🌼15 Simple-Yet-Proven Habits That Can Turbocharge Your Brain
How to use neuroplasticity to strengthen your brain and sharpen your memory.
Serious man in eyeglasses playing chess. He knows how to strengthen his brain and sharpen his memory
Ready to be spooked?
According to brain health expert Dr. Daniel Amen, around 75% of us will have some sort of memory problem when we’re older.
More terrifying, though, is that crippling diseases like Alzheimer’s often start decades before symptoms manifest. A seemingly healthy person in their thirties or forties could be quietly and slowly losing their memories.
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Our habits. Although genes are an undeniable risk factor for cognitive decline, what we do every day is what ultimately seals our fate.
Our largely sedentary lifestyles, coupled with increased pollution and diets loaded with sugar and processed foods, are endangering the quality of our twilight years, an undesirable fate for most of us. After all, what’s the point of living to old age if we can’t remember our loved ones?
The good news is that, with brain-strengthening habits, we can avoid cognitive decline and — better yet — boost our mental capacities as our brains produce up to 700 new neurons every day, regardless of our age.
This is called neuroplasticity, our brain’s ability to grow and adapt as long as there’s proper stimulation. By adopting science-backed practices that challenge and nourish our neurons, we can turbocharge our brains. Here’s how:
15 Habits That Can Strengthen Your Brain and Sharpen Your Memory
The following science-backed habits have been sourced from Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s book, Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age, and Dr. Amen’s, Memory Rescue: Supercharge Your Brain, Reverse Memory Loss, and Remember What Matters Most.
1. Practice “holistic exercise”
“Physical inactivity has been calculated to be the most significant risk factor in cognitive decline and the development of dementia.”
— Dr. Gupta
Research cited in Dr. Gupta’s book shows that movement can supercharge our brains because it stimulates blood flow, helps with blood sugar absorption, and reduces inflammation, conditions necessary for creating and protecting neurons.
That’s why he recommends we exercise “holistically” every week. This refers to a combination of cardio (swimming, cycling, walking), strength training (free weights, gym machines, bodyweight exercises), and flexibility routines (yoga, pilates, stretching).
Also, including racquet sports is a must as they stimulate the cerebellum, the part of the brain that contains 50 percent of its neurons.
2. Challenge your brain to build your cognitive reserve
“When you stop learning, your brain starts dying.”
— Dr. Amen
According to Dr. Gupta, cognitive reserve is the backup system in the brain that helps it troubleshoot whenever any of its parts malfunction. Those who’ve spent years challenging their brains through continuous learning boast a massive reserve, which keeps their minds sharp even when parts of the brain have been damaged.
To boost your reserve, then, start by investing 15 minutes every day to learn something new.
3. Do “whole-brain combination workouts”
To fully reap the benefits of neuroplasticity, Dr. Amen suggests we work on five different brain areas: the prefrontal cortex (PFC); the temporal, parietal, and occipital lobes; and the cerebellum. Here’s how:
The Prefrontal Cortex (the brain’s CEO): Try language games such as Scrabble and Boggle; do crossword puzzles; attend speech and debate classes; or play strategy games such as Risk, chess, and Catan.
The Temporal Lobes (the brain’s memory center): Try 3D video games like Super Mario 3D; engage in intensive learning (a degree or a dedicated course); memorize poetry and prose; or learn to play a new musical instrument, which also stimulates the Prefrontal cortex, parietal lobes, and cerebellum.
The Parietal Lobes (the brain’s GPS): Play math games like sudoku, juggle, play golf, dance, or read maps without a GPS device.
The Occipital Lobes (the brain’s eyes): Play golf, do optical illusion exercises, watch 3D movies, or engage in VR (Virtual Reality) experiences.
The Cerebellum (the brain’s coordinator): Try coordination games like table tennis, dancing, yoga, and tai chi.
You can learn more about exercising your brain here.
Not flossing every day allows plaque, the thin film of bacteria and saliva that clings to teeth, to turn into tartar, a hard deposit that can lead to gum disease and chronic inflammation, a major risk factor for Alzheimer’s and dementia.
So the next time you brush your teeth, floss. Your brain will thank you.
5. Feed your good gut bacteria
Another way to target chronic inflammation is to ensure your gut microbiome is healthy by feeding your good bacteria with prebiotics (legumes, onions, garlic, wholegrains, oats, flaxseeds, etc.) and probiotics (full-fat yogurt, fermented foods, etc.).
6. Protect yourself from head trauma
“Soft brain, hard skull.”
— Dr. Amen
The 2015 movie Concussion follows the story of Dr. Bennet Omalu as he unveils the severe brain damage football players suffer due to head injuries.
Its message is clear: If we don’t protect our heads, we’ll pay the price later in the form of mental decline.
So avoid sports or any situation that could lead to head trauma, wear protective gear, and if you’ve had an injury, Dr. Amen recommends you add peppermint to your meals as it has healing properties.
7. Use toxin-detection apps
“When our detoxification systems are overwhelmed, we experience brain fog, fatigue, and life-threatening illnesses.”
