As solution focused hypnotherapists, we are used to talking about how the brain works, and discussing how to make the most of the neurotransmitters with which it communicates.
We talk much less about the brain as an organ itself, and about how to keep it healthy!
Your brain weighs about 3lb, (1.5kg), approximately 2% of an adult’s body weight.
It was one of the first parts of you to develop in the womb and hasn’t really grown that much since you were born, being about 80% of its adult size when you were just 2 years old. By 6 years old, your brain was 95% of the size it is now.
It has the consistency of jelly, because it’s made up of water, with some fat and cholesterol.
It is the single most complicated thing in the known universe, with around 100 billion brain cells that can connect in a brain-frazzling number of ways.
All its functions are powered by electricity, and it runs at around 15-20 watts, about the same as my eco-friendly light bulbs.
It's an expensive organ to run, biologically speaking, because all this activity takes up 20% of the energy your body needs daily to stay alive.
So, since nature and millions of years of evolution has gifted us this marvel of bioelectrical engineering, we’d better look after it, hadn’t we?
Your body already does the best it can, prioritising keeping your brain alive above all other parts of you, but let’s not give it any more of a challenge, eh?
So, without further ado, here are my top tips for keeping your brain in tip top condition!
1) Keep it safe
The first one is perhaps the simplest – look after your head.
Your brain is protected by a very strong box of bone, but is still vulnerable to knocks and bangs, and to rattling around inside the skull, so if you cycle, or play a contact sport, invest in a decent helmet.
And wear it.
Every. Single. Time.
2) Use it, or lose it
Your brain will get rid of connections that you don’t use, so to give yourself a bit of spare capacity, buffering you against the inevitable losses as you age, keep learning, keep using it and keep expanding its connections as much as you can.
Learning another language or an instrument are particularly good ways to keep your brain occupied and connected because they require using and connecting lots of its component parts.
Sadly, the brain training games on the Nintendo DS we were all told would make us smarter don’t really do that in any meaningful way. If you want to ‘train your brain’ just think of it in the same way you might think about toning your muscles, and try to use it as much as possible!
3) Exercise is also key
We are used to the idea that we need to exercise regularly to keep our bodies healthy and functioning well; the same is also true of your brain. Partly because a healthy and efficient heart and circulation system keeps your brain well supplied with oxygen and nutrients, but also because exercise boosts levels of lots of beneficial neurotransmitters.
One of the most beneficial effects of exercise is the release in the brain of a peptide called BDNF – brain derived neurotrophic factor – that helps make, support, and maintain healthy connections in the brain.
While I said earlier that you pretty much have all the brain cells you need as a child, BDNF seems to be able to prompt the brain to continue to make them in one specific part of the brain – the hippocampus – that is needed for processing and making memories.
The good news is that you don’t have to be in training for a triathlon for this to work. A brisk walk, cycle, or swim three or four times a week will do it, and there’s bonus points if you can fit in dancing, because learning moves or routines taps into the ‘use it or lose it’ strategy from point 2.
4) Keep stress under control
Managing stress is important for health, generally, but it's proving to be even more critical for lasting brain health.
Constant stress, even at lower sustained levels, which we might say that we rarely even notice, can affect the brain by exposing it to stress chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol. In time, these substances seem to impact how efficiently the brain’s networks communicate, making depression and anxiety more likely. They also affect our ability to remember and recall information, since high levels of cortisol and adrenaline reduce memory formation and storage.
5) Boost your social networks
Humans are social animals. We need to be with other people to stay mentally healthy. Being social requires us to interact in a multitude of ways that our brain is purposefully designed to do – whether that’s verbally, or through non-verbal communication of body language or of reading and interpreting emotions.
But spending time with loved ones, work colleagues, or those who share our hobbies provides more than just keeping our brain’s connections alert. Feeling connected to others generates the release of another neurotransmitter called oxytocin, which, in addition to being responsible for the warm feelings we get from hanging out with like-minded souls, also relaxes our cardiovascular system, counteracting the damaging effects of adrenaline and cortisol.
6) Find a purpose
Being more sociable is all mixed up with another thing that research shows again and again to be associated with having both a happy and a healthy brain – having purpose, a sense of shared value, of aiming for… something.
