If you are reading this, consider how your brain is working; it is taking in the words on this page and turning them into information you can process and understand. Pretty amazing, right? The brain is the control center of the body, a complex system that is responsible for daily functions such as breathing and walking, processing information, emotions, and so much more. Yet sometimes we spend little time talking about the health of our brains. Especially as we age, it is important to understand what impacts brain health and how to keep the brain healthy for a long and full life.
Health in broad terms is defined as the absence of illness or injury (1). So can we assume brain health is the absence of illness or injury in the brain? Not quite. Brain health isn’t just about the absence of illness or injury, it is about what choices you make to prevent illness and to keep your mind sharp and functioning properly. When your brain is healthy, it has the blood flow required for peak performance (2). Poor brain health has been linked to increased risk for heart and brain disease as we age, so it is important to make healthy choices no matter what your age is. How do we keep our brain healthy?
Your lifestyle choices can have a significant impact on your brain health. Consider these steps for overall better brain health:
1. Manage blood pressure and control cholesterol levels. Blood pressure is the amount of force your blood has when pushing against the walls of your blood vessels (3). Healthy blood pressure is needed to circulate oxygen and nutrients via the bloodstream to the brain, heart and the body. However, consistently high blood pressure can cause harm by increasing the workload of these blood vessels leading to the heart and brain. Over time, the force and friction of high blood pressure can lead to various health risks such as stroke, heart attack and it can also damage the delicate tissues inside the arteries (3). This makes the arteries more susceptible to the negative effects of cholesterol. Cholesterol is essential, in the right amounts, to our body for proper functioning. Your liver makes all the cholesterol you need; the remainder of the cholesterol in your body, both HDL (“good”) cholesterol and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, comes from your diet. As the amount of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol in your blood increases above its need so does the risk to your health. LDL cholesterol can join with other substances to form a thick, hard deposit on the inside of artery walls damaged by high blood pressure, which can narrow the arteries and make them less flexible – a condition known as atherosclerosis (4). Buildup in these arteries can further reduce blood flow to the brain and heart, increasing blood pressure and continuing the harmful cycle. Balancing your blood pressure and cholesterol levels within a healthy range is important to preventing brain disease.
2. Manage blood sugar levels. When we eat carbohydrate-rich foods, it is broken down in the stomach into sugar (referred to as glucose). Our bodies then take up this glucose into our blood, causing our blood sugar levels to rise. In response to this raised blood sugar level, our body signals the release of the hormone insulin, which helps the cells throughout the body to absorb glucose and use it for energy to move, exercise, heal and grow or to store as fat to use later (5). With the help of insulin, sugar is removed from the blood by cells and blood sugar levels can return to a healthy range. However, if your body cannot efficiently use the insulin it produces, glucose builds up in the bloodstream instead of being used by cells (5). Over time, elevated blood sugar levels can affect many major organs in your body, including the brain, which can lead to an array of serious complications when left untreated. Due to this, it is important to know how to sufficiently manage your blood sugar levels through diet and other tips to help prevent disease.
3. Modify your diet. A healthy diet can provide your brain with the nutrients it needs to remain focused and functioning. Research shows a brain-healthy diet is high in fruits, vegetables, poultry, fish, nuts, whole grains, low-fat dairy and healthy fat such as olive oil and a low in intake of red meats, sweets, sugar-sweetened beverages, saturated fat and cholesterol (6). An example of this type of diet is the Mediterranean diet. The Mediterranean diet is based on health food principles that resemble traditional cuisine. It is typically characterized by eating lots of plants and plant-based foods including fruits, vegetables, grains, potatoes, fish, beans, nuts, seeds, and olive oil. Dairy, poultry, and eggs are consumed in low to moderate amounts, and red meat is consumed in low amounts. Following a Mediterranean-style diet has been also suggested to help to manage blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar that are also risk factors for brain health.
4. Move more. Staying active can help to reduce blood pressure, boost good cholesterol levels, improve blood flow, and lift your mood, which are all related to better brain health. Experts recommend engaging in exercise for at least 30 mins a day for 5 days a week (7). Activities to consider include walking, weightlifting, yoga, cycling, kayaking, and anything you find to be enjoyable while breaking a sweat. Not sure what workout routine is best for your lifestyle? Check out this post by Lifesum.
5. Get enough sleep. The amount and quality of sleep you get has a big impact on your overall health. Getting proper rest can influence eating habits, mood, memory and focus. Experts suggest that on average we need 7-9 hours of restful sleep a night (8).
6. Engage in social activity. Interacting with others is a great way to stimulate the brain. Scientists are finding that our links to others can have powerful effects on our health (9). Make sure you make the time to interact with family, friends and others for more brain boosting benefits.
7. Stop smoking and moderate alcohol intake. Cigarettes, e-cigarettes and tobacco products contain toxins dangerous to human health, specifically carbon monoxide and nicotine. Carbon monoxide decreases the amount of oxygen that is carried in the red blood cells throughout the body and can also increase the amount of cholesterol that is deposited into the inner lining of the arteries which, over time, can cause the arteries to harden (10). Nicotine is a dangerous and highly addictive chemical, and can cause an increase in blood pressure, heart rate, flow of blood to the heart and a narrowing of the arteries (10). Smoking is also linked to heart disease, stroke and other chronic diseases. When it comes to enjoying a drink, moderation is key. Excessive alcohol intake can interfere with the brain’s communication pathways, affecting the way the brain works (11). It can also contribute to high cholesterol levels and high blood pressure, increasing the risk of developing heart disease. Experts suggest if you like a glass of wine or a beer, limit it to an average of one to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women (11).
Engaging in healthy lifestyle choices is not only good for overall health, but brain health as well. Following these steps toward a healthy lifestyle may help you live a longer, happier life. Not sure where to start? Lifesum’s in-app health tracker, Life Score™ will help you calculate on a weekly basis tips to improve your health. What do you do to keep your brain healthy?
All of the content and media on Lifesum is created and published for information purposes only. It is not intended to be used as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. Users should always consult with a doctor or other health care professional for medical advice.
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