— Dr. Amen
Lead and arsenic from polluted water. BPAs found in plastics and the coating of cash register receipts. Excessive alcohol. Artificial food dyes, preservatives, and sweeteners. Herbicides and pesticides. Health and beauty products with toxic ingredients that are absorbed through the skin. Air pollution.
These toxins damage the brain by lowering cerebral blood flow, damaging the DNA, disrupting hormones, and impairing the immune system. No matter what, we must be on the lookout, minimizing our exposure in whatever way we can.
Some common ways to do so are to quit smoking or to move away from a polluted city. But these are big and challenging measures. Instead, you can simply start by using apps like Think Dirty or Yuka to scan your food and products. They’ll help you avoid those with lots of additives.
8. Try Japanese forest bathing (Shrinrin-yoku)
“Shinrin-yoku is like a bridge. By opening our senses, it bridges the gap between us and the natural world. And when we are in harmony with the natural world, we can begin to heal.”
— Dr. Qing Li, Chairman of the Japanese Society for Forest Medicine
Forest bathing is the ancient practice of immersing ourselves in nature and absorbing phytoncides, a chemical trees produce to protect themselves from insects and other stressors — a chemical that helps us relax.
This is vital for our brains as chronic stress raises the body’s levels of inflammation while keeping the tissues and organs from repairing the day’s damage.
Relaxing in nature provides the respite our brains need to thrive.
9. Watch sitcoms or funny videos
If you have a weakened immune system or one that attacks itself, then it’s essential you take action to improve your immunity. Otherwise, these conditions can increase your risk of brain fog, memory issues, and dementia.
Like in the case of avoiding toxins, some ways to boost your immunity are big, like trying an elimination diet to pinpoint intolerances, but there are smaller, simpler ways to start. One example is watching sitcoms and funny videos. It turns out that laughing is really one of the best medicines.
10. Avoid eating within two to three hours before bedtime
“Chronic inadequate sleep puts people at higher risk for dementia, depression and mood disorders, learning and memory problems, heart disease, high blood pressure, weight gain and obesity, fall-related injuries, and cancer.”
— Dr. Gupta
Not sleeping well also leads to chronic inflammation, so we must prioritize proper relaxation at all costs.
For this purpose, Dr. Gupta recommends ten vital tips:
Stick to a schedule and avoid long naps.
Try to go to bed before midnight.
Wake up to early morning light to help set your body clock.
Engage in regular physical activity.
Avoid caffeine after lunch (2:00 PM) and don’t eat or drink for three hours before bed.
Ensure your medication doesn’t have ingredients that affect sleep.
Sleep in a cool (60–67 degrees Fahrenheit), quiet, and dark room.
Eliminate electronics from the bedroom.
Establish a bedtime ritual that primes your body for sleep.
Seek help if you still can’t seem to fall or stay asleep.
Out of these, avoiding eating or drinking anything two to three hours before bed is the one I’d highlight as it’s one of the easiest and most effective. Reducing nighttime bathroom visits or digestive-related insomnia goes a long way in helping us rest.
11. Practice “productive meditation”
Meditation is great at helping us relax while also being an excellent brain stimulant. According to Dr. Amen, “it may be the most powerful prefrontal cortex booster of all. It improves focus, executive function, judgment, and impulse control.”
The problem for many people, though, is that they don’t know how to start.
For this, I recommend the productive meditation that Cal Newport explains in his bestselling book, Deep Work. This is when you “take a period in which you’re occupied physically but not mentally — walking, jogging, driving, showering — and focus your attention on a single well-defined professional problem. As in mindfulness meditation, you must continue to bring your attention back to the problem when it wanders or stalls.”
This simple practice can help you relax and strengthen your brain while providing solutions to your work-related problems. Win-win.
12. Have protein for breakfast and spice your foods with cinnamon
According to Dr. Gupta, “since 2005, researchers have been finding correlations between diabetes and risk for Alzheimer’s disease, especially when the diabetes is not controlled and a person suffers from chronic high blood sugar. Some have gone so far as to refer to Alzheimer’s disease as ‘type 3 diabetes,’ because the disease often involves a disrupted relationship with insulin.”
This is why, besides seeking medical aid, Dr. Gupta recommends we follow the MIND diet, a combination of the Mediterranean (shown to boost brain health) and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets.
In it, you’re encouraged to eat vegetables (especially green leafy ones), nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil, and wine. And you’re asked to reduce red meats, butter, margarine, cheese, sweets, and fried or fast food.
If followed, the MIND diet can reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s by up to 53 percent.
However, changing your diet is a huge undertaking. So if you want to start small, consider adding protein to your breakfast and spicing your foods with cinnamon as they can help balance your blood sugar levels.
“Your brain doesn’t have to deteriorate. With a little forethought, you can slow or even reverse the aging process in the brain.”
— Dr. Amen
Neuroplasticity is our body’s greatest strength. It allows us to sharpen our brains and keep our memories from slipping through our fingers. Best of all, though, is that we can tap into its power no matter our age.
So why not try one of these brain-healthy habits?
At worst, you’ll realize one of them doesn’t work for you and you’ll try something else. At best, you’ll avoid cognitive decline and turbocharge your brain.
CONTRIBUTED BY Alexa V.S.
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