6 Pillars of Brain Health
Brain health isn’t really that complicated.
For those of you who are looking to improve their brain, there are 6 key areas. What I like to call the pillars of brain health and performance. They all affect your brain in a big way, and are a core part of many of the articles you will find here at The Brain Flux.
Some areas won’t be a huge surprise to you. They can be good for your health in general, and that’s okay.
People usually think of the mind and body as separate, but they are inextricably linked. You can’t affect the one, without somehow affecting the other. What’s good for the body is probably good for the mind. And vice versa.
Just like with any facet of life – be it sports, business, or health – the fundamentals are important. And focusing on the fundamentals can be the wisest investment of your time, money, and – in this case – health.
The pillars aren’t listed in any particular order, but all are important for a happy and healthy brain.
Pillar 1 – Sleep
Sleep is one of the most basic functions of human life. Of all the areas of brain health, I also feel like this one gets under-represented the most.
Researchers are still discovering the wide ranging effects that sleep has on our body and mind. We do know it has both short and long term effects, though.
In the short term, it can affect your memory and concentration. Not only does sleep aid in the formation of long term memories by strengthening them overnight, but it can also help you recall those memories easier the next morning.
In the long term, there’s a host of things. But one of the more interesting revelations recently, is the fact that sleep is the time that your mind becomes a nightly janitor by sweeping up toxic substances – like beta amyloid – that have been associated with dementia.
While some people might brag about how they can function on such little sleep – and where it as a badge of honor – they’re likely not as well off as they’d like to think.
Pillar 2 – Exercise
Hands down, the most effective and empirically evidenced way to increase mental abilities. It’s not crosswords. It’s not sudoku. It’s not brain training apps or software.
It’s exercise, plain and simple.
I would even go so far as to say that exercise isn’t for the body. It’s really about the mind. The physical benefits are well documented, but I think people don’t realize just how much it does for your brain.
One of the biggest areas of impact of exercise is on the set of brain capabilities known as the executive functions. These skills include your planning, problem solving, decision making, and organization.
It also can physically change your brain. It can increase your gray matter, but also maintain the integrity of your white matter. Allowing your brain to communicate more effectively and for longer.
People who exercise have shown to improve mental capacities and prolong dementia. Even if you start exercising later in life.
The benefits of exercise are way too numerous to talk about here. Just know that it can affect you cognitively, psychologically, and physiologically.
There’s a good summary of the benefits of exercise, with links to other articles here.
Pillar 3 – Diet & Nutrition
Naturally, what we put into our bodies is going to affect our health. Our brain is no exception.
Scientific evidence is also beginning to suggest that it plays a bigger role in affecting our behavior than we first realized.
Take the area I like to call “gut” science. A lot of recent research is suggesting that the bacteria in our stomachs – or microbiota – can affect anxiety and depression symptoms.
More research on specific diets like the Mediterranean and MIND diets in preliminary reports are showing lower risk and delay of dementia.
Pillar 4 – Social Interaction
A lot of recent research is starting to uncover the health benefits of staying connected to other human beings. Also that social skills developed early on can mean success later down the road.
I’ve always heard debates on the quality versus quantity when it comes to friendship. According to recent research, it seems like quality does seem to have a slight edge.
However, things like isolation have been compared against other predictors of health outcomes like smoking and obesity.
Pillar 5 – Stress Management
Stress is one of the biggest enemies of a healthy brain. It can’t be avoided. It’s a natural part of being human. So being able to effectively manage stress is an important part of keeping your brain healthy.
Stress has been linked to a number of physical and mental problems. It can affect how we control our emotions, eating, and our quality of sleep. It’s also been linked to headaches, anxiety, depression and social withdrawal.
It can even physically affect our brain. Stress over long periods of time have been shown to damage the hippocampus. Chronic stress is also linked to issues with memory.
Pillar 6 – Mental Engagement
Mental Engagement is probably the most complex area. It can also be one of the most interesting and the most fun.
Some people call it mental fitness or stimulation, but the concept is the same. All these terms are related to engaging in learning new information or skills.
Not only does this keep you sharp, but makes you a far more diverse and interesting person.
What are some examples of mentally engaging skills? Some of the more researched activities that have shown cerebral benefits include learning an instrument, meditation, and acquiring a second language. But that’s hardly a complete list. It can be engaging in any new or novel skills, such as juggling, dancing, or even learning math for fun.
There’s a few important keys here. It has to be novel. And it has to be challenging. The brain is a pretty efficient machine. If you find something easy, or if it’s a skill you are already familiar with, chances are it’s not really stretching your brain that much. So novelty and difficulty is important.
The great thing about this brain health pillar, is that you can easily combine it with the other areas. Except maybe sleep. The easiest, though, is social interaction. Just pick a mentally stimulating activity and then do it with friends or family members. It can also be a great way to meet new people with similar interests.
Another study has shown that the type of job you have can affect mental function. The more stimulating and engaging the job, the longer the people’s mental capacities continue to function throughout their life.
So now you know the big areas that affect your brain health, but where do you start?
Some quick pieces of advice. Don’t try to change everything at once. It’s a recipe for failure. Focus on the area where you are most lacking and start there. For many people, that might be exercise.
Make only small changes in your behavior. Once it’s turned into a habit, you can make another change. Small changes will make big impacts.
When should you start?
The most important time is today. Not tomorrow, not next week, and not until you make a New Year’s resolution.
Don’t wait until there’s a problem with your health. There is no better day than today. The earlier you start living a healthier Neurolife, the better.
Other articles will go into more details about starting out and what you can do to improve. But for now, if you want to get the latest tips on brain health and performance, be sure to sign up for updates.
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