Your brain really is amazing. It controls the functioning of nearly every other part of your body and its systems. But so often we seem to invest more time in our bodies than we do in our brain and nervous system.
This may be in part because our knowledge of the brain’s functioning is relatively new and still expanding. It takes time for research to be widely accepted and shared in a way that a broad audience can understand and act upon it. As science advances, the facts are becoming clear. We really can benefit from actively tending to our brain’s health.
Until relatively recently, neurobiologists believed that our brain was completely formed in our early years and that it altered little, if at all, when we were fully grown. We now know that the brain is an amazingly pliable organ, changing all the time in response to our activities, our experience and the stimuli in the world around us.
The brain has a wonderful plasticity, continually creating new connections and pathways in the maze of neurons that bundled together create our ability to think, reason, remember and react to new challenges, information and experiences. Most of these changes occur naturally, beneath the level of our conscious mind, at the subconscious and unconscious level.
A substantial body of research has revealed that we can indeed influence and improve the way our brains function on many levels. Several factors contribute to how the brain alters and adapts as we age. We can encourage positive changes by using some of the same strategies we depend on for our physical health, while adding on activities designed for brain health. Here are just a couple of tips to help you treat your brain – and yourself – in the best possible way.
Eat Right: A healthy diet is as essential for our brain as it is for our body. Many of the nutrients needed for physical health also support brain health. Omega-3 fatty acids, for example, are known for their heart health benefits. Recent research shows that they additionally play an important role in the brain’s structure, and also in balanced cognitive functioning. Similarly, vitamin D supports bone strength, but also appears to be linked to mental health. Medical experts now believe that many people diagnosed with depression have a deficiency of vitamin D. Brain and body really are inseparable. What you put into one you put into the other. Research shows that eating a wide variety of different foods, and focusing on a largely plant-based, whole foods menu, is one of the very best ways to ensure both brain and body health.
Exercise Regularly: Aerobic activity sends more oxygen-rich blood to the brain, which aids its ability to process information and improves memory functioning. Research has also demonstrated that exercise of almost any kind affects brain chemistry, improving mood and alleviating negative mental states such as anxiety. If you’re already exercising, then keep it up. If it’s not, work it in. It needn’t cost money. Go for a walk, chase the kids around the yard, or take a bike ride. The research is conclusive; exercise has an ongoing positive effect on brain and body. And don’t forget to take time to relax. Mediation, or self hypnosis for stress reduction and relaxation is an excellent way of doing this.
Challenge the brain: Just like the body, the brain needs to be kept agile. Just like a muscle, it needs to be used in order to develop and remain healthy. Specifically target your brain health by frequently presenting it with new cognitive challenges. Work a crossword or Sudoku puzzle. Memorize a new poem, speech, or passage from a book. Play games that challenge your memory or require problem-solving skills. Research has shown that regular mental challenges produce a healthier brain, and this leads to a slower cognitive decline – even when dementia’s impact on the brain is factored out. Think of things that you do every day without really having to think about what you’re doing – and do them differently. Instead of moving automatically through your routine, work your brain in order to keep it really healthy and to help improve its ability to change to the constantly altering world. The brain we have depends to a large part on what we ask it to do.
Pay attention to your thoughts: You’ve probably heard the saying ‘Fake it ’til you make it.’ In other words, think and behave in ways that make you the person you want to become. Even if it’s uncomfortable at first, it will gradually feel more natural. Repeating positive thought patterns, processes or behaviors can foster new connections in the brain and help solidify them as part of your natural response mechanisms. These connections are known as ‘neural pathways’. In much the same way that a path through a field might be formed by regularly walking it, the brain’s pathways are established and made stronger when you use them repeatedly over time. One really effective way of establishing fresh neural pathways, for relaxation and stress management, for example, is through self hypnosis or hypnotherapy. Meditation is also useful.
We remain in the process of understanding exactly how the brain and nervous system function, and which aspects we can shape and control. It’s an exciting field of research that is giving us new ways to impact on everything from memory loss to mental health to IQ. As our understanding continues to progress, it is certain to offer us many new ways to improve the health of our brain – and our quality of life.