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  • Writer's pictureSam

6 Things Needed For a Healthy Brain

As Told By Neuroscience

Photo credit: Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash


I like brains, brains are cool; along with the rest of the nervous system, they harbour everything that makes us us (as far as we know anyway).

I’m a human, I used to work in a neuroscience lab, I now work in education, and I have a side interest (soon to become a business) in Coaching people toward their freedom. All these things mean that I’m super interested in how the brain works, how we learn, how we motivate ourselves, and how we can use that information to our advantage. And you should be too!

When you know about your own brain, and how it works, you can keep it well-maintained so it gives you optimal performance.

Do you think learning a bit about mechanics and the inner workings of a car would help you keep your own car in good condition?

Of course it would!

Your brain IS you, but it’s also a tool that you use to interact with the world. Learn a bit about it and how to keep it in good condition and it’ll keep you well looked after in return.


 

There are 6 main things considered to keep a brain healthy.

The first 3 are things you can do with your lifestyle to help promote good brain function. Think like keeping a machine well-oiled.

The final 3 are all ways that you use your brain in order to keep it functioning. A well-oiled machine is fine and all, but if you don’t actually use the machine it may well fail to work through lack of use.

Let's look at those first 3, keeping your brain well-oiled:

Adequate Sleep

Probably a bit obvious this one, so rather than the usual “get 8 hours of sleep a night” stuff, let's have a look at some of the lesser-known things about sleep:

We don’t fully know why sleep is so important, there are a lot of theories, but no concrete evidence. What IS pretty widely accepted, is that sleep seems to be when the brain does its behind-the-scenes stuff.

When you sleep, you have different sleep stages that you go through in around a 90-minute cycle, these are REM sleep (this is when you dream), Light sleep, and Deep sleep; Light and deep sleep are also split up into N1, N2 (light sleep stage 1 & 2), N3 & N4 (Deep sleep stage 3 & 4.

Have a look at this chart on brain waves recorded in the different stages of sleep:

Source: Sleep Space


Just look at how much brain activity is going on in your deep sleep stages. It is well-known in sleep science that the most restorative stages of sleep are the deep stages, if you haven’t had much deep sleep you won’t wake up feeling well-rested at all.


From what we know, deep sleep is when we form long-term memories of the day's events, and where we process information & learning. Without it, we might as well not be getting much sleep at all. So if you want a healthy brain, getting into those deep sleep stages are vitally important.

Something that encourages deep sleep that we haven’t all heard a million times before?

We know that sleep goes in cycles so giving yourself a long enough time to sleep is always a plus, but…


Have you ever heard of brain waves? I’ll write a blog post on those in the near future, but basically, you have 4 states of brain waves:

Beta — High-focused activity Alpha — Rest just after a high focused activity, like taking a break during a meeting. Theta — Times when you completely zone out, often accompanied by great idea generation, in the shower for eg. Delta — Sleep, particularly deep sleep.

Brain waves have to do with the frequency and amplitude of the electricity coursing through your brain. Beta has the lowest amplitude and highest frequency, Delta has the highest amplitude and lowest frequency. This is why it is advised to do some very low-energy activities before bed, you want to encourage your brain to get into that Delta state in order to promote your deep sleep.

Physical Exercise

We all know that physical exercise is good for our bodies. It’s also good for our minds.

Physical exercise keeps things moving. Your circulatory system is your body's transport system. It delivers oxygen and nutrients to the areas of the body that need them, and it removes waste products that can cause problems if they’re left to build up.


What do you think happens when your circulation is slow and sluggish?

Photo credit: Tan Kaninthanond on Unsplash


Traffic Jam!


It’s the same with the brain.


This study showed that cognitive decline is twice as likely in adults who lived sedentary lives compared to those who were active.

But what are the exact ways that exercise can help your brain?

Neurotrasmission release. When you move your body it causes your brain to release a bunch of these bad-boys. Dopamine, serotonin, all those happy chemicals. This is why when you’re not feeling great, the simple act of getting up and moving around can be enough to help you to feel better. (A bit of further reading here, if you’re interested)


Increased concentration. If you take some time to move your body around you tend to find that the next task you do to do is much easier to concentrate on. If I’m struggling to concentrate I go play Beat Saber on my VR headset and then go back to it. It resets those neurotransmitters we talked about earlier so that your brain can keep sending the signals it needs to focus. (Of course, here is some research for you to check out).


