Current ideas about brain health are a convergence of neuroscience between East and West traditions. Eastern ideas have been focused on mindfulness and right brain dominant activities and the West often focused on language and math. There is much that the West can learn from the 2,500 year old idea of mindfulness. Western science has produced several breakthroughs that indicate our brains are constantly changing with the reorganization of existing neural networks. We know individuals can produce new neurons (neurogenesis) AND change the neural circuitry of the brain (neuroplasticity)…but how? Our brains will change whether we direct them to or not. Would you prefer these changes occurred randomly or would you rather direct these changes and make them purposeful (self-directed neuroplasticity)? Can the practice of mindfulness help us control and direct brain changes? What are other ways that we keep our brains healthy?
Individuals have two basic brain circuits: the threat circuit and the reward circuit. The threat circuit is the need to survive. It is an individual’s fight or flight reaction which is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system. When this circuit is activated the body releases cortisol (our stress hormone). The reward circuit is all about thriving and here the body experiences relaxation through the release of oxytocin by the parasympathetic nervous system. Oxytocin is our trust hormone. We want more oxytocin! We know that coritsol can be harmful to the mind and the body if released often and for long periods of time. How then does one create a reward circuit rather then a threat circuit?
The creation of self-directed neuroplasticity and an increase in the production of oxytocin through the reward circuit can be achieved with better brain health. Here are 7 ways to create a healthier brain that work for you instead of against you.
1. A Nutritious Diet.
It is well known that food affects our brains. If the brain is starved it can’t function properly. The following foods are recommended for better cognitive function, increased mental focus and stamina and better memory:
Colorful vegetables, wild salmon, foods high in Vitamin E, C and Folic Acid, foods high in B vitamins and regular, unflavored coffee.
2. Focus Sequentially.
Our brains cannot multitask. This is a mythical activity. The human brain cannot consciously pay full attention to two things at a time. Individuals who multitask spend 50% more time on tasks and make 50% more mistakes. Multitaskers have an always “on” attitude. This may cause the brain to trigger the threat response. Tips to avoid multitasking include organizing and prioritizing tasks in advance. Be familiar with your natural rhythms and schedule tasks accordingly. Our brain likes variety. Try breaking up the day with a variety of tasks and create “interruption-free zones” when you need to focus and concentrate. One task at a time…complete and repeat. Acknowledge the good feelings that come from task completion.
3. Be Physically Active.
Moderate exercise promotes neurogenesis. The brain also benefits from small – moderate movement. A 5-year study at Laval University found that people who did not engage in physical activity were 2 times more likely to develop Alzhemier’s disease than people who were physically active 3 times a week. Physical activity does not have to be consecutive. Movement that takes place in short bursts (ex. walking up a flight of stairs) has a positive cumulative effect. A little extra movement makes a huge difference in brain and mental health. I suggest parking farther away, taking the stairs, walking to a colleague’s desk, walking your dog, playing with your children and cooking/baking. There is a strong interconnectivity between movement, emotion and thinking. When we stimulate one center we are stimulating all the centers of the brain.
4. Participate socially.
A John Hopkins study found that women 65 and older who mentored youth saw improved mental and cognitive health. Social groups help us to connect with others, bond and create a sense of belonging. The reward circuit is activated and more oxytocin will be released. This will help us to feel more relaxed and calm.
5. SLEEP well.
A sleep deprived brain works harder and accomplishes less. Sleep deprivation causes our judgment to be impaired and our ability to solve problems more difficult. Sleep deprived individuals are less creative and have impaired decision making. Good sleep hygiene is key. Turn off all electronics at least 30 minutes before bedtime, do not watch TV in bed, and practice soothing activities
6. Challenge Yourself Mentally.
Individuals have three basic learning preferences…auditory, visual and kinesthetic. Ideally, when we are challenging our brains using all three learning preferences we will remember and understand more. Multitasking bad…multisensing good! The more of a workout the brain gets the more we remember. I suggest that individuals take notes, involve movement, smell and sound…pay attention to your environment.
7. A Positive Attitude.
The main reason our brains underperform is due to stress. Stress is detrimental to our brains and activates the threat circuit. Reduce stress and relax, laugh often, focus away from any perceived threat. Stress is not what happens to us but how we respond to what happens to us. Move away from stress and the threat response by practicing mindfulness. Be aware of and accept your thoughts, feelings and circumstances without judgment and reaction. We can reverse the threat response and create the reward response by focusing on immediate sensory input. Pull yourself into the present. When we are not complaining we can appreciate are current situation. Avoid self-criticism, be grateful and compassionate. Thrive and enjoy life.