Seven ways to keep your brain healthy
How toned is our brain? And how do we measure its state of form, since it is not a muscle? According to experts, in order to function at full capacity in everyday life, the brain needs to coordinate three essential tasks: the executive functions, that is, simplifying the thinking and reasoning skills; there social cognition, that is, the mental activity through which we interact with others; and the emotional regulation, the ability to be aware of one’s emotions, positive or negative, and to regulate them – seeking to pursue a sense of well-being.
In difficult times like the one we are experiencing, these three pillars are not always equally solid. The good news, however, is that our lifestyle can greatly contribute to brain health, slow cognitive decline and improve our emotional state. As an article on the New Scientist, it is never too early, or too late, to start taking care of our neurons: recent studies have shown that the human brain can continue to produce nerve cells even in old age.
So here are some scientifically proven tips, with a necessary premise: there is no miraculous diet, or a single simple solution that can make a difference. Rather, it is the combination of all these things, plus the ability to ask for help when needed, that counts.
1. Grow your gut bacteria. We are talking about the brain, not the gut! Someone might complain. Yet in recent years, it has become clear that there is a connection between intestinal bacterial fauna and mood disorders, anxiety and depression. Exactly what this relationship is has not yet been understood, but just think that most of the hormone serotonin, which stabilizes the mood, is produced in the intestine, and only 10% in the brain. Furthermore, there is a suspicion of a relationship between imbalances in the gut microbiota and some neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
What unbalances the intestinal bacterial community are above all incorrect eating habits, a high body mass index, excessive stress, dehydration, poor mental hygiene, unregulated sleep-wake rhythms and jet lag, in addition to frequent changes of sexual partner (with a deep kiss in 10 seconds, 80 million bacteria are exchanged!). A diet rich in plant-based foods helps nourish and keep our invisible and essential intestinal hosts healthy.
2. Pay attention to the diet. In this case, both the quantity of food and the quality matter. The human brain has lived most of its evolution in historical epochs in which food was periodically scarce. In fasting conditions, when there was little food available, it was normal to switch from burning energy in the form of sugar (glucose) to drawing energy from the body’s fat stores. It is suspected that this metabolic step, now infrequent due to the abundance of food available, helps to create new brain cells (that is, it favors the processes of neurogenesis). For this reason, some neuroscientists are trying to understand if intermittent fasting can slow cognitive decline.
Today 75% of the food that humanity eats is produced by 12 plants and 5 animal species: we have flattened our diet on a small variety of nutrients (a choice among other things that is dangerous for food security – but this is another speech). The Western diet has exacerbated the intake of omega-6, the polyunsaturated fatty acids of vegal origin that can promote inflammation processes, to the detriment of the omega-3s, their antagonists, which instead have a protective function for the brain and abound in foods such as oily fish and nuts.
3. Plastic! If we had to choose one of all the tips, maybe it would be just that: making regular physical activity a lifestyle. Exercise not only slows cognitive decline, but in some cases even reverses it (as well as acting very positively on mood). The beneficial mechanism is the reduction of inflammation, a process that can inhibit the growth of new brain cells. Movement facilitates neurogenesis by promoting the release of an important protein, brain neurotrophic factor, or BDNF (Brain-derived neurotrophic factor).
To increase the level, you need at least 30 minutes of physical exercise a day such as walking or cycling. For a stronger impact, you should opt for more intense activities, such as running or high intensity workouts. But that’s not enough: you need to pay attention to a sedentary lifestyle, avoiding sitting too many hours or getting up from your chair for at least 10 minutes every hour. 13% of Alzheimer’s cases in the world would be linked to physical inactivity.
4. Call back, interested, invite. Maintaining social relationships is more difficult in this age of forced distances, but as soon as it can be done safely, it will be important to start over. Loneliness, understood as the absence of a network of social contacts, is associated with a higher risk of early death, and is one of the consequences of behaviors that damage health and relationships. Physiologically, isolation increases the risk of systemic inflammation and hypertension, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, heart attacks and strokes, all of which impact brain health – because they affect blood circulation.
Fortunately, cultivating social relationships can counteract these negative effects and give direct benefits to brain health, because it improves the formation and recall of memories, keeps thinking and reasoning skills active, keeps stress at bay. There is no need for pharaonic receptions and wild parties: it would be enough to start a short conversation with the people who meet daily, show interest in their lives, be included in activities, even remotely, that also involve other people.
5. Learn something new. And we are not referring to activities such as Sudoku or crosswords, but to pastimes that in addition to stimulating the reasoning skills on the spot are stimulating from a cognitive point of view, because they require concentration and repeated exercise: learning a new language, trying your hand at a new language. type of dance, learning to play an instrument or becoming very strong in a card game, practicing tai chi or juggling are some examples of hobbies that require training, perseverance, cognitive presence, and test learning and memory. They can therefore make a difference to brain health.
Recently, a study compared the cognitive benefits in a 60-70-year-old group of dance, walking, and gentle gymnastics. Only the first activity produced structural improvements in a region in close connection with the hippocampus, a brain structure crucial for memory.
6. Sleep on it. Temperature, pressure, metabolism are closely linked to an activity that is too often underestimated: sleep. Sleeping less than 7 hours a night for a long time can have negative effects on general health and on memory, mood, attention, decision making. Chronic sleep deficiency is considered a risk factor for dementia and cognitive decline, and for several psychiatric conditions: the disruption of circadian rhythms can hinder the production of fundamental neurotransmitters and alter the energy consumption of the brain. It is not true that with the passing of age you need fewer hours of sleep: rather, the way you sleep changes because sleep becomes lighter and it takes more time to fall asleep. But you can make up for the deficiencies at night with afternoon naps.
7. Do the things that make you happy. Emotional well-being is very important for brain health, because it has direct effects on the decisions we make all the time, aimed at seeking out the positive experiences and avoiding the negative ones. How can it be reached? There is no single answer. Recent studies suggest that in addition to maintaining social relationships and exercising, having a purpose in life can make a difference, because it reduces the biological markers of inflammation and improves cognitive function. Finding a purpose isn’t always easy, but there are some activities that can help, such as caring for loved ones, engaging in passionate pastimes, and giving your best in your work. You can start here.
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