Neurogenesis. What a cool word! Neurogenesis is the growth of new brain cells, and exercise promotes exactly that. I don’t think you need me to tell you why neurogenesis is good for you. But as I talk about below, it’s the loss of brain tissue that causes diseases such as dementia and Alzheimers. Keeping up activities that increase neurogenesis can help to prevent those things from happening.

Decent Nutrition

As we go about day-to-day life the cells that make up our body wear away and get replaced by new ones. These new cells are built from the nutrients that we ingest, therefore it makes sense that a decent diet is going.


There are 2 types of cells that make up the brain, neurons and glial cells. Glial cells are the maintenance cells, they hold neurons in place, clean up debris and dead cells, transport nutrients to neurons, and assist neurons in passing along information. Neurons produce electrical impulses (remember the brain waves mentioned above?) to pass along information from one cell to another. This is where the action happens. This is what makes you you.



The above picture is a cool illustration that shows an example of neurons and glial cells to give you an idea of what it looks like in there. The 2 big yellow ones are neurons, everything else (except for the long red tube, that’s a blood vessel) is a glial cell. It’s a bit of a mess, but it works, which is true for most things in life.

These are the cells that we are feeding when we think about nutrition for the brain.

Let’s cut straight to the chase, what foods are supposedly best for brain health?

Researchers these days are less into advising certain foods, and more into looking at diet patterns. The diet pattern that is currently suggested best for brain health is:

Why? Well, it’s mostly because that diet cuts out most saturated fats like butter, palm oil & meats, and favours monosaturated fats such as that in olive oil. Also, there’s a fair amount of fish in the Med diet, and that’s good for omega-3 and vitamin D.

Here’s the breakdown of what nutrient components are good for brain health:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids are in salmon, kiwi fruit, and walnuts.

  • Flavonoids are in citrus fruit, dark chocolate, and wine.

  • Vitamin D is in oily fish, egg yolk, and milk. Some cereals are fortified with this vitamin

  • Vitamin E is in olive oil, nuts, seeds, and wheat germ.

  • Choline is in eggs, dairy products, nuts, cod, prawns, and canned salmon.

Best ways to improve your diet? Just try one thing at a time. If you change your entire diet in one go it’ll be impossible to maintain. Also, keep in mind that humans evolved to have a diet of whatever the hell was available at the time. We’re very good at making the most of what we’ve got, so don’t worry too much about keeping to any particular diet, just if you don’t have much of any of the above, might want to start thinking about how you can add more of the above to your current diet.


 

Your brain is primed for use; so let’s use it!

What happens to a muscle when you don’t use it? You lose it. It atrophies. Cerebral atrophy is much the same thing.

There has been much research now that suggests things like meaningful social interaction, staying active, and trying new things can help prevent the onset of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia, which is basically cerebral atrophy.

We use all of our brains all the time; that “we only use 10% of our brains” thing has long been debunked, which is why cerebral atrophy is so devastating! Luckily though, because we use it all the time, that means our brain is getting exercised. There are a couple of specific things that we can do that ensure all aspects of the brain get the exercise it needs:

Focused Attention

A big part of life is your work, what you do to earn money, your vocation. Back during our hunter-gatherer times, people would have had similar contributions to the tribe that gave them both a place in the tribe and meaning. An expert tool maker, or hunter for example. So it makes sense that our brains became good at being able to focus on things that are important to us.

Photo credit: Lena Taranenko on Unsplash


Being able to focus on a task is easily a key way we use our brains in life. Focus reinforces neural networks, pathways in the brain. When we learn a new skill we’re focused. When we’re doing something we enjoy and get lost in, we’re focused. This is using the brain, and as stated above, you use it or lose it.


Something that has been found to have a great effect on the brain is Flow State. Flow state is that feeling where you’re doing something that you’re so used to, or so lost in, that you’re pretty much just on autopilot, you’re not thinking about it but you’re also not distracted. Flow state is like focused but not focused at the same time, and it’s been known to have healing effects on people (and animals!).


