Did you know that you can exercise and strengthen your brain as if it were a muscle?
The brain is a complex and wonderful thing, which many of us do not use to its full potential. You’ve heard the term, use it or lose it; well, the more we use our brains the more neural pathways are created and strengthened. Likewise, the less we use them the more they degrade through lack of use. Our brains peak at the age of 27, and after the age of 50 they begin to shrink and can be increasingly vulnerable to things like memory loss and dementia.
Many things can contribute to brain shrinkage, including insomnia, obesity, concussions, stress and depression (as well as dementia, of course). Many people suffer with depression these days, and the last thing you need when you’re feeling miserable is to be told that your misery is damaging your brain. A couple of years with bouts of depression won’t have too significant an impact, but a lifetime of depression can have the effect of creating inflammation which can lead to brain shrinkage.
We all know that obesity is linked to all sorts of illnesses and negative outcomes, but did you know that the larger your BMI, the smaller your hippocampus? High cortisol levels cause inflammation in the body and can affect brain function in the long term. Things like stress and lack of sleep can cause high cortisol levels and inflammation; not good.
I recently attended an event in Singapore where I learned that I am not mad to keep exercising both my brain and my body with a determination to prevent illness. I do just wonder why others don’t. There is hope even for the currently lazy. One wonders why at school we are not encouraged to work out in the same way as we are encouraged to brush our teeth. The child that is shown the benefits of a wellbeing habit early will live a more comfortable and successful life. I live by that, hence I play taxi driver mum at the weekends, ferrying my daughters to all manner of sporting activities and events.
All is not lost! The good news is that the hippocampus can grow as easily as it shrinks, and there are things we can all do to avoid shrinkage and delay deterioration of our mental faculties:
- Get active. Walking for forty-five minutes, three times per week for one year can cause your hippocampus to grow. More rigorous exercise such as interval training can lead to a 2% growth in the hippocampus. Even just one mile per day can reduce your risk of brain shrinkage by up to 48%. With three months of rigorous exercise, exerts see a markedly larger hippocampus and more blood vessels in the brain. Did you know that people who exercise regularly have 43% more blood vessels in their brains?
- Eat a Mediterranean diet. We hear so much dietary advice in the media regarding what is and is not healthy for us, and it all seems to change so often too. The one thing that everyone seems to agree on though, is that a Meditarranean diet is good for us, especially when it comes to brain and heart health. It is also a good idea to take a good quality Omega 3 supplement of at least 1000 mg per day. It’s important to note here that ew want Omega 3, and not necessarily Omega 6 which is already present in a lot of our food. The ideal ration of Omega 6 to Omega 3 in the diet is 4:1 but for most people without an Omega 3 supplement this is often closer to 12:1 or even as high as 25:1. Omega 6 can be inflammatory, so it’s important to make sure we have enough Omega 3 to even this out and bring the ratio down as much as possible.
- Learn something new. As I said above, it really is a case of use it or lose it and learning helps to keep our brains active and creating new neural pathways. This might be a new language or even learning to play a new sport. Anything that keeps the brain on its toes and creating new pathways will help to avoid shrinkage.
- Sleep well. That doesn’t just mean making sure you are in bed for eight hours every night, but that you are getting a good night’s sleep. These days there are plenty of trackers available on the market and even as apps on your phone which will track how soundly you sleep. If you suffer with sleep apnoea, for goodness’ sake get it treated. Did you know that 90% of stroke victims are also found to suffer with sleep apnoea? If you have trouble sleeping, resolving these issues should be a priority as poor sleep, as well as damaging our brains, can lead to more stress and therefore more inflammation – which will again affect the brain. Having good sleep hygiene practices is a great way to ensure you protect yoru sleep. The bedroom should be for sleep, reading and lovemaking only – it should be a dark place of sanctuary where we come to rest and recuperate. Avoid using the overhead light whenever you can, as it is too bright. Instead, use lamps – or even light a candle and read by that instead.
- Meditate. You don’t need to sit in the lotus position or to spend an hour chanting in order to meditate regularly. Just a few minutes of sitting quietly, watching the breath can make a marked difference. Meditation lowers our stress levels and increases blood flow to the brain which helps to strengthen those neural pathways.
- Pursue your passion. Having a purpose in life and really feeling passionate about what you are doing can make more of a difference than you think. Did you know that people can have signs of Alzheimer’s disease in their brains, but display no symptoms when they are following their passion.
- Limit alcohol. Studies abound where alcohol is concerned; one minute it’s a massive no-no, and the next we should all be enjoying a glass of wine every day to cure all illnesses. A little alcohol here and there is fine, but it should never be something we rely upon, especially when it comes to sleep. Too much alcohol is very bad for the memory so if you find that you are quite forgetful, cut out alcohol completely and you should see an improvement.
Whilst noboy is perfect there is immeasurable evidence across all areas of wellbeing that makes looking after oneself imperative. Work out what gets you off the couch. Do something for someone else; drop your TV mileage and think harder about how much value you can create by using those hours more wisely. Life is getting shorter and of course the older I get the more driven I am to stay well. I want to beat all the odds and intend to be around for a long time yet, but I am willing to pay the price to do so. Accountability is a critical part of successful life journeys. Enterprise is tough but tougher still when we do not perform at our peak level. Go well.