table tennis (which is supposed to be one of the best physical activities for your brain because it involves anticipation, memory, analysis, and physical coordination, all at a very rapid pace). If you haven't read a book in five years, try researching and writing an essay on something that taxes your brain-like neuroscience or quantum physics. If your work is mostly focused on office work or numbers, take up a visual hobby, like photography or painting, to broaden what you ask your brain to focus on and to specifically stimulate your visual senses.

Two of the most fantastic challenges for your brain involve music and language. Learning to read music and play an instrument has been shown to positively morph your brain in ways that few other activities can, and learning to speak a foreign language requires a lot of mental focus and work. Speaking a foreign language, in particular, appears to create a cognitive reserve and improves your ability to stop paying attention to one thing and focus on something else quickly-and it may even keep your brain young. A study published in the journal Neurology surveyed 211 patients diagnosed with Alzheimer's and found that those who spoke only one language saw the onset of their first symptoms four to five years earlier than their bilingual peers.

Other activities that are really good for brain development include:

  • Learning to play complicated games challenges your working memory and often includes interaction with others, which sharpens your people-reading skills.
  • Learning to build scale models enhances certain cognitive skills, such as concentration, visual-motor skills, and executive functions, such as planning, organizing, strategizing, and both paying attention to and remembering details.
  • Learning to practice origami requires learning complicated patterns and an entire new "language" of folds, symbols, and patterns. It requires manual dexterity, hand/eye coordination, and a sharp eye for shapes and spatial relationships.
  • Learning to write calligraphy also involves intensive hand/eye coordination and the necessity to learn new ways of doing something you normally do without thinking at all.

Those are just a few ideas, designed to stimulate your own thoughts on activities that would uniquely challenge your brain. Like exercising, it doesn't matter what you do as long as you do something that will engage and challenge your brain. Picking something you find intriguing or joyful will strengthen your resolve to keep doing it-but maybe you won't know how much you like it until you try it.

Make a resolution to do something new and challenging and your brain will thank you for it almost immediately.

Resolve to Choose Your Fats Carefully

Approximately 60 percent of your brain matter consists of fats that create all the cell membranes in your body. Unfortunately, even good fats are a very concentrated source of energy, providing more than double the amount of calories in one gram of carbohydrate or protein, which is why it's important to choose the healthy fats and to eat them in moderation.

Eat More Omega 3 Fatty Acids

The good fats, or lipids, that work so beautifully in your body-and your brain-are called fatty acids. If your diet provides the essential, good fats, your brain cells can manufacture higher-quality nerve cell membranes and influence positively your nerve cells' ability to function at their peak capacity. Omega-3 fatty acids are great for mental clarity, concentration, and focus. Foods containing omega-3 fatty acids include:

  • Certain cold-water fish (bluefish, herring, mackerel, rainbow trout, salmon, sardines, tuna, and whitefish)
  • Olive oil
  • Flaxseed oil
  • Peanut oil
  • Canola oil

Studies have revealed that Omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for maintaining normal cognitive function, have additional advantages in the brain. For example, DHA and EPA, the Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, particularly salmon, albacore tuna, sardines, and swordfish, are vital for a sharp mind. Just remember to limit fish high in mercury to twice a week, and check with your doctor if you have any concerns.

Severely Limit Trans Fats

Most American diets are sadly way over the top when it comes to consuming saturated, hydrogenated, and partially hydrogenated trans fats. When unsaturated fats are heated for a long time, in metal pots and pans, they form altered or trans fatty acids. In contrast to healthy fatty acids (whose soft pliability helps nerve cell membranes function smoothly), these trans fatty acids become double-bonded, rigid, and thus tend to gum up synaptic or electrical nerve cell communication. Besides greatly increasing your chance of gaining too much weight on foods that contain little to zero nutritional value, here's a short list of the damage trans fats can do to your brain:

  1. Alter the synthesis of neurotransmitters, such as dopamine.
  2. Increase LDL (bad) cholesterol and decrease HDL (good) cholesterol.
  3. Increase the amount of plaque in blood vessels and increase the possibility of blood clots forming, both of which puts your heart-and your brain-at risk.
  4. Increase the amount of triglycerides in your system, which slows down the amount of oxygen going to your brain, and the excess of which has been linked to depression.

Foods to severely limit or exclude include:

  • Commercial baked goods: pies, cakes, doughnuts, cookies, etc.
  • Processed foods and fast foods
  • Fatty cuts of beef, pork, and lamb
  • Whole milk, ice cream, cheese, butter, margarines
  • Candy, crackers, potato chips, corn chips, cheese puffs, pretzels, etc.
  • Mayonnaise and some salad dressings

Here are two additional reasons you may want to ban trans fats from your diet:

  1. Trans fat works against your brain by disrupting the production of energy in the mitochondria (the energy factories) of brain cells.
  2. When your diet is high in trans fatty acids and low in omega-3 fatty acids, your brain absorbs twice as many trans fatty acids.

