The human brain is to some extent a mystery. Scientists can’t really tell us why it grew as large as it did (enormous in comparison to our body size, as opposed to the brains of other mammals), or how it functions as well as it does. Our brains consume 20% of the body’s oxygen supply and 17% of its energy, and contain over 100,000 miles of blood vessels. When you’re awake, your brain produces enough energy to power a light bulb, and contrary to what most people think, the brain is actually more active when you’re sleeping.
Whatever the answers to these mysteries, our brains are rather important to our well-being, and we should take care of them as best we can. Contrary to what was believed only a few decades ago, the brain does not stop growing when we reach maturity, and has the ability to continue to grow and form new neurons and new connections between them well into middle age. If we take proper care of our brains, they can continue growing – and functioning properly – all our lives. In this article we’ll point out a few ways that you can accomplish this.
1. Watch what you eat and drink. Fortunately, the same foods that are good for your heart and other organs are also good for your brain. That goes for what you drink as well – the brain is almost 75% water, and needs to be kept well hydrated, so drink lots of water and cut down on alcohol. You might also consider adding more fish to your diet or taking omega-3 fatty acid supplements, because they increase blood circulation to the brain, stimulate new neuronal growth, and keep your levels of the “feel good” neurochemical dopamine high.
2. Make sure to exercise. Just as exercise improves your physical health, it also improves your brain health. In addition to increasing the levels of oxygen in the blood, regular aerobic exercise increases brain capacity by promoting the growth of new neurons and by strengthening the connections between them.
3. Exercise your brain, too. The “rule of thumb” when it comes to your brain is the same as with your muscles – use it or lose it. To keep your brain functioning well as you grow older, you need to keep challenging it, and in the process forcing it to develop new neural pathways. Research indicates that one of the most effective ways of doing this is to continually learn new things, and to do old things in different ways. Learn a second language, or if you already know two, a third. Force yourself to take a new route to work every day, or change your habit patterns by using your non-dominant hand for everyday tasks like brushing your teeth.
4. Watch your weight. Obesity and being overweight are epidemic in today’s world, and have been linked conclusively in numerous research studies with the diminishment of brain function and with the development of Alzheimer’s disease. In a very real sense, if you’re gaining weight, you’re losing neurons.
5. Watch your sleep habits, too. Your brain performs many of its most important “housecleaning duties,” such as the removal of waste products and detoxification, during sleep. If you are sleep-deprived, you’re hurting your brain. Studies have shown that sleep disorders such as insomnia and sleep apnea are associated with a reduction in mental alertness and the ability to concentrate.
6. Heart health equals brain health. Your brain is dependent on oxygen, and it gets that oxygen from blood pumped to it by your heart. So invest in a blood pressure monitor, and see your doctor often enough to make sure you’re keeping your heart healthy. Studies have indicated that elderly people with high blood pressure were almost five times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s dementia.
7. Meditate. Really. A surprising number of clinical studies have shown that meditation practices based on traditional Buddhist mindfulness techniques actually change the structure of the brain, causing new neuronal growth and activating areas of the brain that are not usually used. Meditation seems to have the ability to promote brain plasticity, the quality that allows it to keep changing, and growing. In addition, meditation can help you to reduce stress and reduce your levels of hormones such as cortisol, which has been shown to suppress both the growth of new nerve cells and the development of new connections between them.