How to Change Your Brain

Sure, you can change your mind, but can you change your brain? Science says, “Yes!”

According to a great article I read recently, there are a number of things that have been shown — through scientific studies — to make a difference. Read on for a list of seven things that may actually improve your brain:

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1) Exercise
Everyone knows that they should exercise, but most people think of their waistline, not their brain, when they hop onto the treadmill. It turns out that physical activity is a very important factor when it comes to brain health and cognitive function. In fact, exercise is linked to greater brain volume, improved thinking/memory skills, and a decreased risk of dementia! According to a study published in the journal Neurology, older people who engage in vigorous exercise tend to have similar cognitive test scores to people who are 10 years younger!

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2) Foods and Spices
Here is another aspect of our health that tends to be dictated by our waistline: our diet. Eating lots of processed carbohydrates and sugars certainly affects our figure, but it also affects our brain! In a study conducted at UCLA last year, researchers found that feeding fructose water to rats with brain damage actually impeded their recovery…and that even healthy rats experienced cognitive decline when placed on the same diet. On the other hand, omega-3 fatty acids (think fish, eggs, walnuts, etc.) seemed to reverse some of the damage! Another study showed that turmeric — a spice found in curry dishes that is touted for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties — may be linked to a reduced incidence of Alzheimer’s disease.

While there is probably not a single food or spice that will turn the tides, a diet that is high in whole foods and low in sugar is probably your best bet at maintaining health. Given the fact that about 1/5 of our energy resources are dedicated to powering the brain, we should give it some consideration when we reach for a snack!

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3) Vitamins and Minerals
Of course, any vitamin or mineral that is good for your body is good for your brain, too! However, there are a few that are more directly related to brain health: vitamins D and B12 and iron. Science may not be able to explain precisely why our brains need vitamin D, but it has shown that a lack of it is linked to cognitive decline. Similarly, vitamin B12 deficiency can have negative effects on the central nervous system and lead to memory loss. Iron plays an important role throughout the body because it carries oxygen to all of our cells! Keep in mind that while supplements may seem easier to take, your body is actually better able to absorb vitamins and minerals that come directly from food. Click here for an a-to-z list of vitamins and minerals and the foods that contain them.

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4) Coffee
Most of us are probably happy to think that our coffee addiction is actually doing something good for our bodies! Beyond simply keeping us alert, coffee consumption can actually reduce the risk of depression, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease. Next time someone tries to hassle you about being a coffee addict, just tell them you are getting your daily dose of antioxidants!

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5) Meditation
There may be thousands of years’ worth of anecdotal evidence to prove the value of meditation, but the experimental evidence to go with it has only arisen in the last decade or so. Studies have shown that meditation may be related to increased brain volume in certain parts of the cerebral cortex. Furthermore, it is associated with decreased activity in the amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for our response to fear or stress) and the default mode network (which is active when our mind is wandering). Those who practice meditation regularly can expect improvements like increased attention and concentration!

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6) Education/Mental Activity
This is probably the first thing that comes to mind when people think about “improving” their brains. Things like learning a new language, playing an instrument, or doing a crossword/sudoku puzzle are all helpful (and fun)! Not that any of these things can necessarily prevent disease, but they can reinforce our cognitive reserve — that is, the mind’s resilience or ability to function adequately in spite of damage.

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7) Sleep
We are pretty big fans of sleep here at Lifekind, so this may be my favorite thing on the list! We spend about 1/3 of our lives sleeping, so it makes sense that it would have an effect on our health. Lack of sleep has a negative effect on the body and the mind and has been associated with things like poor attention, difficulty learning, and decreased creativity. There is plenty of debate about precisely how much sleep is needed, but seven hours is a pretty good rule of thumb!

With all of the hard work that our brain does around the clock, it certainly deserves a little extra attention. Even though we might not be able to fit in all of the items on this list every day, it is at least nice to know that there is something we can do to improve our most complex (and intriguing) organ!