Make it your priority to beef up fatty acids and vastly reduce trans fats, and your brain will come through when you need it most.

Resolve to Get More Quality Sleep

Sleep is essential to your healthy brain functioning, affecting genetic processes, protein synthesis, and myelin formation. Neurons require myelin to fire up and form synapses. In fact, recent discoveries have revealed that sleep allows new neurons to grow in your hippocampus, the part of the brain that regulates long-term memory and spatial navigation. Adequate restful sleep also improves your brain's ability to focus, learn new skills, and remember important information. Even moderate sleep deprivation may slow down your brain, prevent neurons from regenerating and firing properly, limit the formation of new synapses, and prevent the plasticity that allows your brain to learn new tasks, and impair memory.

So how much is enough?

Because sleep is when your brain goes into overdrive, most healthy adults need 7½ to 9 hours per night to function at their best. When you fall asleep, you cycle through five stages every 90 to 110 minutes, with the Deep Restorative Sleep and REM Sleep playing the most crucial roles. These stages are:

Stage 1: Transition to sleep, which lasts about five minutes. Eye movement slows down, along with muscle activity.

Stage 2: Light Sleep, which lasts ten to twenty-five minutes. This stage is characterized by slower brain waves punctuated by infrequent surges of accelerated brain waves.

Stages 3 and 4: Deep Restorative (Slow-Wave) Sleep, which shortens as the night progresses. The deepest stage of sleep, this "slow-wave" sleep features extremely slow brain waves. During this phase, blood flow is directed away from the brain and towards the muscles, and the production of protein rises.

Stage 5: REM Sleep, first occurs 70 to 90 minutes after falling asleep. This is the dreaming phase, when the focus is on brain restoration. Eyes move rapidly, breathing is shallow, arms and legs are temporarily "paralyzed," heart rate and blood pressure increase. Increased protein production occurs. The length of time spent in REM becomes longer as the night progresses.

In the beginning of the night, you spend more time in deep/deep restorative (slow-wave) sleep and less time in REM sleep; however, as the hours pass, you shift out of deep restorative (slow-wave) sleep and into having more REM sleep. (Slow-wave sleep prepares your brain for REM sleep). In the hours before waking, you're spending almost all of your time in stages 1, 2, and REM sleep, with only brief passes into deep, restorative sleep.

During REM sleep, your brain:

  1. Consolidates and processes any and all information you've learned during the day.
  2. Forms neural connections that strengthen and consolidate memories
  3. Replenishes its supply of neurotransmitters, including chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine. These chemicals help all parts of the brain to stay on track-neither too fast nor too slow-allowing the brain as a whole to hum along, doing the best job it can.
  4. Increases brain connectivity or plasticity, which helps you continue learning and growing as you age.

If you need more motivation, consider this: More Sleep = Less Weight. Sleep deprivation increases the level of ghrelin (the hormone that regulates your appetite) while lowering the level leptin (the hormone that curbs your appetite). Failing to get enough sleep can lead to a craving for starchy, high-carbohydrate foods, sweets, and other high-calorie foods, and a weakened ability to resist. This hormonal imbalance can seduce you into consuming as much as 33-45 percent more high-calorie foods than your well-rested peers.

Make a resolution to view sleep as the one of the healthiest things you can do for body and brain.

Resolve to Exercise for 30 Minutes a Day

Brisk walking for thirty minutes a day is all that is needed for brain health-and it doesn't have to be thirty consecutive minutes. You can walk briskly for ten minutes three times a day, or for five minutes six times a day. In case you need motivation, here are several reasons exercise is fabulous for your brain:

  • Exercise stimulates circulation and increases blood flow to all parts of your body and brain, bringing extra oxygen, glucose, and nutrients. These are the building blocks of all types of cells, including neurons: The extra blood flow to your brain provides the perfect environment for creating and strengthening your little grey cells.
  • Exercise that involves coordination between your muscles and your brain activates your cerebellum, which improves your ability to think, helps you think faster, and think better!
  • Exercise helps increase healthy growth factors in your hippocampus, the memory center of your brain.

Researchers at UC Irvine have also demonstrated that the changes that take place in your brain as a result of exercise-increased neurogenesis and rejuvenation and generation of neural connections-occur because exercise stimulates certain types of genes known as "neural growth factors." These neural growth factors are called BDNF, IGF-1, and VEGF. The names of these genes might remind you of alphabet soup, but together they spell out m-e-m-o-r-y.

Exercise keeps your brain well nourished, youthful, receptive, flexible-and finely tuned. It also increases self-esteem and confidence, which makes you stand up straighter and go forth into the world, engaging with others and enjoying life. It just makes you feel better about yourself, and that's worth your weight in gold.

Commit to thirty minutes a day of physical exercise, and your brain will be primed for helping you accomplish all the goals on your list.

Happy New Year, Happy New Brain!

This article was co-written by Susan Reynolds and Teresa Aubele, Ph.D.