Down Time


For our brain to function properly we need to take regular breaks and just chill out. Makes sense right? The rest of our body is exactly the same after all.



You know that you can’t lift a weight all day long, your muscles will get fatigued. It’s the same with your brain.


If you focus all the time on things, then your brain will get tired and you won’t be able to focus anymore. Our brain needs downtime to be able to replenish all those chemicals like dopamine & serotonin that help us work.


Other than giving your brain a break, we need downtime for insights & problem-solving.


The best way to solve a difficult problem it having a sudden flash of insight. You know those rare moments when you suddenly know the answer to a problem? You don’t know how you got there, you just know it’s the solution…


That’s insight! and it’s a trainable skill just like everything else.


Taking time out of a problem and letting your mind wander is actually the best way to generate insights, it allows your brain to closely connect the dots between your problem and things that you may not consciously consider.


Some other tips are staying positive, and actually, to try and use as little effort as possible, let your mind wander. Remember you’re a human, which means that problem-solving is in your genes, those insights will come when you relax into being yourself.


The more autonomy you have over how you’re allowed to work and solve a problem, the more innovative insights you’re likely to have (employers take note).


Play and Social Connection

We all know that when young animals play, they learn. We hear it all the time in documentaries:

“This may be all play now, but these skills will be invaluable for hunting when the tiger cub is fully grown.”

Say’s the well-mannered narrator. You should have predicted what I’m about to say by now, and it’s exactly the same with us.


There are generally 2 forms of behaviour in the animal kingdom: instinctual and learned. The more “complex” the animal, the more their behaviours are learned because the complexity is simply too much to program into a brain automatically.


Things that keep us alive and safe are often instinctual. The reaction to jump when something startles you. The immediate dropping of something too hot. Withdrawing a body part away from a painful stimulus. You didn’t need your caregivers to teach you all that, it was instinctual.


Most of what makes humans human however is taught and learned behaviour. So much of being human is about social interaction.


Look at this image of the brain:

The speaker-listener neural coupling within the right hemisphere. Image credit: Greg J. Stephens/PNAS


Now, this image is actually from a study showing how good conversation will cause both participant's brains to activate in the same place. Interesting as what I wanted to highlight was simply:

Look how much of those people's brains are highlighted just from having an engaging conversation!

It is lit up like a house on fire! Remember the “use it or lose it” idea of the brain? Well look no further than this brain scan to see just how important social interaction is for brain health.


Social interaction on its own is actually something that Age UK (a UK-based charity that specialises in aiding those who find themselves isolated due to age-related issues) wholeheartedly recommends for staving off cognitive decline.



And of course, as mentioned above:

Play.

Fun.

We would not have the capacity to enjoy ourselves so much if we weren’t supposed to use that to its fullest.

Humans are young for a very long time, it takes about 25 years for our brains to fully develop and a lot of the development is through play. Playing, however, can be dangerous in survival situations. Playing young animals are more likely to get attacked by a predator or succumb to accidents. Play therefore must have served some big evolutionary advantages for us to be young and playful for so long. Playful people practice various skills, especially social ones, it is therefore likely that playful people were more likely to succeed in human society as they were the better problem solvers, also they were more fun to be around earning them social capital.

Think about how much stuff is going on when we play and enjoy ourselves. Sensory inputs, problem-solving, learning new skills, social interaction. That’s a lot of stuff. Fun in general has a lot of benefits, but mostly it’s that use it or lose principle again that makes it good for the brain.


 

Brain maintenance: Sleep, nutrition, physical exercise Brain lubrication: Focus, downtime, play/social connection.

A generally full life will naturally have all of these things in it, but in today's society of increased workload and stress, many of these things can get left behind.

Sometimes though, in order to get started all we need is information about ourselves and the way our bodies work.

I find that when I’m told “You need to get better sleep? Why? Because it’s healthy” doesn’t do anything for me, in one ear and out the other. But if you give me the actual reasons why I need to do these things, they make sense to me and I’m more likely to do something about it.

So that’s what I’m doing for you, giving you the information. Knowledge is power and you can now choose to do with it whatever you choose.

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