Did you know that your brain is shaped by your life and habits?
Because of neuroplasticity, the amazing ability of your brain to physically change in response to your experiences, the choices you make today are literally shaping the brain you’ll have to live with tomorrow.
Oh sure, you’re born with a physical brain with certain characteristics, and not all are modifiable, but research shows that lifestyle factors have a substantial influence on brain health and cognitive function throughout your life — both good and bad. Your lifestyle choices have a profound impact on both the physical structure and function of your brain, today and tomorrow.
Studies show that adopting brain-healthy lifestyle habits can fortify cognitive and mental health, reduce the risk of cognitive decline, and lower the risk of developing neurological conditions. Here are some key lifestyle factors that influence brain health in order of importance:
Get a Good Night’s Sleep
Sleep is one of the most powerful influencers of overall health — including your brain’s health. In fact, after just one night of insufficient sleep, your reaction times, glucose levels, mood, memory, and hormone balances can be affected. One study saw changes in men’s brains after not sleeping for just one night, indicative of brain shrinkage and damage similar to a brain injury.
Getting too little sleep can actually shrink your brain. Lack of sleep slows down your thinking, impairs memory, concentration, judgment, and decision-making, impedes learning, and contributes to depression. Sleep is absolutely essential for your brain to work properly because during sleep your brain is busy processing information, consolidating memories, making connections, and clearing out toxins. When asleep, your brain does its housekeeping and not having adequate time to do this could potentially accelerate neurodegenerative diseases.
In her article, “These are the 7 habits of highly healthy brains (in order of importance)“, Dr. Sarah McKay, a neuroscientist, rates sleep as the most important factor for brain health. She writes:
“A good night’s sleep every night should be a priority, not a luxury. Sleep is overlooked, underappreciated, and the number one, fundamental bedrock of good health. Sleep deprivation (even a few hours a night) impacts cognition (thinking), mood, memory and learning and leads to chronic disease.”
Getting sufficient sleep helps focus and improves memory and productivity. Most adults need somewhere between seven to nine hours of sleep each night, although the exact amount varies from person to person. If you don’t get your requisite hours one night, taking the time to nap the next day will give your brain a boost. Studies show that napping for 90 minutes improves memory, while other research says that even napping for ten minutes has brain benefits.
Move Your Body
After sleep, exercise is the next most important activity influencing your brain’s health. Exercise has been proven to have powerful brain benefits. Research shows that physical exercise improves memory and thinking skills, mood and creativity, and learning while reducing depression, age-related decline, and the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Exercising also leads to better sleep which greatly helps your brain as mentioned above.
Moving your body is one of the best ways to get your brain working optimally. Exercise increases the blood flow to the brain which, in turn, elevates oxygen levels in the brain. Exercise promotes neurogenesis and neuroplasticity, which are the production of new neurons and the connections between neurons.
Many studies have shown that during endurance or aerobic exercises, a neuroprotective molecule called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is produced. Research has revealed that an increase in BDNF amplifies many cognitive skills, including learning, memory, and attention. Exercise also reduces stress and anxiety by increasing soothing brain chemicals, like endorphins and GABA. Science has determined that exercising regularly can protect your brain and memory as you age. Activities that combine thinking with aerobic exercises, like ballroom dancing or tennis, are going to be of the most benefit to your brain.
In a world where a lot of us sit at a computer for hours a day, thankfully, the amount of exercise needed to benefit your brain is relatively low. In fact, even strength training can have lasting cognitive benefits. Research has confirmed that walking just 72 blocks (roughly 6 miles) a week can enhance brain function. One study found that just three sessions of yoga per week boosted people’s levels of GABA, which generally translates into improved mood and decreased anxiety. Another study found that exercising at a moderate intensity for just two hours per week increased volume in the parts of the brain that control memory and thinking. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines recommend 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week and two days of muscle strength training.