The World Health Organization describes brain health as the state of brain functioning encompassing cognitive, sensory, social-emotional, behavioral and motor skills. That being so, we can deduce that optimizing brain health can affect every aspect of our lives – from enhancing our mental and physical health, to fostering positive life experiences. Conversely, brain damage and the impairment of brain growth can lead to a host of adverse health conditions such as neurological disorders from issues traveling the length of autism spectrum to cerebral palsy; as well as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, muscular dystrophy, epilepsy, meningitis, stroke, dementia, peripheral neuropathy and migraines.
The good news is that embracing certain life choices can help protect and enhance our brain health. These include adequate sleep, as sleep provides our brains with the rest they require to heal and reset for the day ahead. Research also indicates that sleep can even eliminate toxins from the brain.
Have you heard the phrase, “Use it or lose it”? Challenging your brain can improve your cognitive abilities and help keep your mind sharp and focused. This could include working on puzzles or brain teasers; trying new things such as traveling someplace new, mastering new skills like woodworking, fly tying or taking an adult learning class.
Social interaction also helps maintain optimal brain health. Did you know that blood circulates to different portions of your brain when you listen and formulate responses? Socializing can also help decrease depression.
Like fuel for the brain, increased amounts of oxygen can be very beneficial to brain health. We can attain ideal levels of oxygen within the brain by using proper breathing techniques, which can be beneficial to both mental and physical health. Additionally, not only do optimal oxygen levels help the general population, but they can also positively serve those with neurological conditions by maximizing the brain’s capacity to – in essence – reboot our messaging systems, leading to improved brain function.
Generally speaking, we acquire oxygen through breathing and how we breathe can determine the level of oxygen in our brain. For instance, not using our lungs to their full capacity can require our lungs to work harder to acquire that vital, adequate oxygen supply. For more efficient breathing, which puts less strain on the entire respiratory system, it is beneficial to engage the diaphragm, allowing for a greater intake of oxygen.
Breathing from the diaphragm, or belly breathing, is the practice of consciously contracting and expanding the diaphragm muscle toward and away from the lungs to increase lung capacity. To breathe from your diaphragm, first place a hand on your chest so that you may track your breathing movements more easily. Then simply breathe slowly through your nose, keeping your chest still and expanding your belly. Exhale through the mouth while contracting the stomach to the lower belly.
At first, it may seem a little unnatural, but as it is performed more regularly, diaphragm breathing tends to become more comfortable and even second nature. Often used for relaxing in meditation, the benefits of diaphragm breathing are far reaching, also helping to reduce heart rate, blood pressure and, of course, increasing oxygen within the blood. Slower, methodical breathing can also calm the nervous system, thereby decreasing stress and allowing the brain to rest and recover. The resting brain state promotes increased brain resilience and growth.
Also, breathing from the diaphragm during exercise can maximize athletic performance. Regular exercise can also increase oxygen intake. The rate of breathing increases as we place greater demands on the body. Studies have also shown that active adults had better memories and were better at problem solving skills. Exercise is recommended for a period of thirty minutes per day or for one hour three times per week.
Brain health can also be improved and maintained by a healthy diet, reminiscent of the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, low in saturated fats and full of the nutrients in leafy green vegetables and whole grains. Fish, fruits, vegetables and nuts are recommended, as well as limiting red meat intake and eliminating processed foods and carbohydrate overload.
Specifically, some of the top ranked brain foods include blueberries. Blueberries are a multi-functional super food which can boost brain function and improve memory skills. They are rich in antioxidants, helping to prevent damage from free radicals; and they possess anti-aging properties, such as improved motor function, balance and coordination.
Fatty acids which are contained in salmon and packed into flax seeds help protect and renew tissue, increasing brain function. Essential fatty acids are also known to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, further enhancing brain function and reducing the risk of stroke and dementia.
Because coffee is known to boost dopamine, which is a core neurotransmitter in the brain, regular, moderate coffee intake may also help reduce the risk of dementia and other cognitive disorders. Coffee is a mood booster, memory and concentration improver and is rich in antioxidants. Just a word or two to the wise: Loading it with an overabundance of fatty cream and sweeteners and drinking it so late in the day that sleep is inhibited are both counterproductive.
Protein-rich nuts can help fight insomnia, promote mental clarity and help strengthen memory. While all nuts contain antioxidants, almonds, pistachios, macadamias and hazelnuts are also known to lower fat in the blood, which aids in the prevention of brain plaque and stroke.
Avocados are one of those foods full of the healthy kind of fats, those which are unsaturated. Unsaturated fats can help reduce blood pressure, promote blood flow and, subsequently, aid in optimal oxygen transfer to and within the brain.
Whole grains can improve circulation, as well as gut health; and since we know that all of the systems within our body are interconnected, this can benefit our brain too. Once thought to be all bad, eggs – more specifically, their yolks – can provide nutrients to promote memory function and protect blood vessels within the brain.
Not only are broccoli and leafy greens exceptional for brain health, believe it or not, dark chocolate is too. Dark chocolate contains antioxidants and theobromine, which can improve focus, concentration and mood. I know I’m always in a good mood when I eat chocolate…although, that might be for several reasons!
Brain health is also enhanced by limiting alcohol intake, avoiding smoking and maintaining a healthy weight.