This ‘purpose’ might happen as part of your work if it’s something you feel passionate about, or you may find that excited sense of purpose from a hobby, or simply in doing something altruistic – volunteering for a charity project for example.
What our ‘purpose’ actually IS is less important than what we get from it, though. So, whatever your goal is – learning to crochet, perfect your sourdough loaf, lift 100kg, learn the piano, or write your memoirs – whatever it is that gives you purpose, just don’t stop doing it, and continue trying to move forwards.
7) Consider your nutrition
Food gets a lot of attention whenever we speak about brains and it’s true, a healthy diet in general is important for good brain health.
While your body, and as a result your brain, is able to make glucose – its favourite and most efficient fuel – from pretty much any food source; feeding your body a poor quality diet that’s too high in fat or sugar and too low in the good stuff we know we should be eating will make that process harder, which subtly increases the physical stress on the body.
Studies show that a diet high in fruit and veg (often known as the ‘Mediterranean diet’) gives us all the ingredients, such as antioxidants, that we need to help repair wear and tear to the body, and brain. While it’s tempting to buy into the myth of so-called ‘superfoods’, the truth is that there’s no real shortcuts – a healthy brain diet requires a bit of effort to get the best variety of nutrients, but you’ll be pleased to hear that a little (dark) chocolate is recognised as part of that!
As for all the array of supplements that are out there claiming to guarantee good brain health, very few – if any – have any evidence behind them.
Some studies show that compounds found in green tea are helpful, caffeine too, as long as it doesn’t impact on your sleep, and omega 3 oils seem to be beneficial, but taking huge doses of B vitamins or vitamin E won’t make a difference unless you’re deficient in them, so check that with your friendly pharmacist.
The herbal extracts of gingko biloba and ginseng have traditionally been recommended for brain health, but again, there’s not much convincing evidence. There are some very small studies that show curcumin, in turmeric, might help prevent memory loss.
A healthy diet will also naturally support healthy cholesterol and sugar levels, keeping the tiny blood vessels that supply our brain in good condition. If your cholesterol and indeed your blood sugar are raised, despite watching what you eat, you may need medication to lower it further. So, don’t forget to check in with the GP for a physical MOT once in a while.
8) Check your numbers
It goes without saying that strokes are very bad for brain health, so keeping an eye on your blood pressure is another key part of looking after your brain.
Staying at a healthy weight, exercising regularly, and watching the amount of sodium in your diet will all help to keep your blood pressure at a healthy level before needing to resort to medication. But if your blood pressure is still regularly past that magic 120 over 80, it may be time to consider seeing the GP for his input.
9) Stop smoking
It also goes without saying that smoking is bad for your brain, as well as for your body, so just…. don’t.
And if you do…. consider seeing a hypnotherapist to help you stay a non-smoker, once you’ve decided to stop.
10) Take it easy with alcohol
Another of our vices, alcohol, isn’t great for brain health either, which I suspect you probably already knew.
Alcohol and its metabolites interfere with many of our brain’s neurotransmitter systems, basically interrupting how our brain communicates within itself. It also impacts on how well our brain generates healthy sleep cycles (see below) and heavier levels of alcohol intake have been shown to accelerate the onset of dementia, and to cause thinning of the brain’s outermost layer, the cortex, impairing memory.
So, while many of us enjoy a glass or two, drinking is best kept to that – an occasional small glass or two, with plenty of alcohol free days.
11) Get enough sleep
Out of all these tips, getting enough sleep is perhaps the most important.
During sleep, our brains have a thorough clean. There are specialised cells in the brain that flush out waste from around our hard-working brain cells, removing the toxins that could otherwise build up and contribute to diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Overnight, the energy stores in the brain are also topped up, and damaged or unneeded connections are pruned, for efficiency.
Sleep also allows us to process emotional waste – to learn from or delete all the things that we experience in our day by replaying and assessing them in our dreams (in a phase of our sleep cycle known as REM, rapid eye movement, sleep). If we don’t get enough of this mental filing time during sleep, we will inevitably become more-and-more overwhelmed, and stressed and we know how that impacts our lives.
Our brains are the control panel for our bodies, so, much like your car or your electrical appliances, it is absolutely crucial to think about their maintenance and ensure they run smoothly. So I hope those tips have given you something to think about adding into your maintenance routine!