Recent blog posts have explored three of the nine keys to strengthening and sharpening the brain, while preparing it to rewire negative neural pathways imprinted by negative childhood experiences. These nine keys work together to accomplish the following:
- Increase the size, function, and health of neurons and supporting tissues, especially in areas of the brain that regulate emotions, enhance thinking, and process memories adaptively
- Stimulate the growth of new neurons and facilitate the formation of new neural circuits
- Reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, which are linked to a wide range of psychological and medical disorders
- Strengthen the blood-brain barrier, which prevents harmful substances (such as inflammatory agents and toxins) from reaching the brain
- Influencing telomeres and epigenomes to favorably affect cell replication and gene expression
- Eliminate harmful proteins, such as amyloid, found in Alzheimer’s disease
The three fundamental keys that we have already explored are exercise, nutrition and sleep. Here are six additional keys to optimal brain health and function:
1. Take advantage of “nature’s pills”.
Sunlight appears to play a key role in optimizing serotonin and melatonin levels, which affect mood and sleep. Sunlight also helps lower blood pressure (the skin uses sunlight to make nitric oxide) and thus reduces the risk of cardiovascular problems. Additionally, 20-30 minutes of morning sunlight can boost vitamin D levels (which is vital for brain health) and increase metabolic rate, while helping to reduce inflammation and autoimmune activity. Even sitting in front of a light box that approximates the intensity of sunlight for 30-60 minutes a day often improves seasonal (and non-seasonal) depression, PMS, mental performance, and inflammation. .
Green time — spending relaxed time outdoors near trees and nature’s greenery, without electronics or counting heartbeats — is restorative. The Japanese call it “forest bathing”. Twenty to 30 minutes a few times a week is associated with greater calm and less cortisol, inflammation and depression. Additionally, blue weather — being around water, such as the ocean, ponds, and even fountains — has been linked to better mental health.
2. Treat brain-damaging medical conditions.
Conditions that can have adverse effects on the brain include the following:
- Sleep Apnea. If left untreated, it increases the risk of depression, dementia, inflammation, reduced brain size, and buildup of amyloid plaque in areas responsible for memory and other cognitive functions.
- High cholesterol. It can cause depression. Statins, which lower cholesterol, also help reduce inflammation.
- Thyroid disorders. Called the big mime, thyroid dysfunction can lead to anxiety, depression, mental sluggishness, sleep problems, worsening PTSD, high cholesterol, weight gain, and many other symptoms. More than 12% of adults will develop a thyroid disorder. Most of them are unaware of their condition and many who are diagnosed are not treated properly. Blood tests that measure thyroxine and thyroid-stimulating hormone are used to diagnose the problem, and later tests show whether thyroxine levels are properly regulated.
- Gum disease. This is linked to mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety, likely because gum bacteria reach the brain and cause inflammation. To prevent or manage gum disease, it is essential to brush and floss daily, get professionally cleaned, avoid tobacco, get enough sleep, and stay hydrated.
- High blood pressure. This can cause micro-cerebral hemorrhages and worse. Exercising, taking probiotics, limiting processed foods, and increasing the intake of fruits, vegetables, and fermented foods, along with taking necessary medications, can help lower blood pressure.
- Diabetes. It can shrink the hippocampus, the brain structure that plays an important role in memory.
3. Minimize air pollutants, preservatives, pesticides and herbicides.
Recent studies have found strong links between living in areas with high air pollution (such as near freeways) and dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological problems. However, living near green spaces like parks and nature reserves protects against such messes.
As much as possible, avoid tobacco smoke, traffic pollution, pollen and soot. For example, use the air conditioner and recirculate the air when in traffic, and use good quality air filters around the house.
You can also grow and prepare your own food, buy organic produce, and remove your shoes in the house if you’ve been through chemically treated grass (eg, golf courses or lawns).
4. Minimize anticholinergic drugs
Anticholinergic drugs can increase memory problems, accelerate brain aging, reduce energy levels and increase the risk of dementia. Anticholinergics block acetylcholine, a major neurotransmitter in the brain that plays a role in attention and memory (acetylcholine is low in Alzheimer’s disease). Anticholinergics include:
- Antihistamines (such as diphenhydramine, used in many allergy and cold medicines, such as Benadryl)
- Tranquilizers, such as benzodiazepines
- Prescription and over-the-counter sleeping pills
- Medicines for ulcers (eg, Tagamet and Zantac)
- Tricyclic antidepressants (however, newer selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors actually delay dementia)
- Some painkillers
Discuss your medications with your doctor to consider taking anticholinergics in the smallest dose needed, taking them only as long as needed, or trying other medications or nonpharmacological treatments.
5. Minimize nerve and inflammatory agents.
Nuclear brain imaging has shown that excessive consumption of certain substances can cause abnormal brain function years before structural damage is apparent. These harmful changes are not just the result of excessive illicit drug use. For example, a great study showed that drinking six or more cups of coffee a day can put a person at increased risk for brain shrinkage, dementia and stroke. The researchers recommended that coffee drinkers safely drink one to two cups before noon and then switch to water. And caffeinated energy drinks seem to cause the opposite of what was expected: fatigue, depression, sleep disturbances, etc.
Regarding alcohol, Canadian research shows that abstainers have better mental health than drinkers, and resilience and alcohol consumption are inversely correlated. Even moderate amounts of alcohol have been linked to the brain narrowing and excess alcohol at greater risk of dementia. Binge drinking (4 to 5 glasses a day, even occasionally) is particularly risky.
Smoking makes the brain feel relaxed. In fact, smoking significantly increases the risk of panic disorder, anxiety and depression.
6. Manage stress.
Stress can increase the production of amyloid plaques found in Alzheimer’s disease and dysregulate cortisol (which can damage or alter brain cells, trigger inflammation and lead to weight gain).
A high resting pulse, a measure of excessive arousal under stress, is linked to cognitive decline and dementia. This can be reduced, often within months, with measures to improve heart and brain health, including exercise.
Ultimately, processing memories of negative childhood experiences will get to the root of a lot of unnecessary stress and suffering. Until that happens, many strategies can help, such as mindfulness meditation, self-compassion, the bottom-up strategies we’ve discussed in previous blog posts, yoga, and tai chi. .