5 Things You Shouldn't Do When Trying to Boost Brain Health—And 5 Things You Should
We spend a lot of time focusing on how to best take care of our body by eating well and exercising, but have you given much thought to how your lifestyle affects arguably one of your most important organs—your brain? While genetics certainly play a role in your brain and mental health, research suggests your entire lifestyle is incredibly important.
From what you put on your plate and how you move your body to your sleep habits and how you manage stress, you have the opportunity every single day to do something good for your brain (and, in turn, your body). Read on for 5 things you shouldn't do—and 5 things you should—to boost your brain health and stay mentally sharp.
5 Things to Stop Doing for Better Brain Health
1. Stop skimping on sleep
Sleep is one of the most important things we can do to keep our brain sharp now and ward off age-related brain diseases like Alzheimer's and dementia down the road. If you've found yourself struggling to focus after a bad night of sleep, that's because "sleep deprivation can affect brain plasticity—or how the brain adapts to incoming information and changes. It also affects your ability to process and remember information. Sleep helps neurons communicate with each other, and may also help the brain better remove waste products," says Chrissy Carrol, RD and USAT Level I Triathlon Coach at Snacking in Sneakers.
If that's not enough to convince you to prioritize your zzz's, research has also linked sleep to long-term memory formation. Getting enough sleep "includes both getting a solid seven to eight hours of sleep a night and getting quality sleep," says Amy Gorin, M.S., RDN, a plant-based registered dietitian and owner of Plant-Based Eats. And if you're thinking you can skimp during the week and catch up on weekends—think again! "Your brain needs a good night's sleep every night, so that it can reset itself. Create a healthy sleep environment by minimizing background noise, making sure the temperature is comfortable and blocking out outside light," recommends Gorin.
2. Stop eating too much sugar
Too much of the sweet stuff can negatively impact your brain and possibly your memory, according to one study. "Minimizing the consumption of sugar is a key element to improving brain health. Excess sugar can increase inflammation in the brain and can also result in changes in the hippocampus, which is the part of our brain that controls our learning and memories," says Christina Brockett, M.S., CNS, LDN.
This doesn't mean you need to avoid sugar altogether—a little sugar in your morning coffee or the occasional cookie isn't a problem. But added sugar can sneak into your diet quickly if you're eating a lot of packaged foods or drinking sweet drinks. Aim to keep your total added sugar intake to less than 24 grams (6 teaspoons) per day for women or under 36 grams (9 teaspoons) per day for men for both brain health and overall healthy aging.
3. Stop cutting out all carbs
Carbohydrates are the primary source of energy for your brain—and your brain alone uses up to 25% of the total energy you consume every day! In fact, research has linked low-carb diets to worsened mood and impaired memory. But high blood sugar—which can be a side effect of diets too high in refined carbohydrates and sugar—can also negatively impact brain health. To keep your blood sugar stable and give your brain the energy it needs from carbohydrates, choose fiber-rich carbohydrates most of the time. That means emphasizing whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables as the main carbohydrate sources in your diet and leaving sweets and refined carbs as occasional foods.
4. Stop stressing so much
While we can't completely rid our lives of stress (wouldn't that be nice?), learning how to effectively cope and manage stress is key to long-term brain health. Research has connected chronic stress to reduced memory and learning in adults and children as well as increased risk of dementia, which may be related to structural changes in the brain.
The good news is that many of the things that can help boost your brain health, such as exercise and meditation, can also reduce stress. Kelly Page, Certified Transformational Health Coach and Meditation Teacher, also recommends avoiding negative thinking or replaying old arguments. "Monitoring your thoughts can go a long way in protecting your brain health," says Page.
5. Stop with all the screen time
"Experts have found that when person-to-person interaction takes a back seat to screen time, the brain suffers. The bad habit of excess screen time can greatly impact overall memory and cognition, create feelings of loneliness and depression and impair emotional well-being," says Beth Stark, RDN, LDN, nutrition and culinary communications consultant based in Pennsylvania.
