6 Scientific Ways to Boost Your Brain Health
Find out which mind-body practices and dietary habits boost brainpower.
Posted December 31, 2017 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina
Your brain is a complicated and dynamic structure, consisting of about 86 billion neurons or nerve cells. Each neuron is linked to thousands of other neurons, forming intricate networks of neural connections that transmit information to help us perform important functions like breathing, moving, remembering, responding to threats, learning from experience, controlling impulses, and forming attachment relationships. Cultivating optimal brain health is the foundation for healthy and successful living, learning, and loving. Research shows that you can boost brain power by living healthier, napping, and practicing mindfulness, which has been shown to alter the physical structure of the brain in beneficial ways.
Below are 6 practical ways you can improve brain health:
1. Eat a Mediterranean diet
Incorporating more fruits, vegetables, and lean protein sources in your diet can help protect your brain, according to the latest research. A 2017 study by researchers at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland showed that eating a Mediterranean diet may protect against memory and thinking damage associated with aging. This type of diet consists primarily of olive oil, vegetables, fruits, fish, beans, dairy, and healthy grains and less white processed flour, red meat, and sugar. In this study of almost 1000 people, elderly adults who followed the Mediterranean diet principles more closely were less likely to lose total brain volume over a 3 year period. Other studies show that consuming extra-virgin olive oil, which is a large part of the mediterranean diet, can protect memory and learning ability.
2. Eat a ketogenic diet
A ketogenic diet consists of low carbohydrate intake and higher fat intake, along with moderate protein. The Atkins diet is an example of a ketogenic approach to eating. The idea is to consume about 70% of calories from fat, 20 - 25% from protein, and only 5-10% from carbohydrates. Research studies show memory benefits of a ketogenic diet in mildly memory-impaired adults, Type 1 diabetics, and people with Alzheimers. The effects of this type of diet on healthy adult brains have not been as well studied. The idea behind a ketogenic diet is that when the brain cannot rely on carbohydrates to get the glucose it needs, your body creates ketones from fats in the liver, which act as an alternate source of brain fuel, increasing your brain and body’s efficiency in burning fat for energy.
3. Eat brain-healthy foods
Certain healthy fruits and vegetables have been shown to predict improved performance on cognitive and memory tests and higher levels of healthy brain chemicals. Nuts contain magnesium, which is good for memory. In a 2015 study from UCLA, walnut consumption was associated with higher cognitive test scores. Avocados are high in monounsaturated fats shown to protect brain cells. Blueberries, leafy green vegetables like kale, peppermint tea, coffee, and almonds have all been linked to healthy brain chemicals or improved memory performance. Blueberries contain antioxidants that improve brain health and also have anti-inflammatory properties.
4. Take a 40-minute nap
Sleeping gives your brain and body a chance to repair cells, consolidate memories, and recharge itself. Sleeping well can improve memory and cognitive function, and heart function as well. Studies show napping helps us retain new information better. In one study, participants memorized illustrated cards to test their memorization abilities. After memorizing a set of cards, they had a 40-minute break in which one group napped, and the other stayed awake. After the break the group who had napped performed better on a test of their memory of the cards. Napping pushes memories from the hippocampus to the cortex, which allows for more permanent storage and integration with other information.
5. Get up and get active
Aerobic exercise has been shown in numerous research studies to have a host of brain and memory benefits while sedentary behavior has been linked to obesity and elevated mortality. In a study presented at the 2016 meeting of the Radiological Society of North America, researcher Laura D. Baker from Wake Forest University and her colleague compared the effects of aerobic exercise to stretching in adults with mild cognitive impairment. Both groups exercised four times a week over a 6-month period. While both groups experienced an increase in brain volume in specific areas, the aerobic exercise group showed greater gains. According to Dr Kim, the co-investigator on the study, "Compared to the stretching group, the aerobic activity group had greater preservation of total brain volume, increased local gray matter volume and increased directional stretch of brain tissue,”
6. Practice mIndfulness meditation
Mindfulness is a meditation practice and attitude to living that trains the brain to focus on the present moment with open, compassionate, nonjudgmental awareness, rather than just reacting automatically, being self-critical, and living on autopilot. A meta-analysis (statistical review) of over 20 neuroimaging studies from 300 meditation practitioners showed that mindfulness resulted in significant, medium effect size changes in eight different brain areas including areas associated with memory consolidation (hippocampus), body awareness, self-awareness, emotion regulation. Perhaps this is the reason why so many large companies like Google have embraced mindfulness training for their employees.
We can all give our brains a healthy reboot by following research-based principles for living, eating, sleeping, exercising, and managing our stress.