Even something as simple as walking to a coworker's desk instead of using the company's messaging function or meeting a friend for a walk can make a big difference. "Just 10 minutes of true social interaction a day can counter the negative effects of screen usage, improve intellectual performance and allow the brain to make better social connections," says Stark. The blue light from screens—that includes your phone, TV, computer or any other device—can also disrupt sleep, so put them away at least an hour before bedtime.
5 Things You Should Do to Boost Brain Health
1. Eat more seafood
"Fish and shellfish supply a host of nutrients including DHA omega-3 fatty acids that promote optimal brain function and efficiency. It's also linked to improved memory and cognition in adults and better eye and brain development in children," says Stark. Brain health is just one of the many reasons to aim to eat two to three (4-ounce) servings of seafood per week. While most fish offer some omega-3s, the fattier fish like salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel are especially powerful.
Not a fish eater? You can get omega-3's from chia seeds, flaxseed, hemp seed and walnuts. However, because the plant-based omega-3s come in the form of alpha linoleic acid (ALA), which the body then has to convert to DHA, you need to eat these foods more regularly to get the same benefits.
2. Move your body regularly
"Exercise (and in particular, exercising outdoors in nature) increases the expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BNDF). This compound is involved in the development of new neurons and the survival of existing ones, and plays a role in learning, memory and cognitive development," says Carroll. It's not just about improving your brain, but also stopping it from decline. Low levels of BDNF are associated with dementia, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's.
Exercise is also linked to improved mood and reduced anxiety and depression. "Exercise affects the endocannabinoid system, which is likely responsible for some of the mood-boosting benefits—like the aptly named "runner's high," says Carroll. To reap the benefits, aim to move your body most days for around 30 minutes. This can be as simple as a walk, dancing, or even gardening.
We know that meditation can be a major stress reliever for many, but the brain benefits go far beyond stress management. Studies have linked a practice called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (a combination of meditation and yoga) to increased gray matter in regions of the brain responsible for memory, emotional regulation, learning and more. And you don't have to do a lot to reap the benefits. In one study just four meditation sessions enhanced learning, memory, and attention span, among other benefits.
"We have between 60,000 and 80,000 thoughts per day. It's easy to get lost in them and completely lose sight of what's in front of us. Research has shown that a regular meditation practice can decrease the part of your amygdala where fear and anxiety live. So, if you're looking for a little more clarity and calm, try giving meditation a try," says Page.
4. Fill your plate with colorful produce
Antioxidants have been shown to protect the brain against oxidative damage. One of the best ways to consume more antioxidants is to up your fruit and vegetable game—and eat a variety of colors since antioxidants are what give fruits and vegetables their beautiful colors.
While all fruits and vegetables offer some benefit—and no single food is a cure-all for any condition—there are some superstars when it comes to brain health. "One of the top delicious foods for brain health that I recommend is wild blueberries. Not only do wild blueberries have two times more health-helping antioxidants than conventional blueberries, regularly eating them has been proven to help improve memory and slow brain aging in adults—and to help improve mood and decrease depression in some teenagers! In particular, a study in European Journal of Nutrition shows that older adults who add wild blueberries to their daily diet for three months made less mistakes in memory tests," says Gorin. Beets also stand out with their potential ability to increase blood flow to the brain, keeping it healthy.
5. Prioritize your mental and emotional well-being
Self-care isn't just an iInstagram trend to make us all a little more zen (though it can do that, too!). Taking care of yourself—and therefore your mental and emotional health—plays an important role in your brain health, especially as we age. Research not only links anxiety and depression to increased risk of memory loss and Alzheimer's Disease, but also the flip side is that happier people tend to have healthier brains later in life. Self-care looks different for everyone, and may change depending on the season of life you're in, but simple acts like getting outside daily for fresh air, deep breathing exercises, using your vacation time at work and connecting with friends (in person!) are a great place to start.
Keep your brain sharp is multifaceted and involves your entire lifestyle. Remember that what you do the majority of the time that matters most, and the things you do to take care of your brain are also linked to overall health and longevity.