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.

Feed Your Brain Well

When it comes to your brain, you literally are what you eat. What goes into your mouth largely influences what goes on in your head. You can promote quicker thinking, better memory and concentration, improved balance and coordination, sharper senses, productivity, and the activation of your feel-good hormones with your diet.

Healthy food

You should know that you also have a “brain” in your gut, called the enteric nervous system. Just like the brain in your head, it uses over 30 neurotransmitters including dopamine and serotonin. In fact, 95% of the body’s serotonin, largely responsible for mood, is found in the bowels. Living in your gut are tens of trillions of microorganisms, making up your unique microbiome. We’ve always known the microbiome plays a major role in digestion, allergies, and metabolism, but now we know that the bacteria in your gut also influence your mental health. Science has uncovered connections between intestinal bacteria and anxiety, depression, autism, Alzheimer’s disease, and other mental health disorders.

To get the most brain power out of your diet, evidence suggests a Mediterranean-based diet consisting of mostly plants, fish, some meat, olive oil, and nuts is optimal for brain health. Your brain will also benefit from eating good fats, chocolate, and coffee. To get brain benefits, you don’t need to overhaul your whole diet all at once. Try to make small changes one step at a time, like cutting out soda, then move on to eating more good fats, etc.

Learn How To Calm Your Brain

Your brain’s top priority is always keeping you safe and alive.

While that preservation instinct helped our ancestors survive, today it causes you a lot of undue worry and stress. Not all stress is bad, but chronic stress can actually damage the brain. Studies show that too much stress and elevated cortisol levels can generate the overproduction of myelin-producing cells, inhibit the birth of new neurons, and cause the hippocampus, integral to learning and memory, to shrink. Chronic stress can also change your gene expression, shut down your immune system, increase inflammation, cause belly fat, and more. Stress is usually seen in a person’s mental health as depression and anxiety.

If you are under stress and don’t find healthy ways to release it or learn techniques to cope when experiencing stress, you carry around a constant current of worry that can become ingrained as anxiety. And then if you suffer from anxiety for too long, you could slip into depression. Stress is one of the most dangerous toxins your body faces daily.

To experience absolutely no stress, you would have to be dead. Seriously. And some stress is actually good, called eustress, motivating you to act and perform at your best. The key is to manage stress so that it doesn’t have unhealthy effects.

Learning to calm your brain and body turns down your fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system and engages your calming parasympathetic nervous system more often, which allows you to break the damaging cycle of stress. Practices, such as mindfulness and meditation, yoga, exercise, visualization, connecting with others, and getting a massage, can help you manage stress.

Make Time to Connect

Connecting with others is important to your brain. In These are the 7 habits of highly healthy brains (in order of importance), Sarah McKay, neuroscientist, writes:

“Having supportive friends, family and social connections helps you live longer, happier and healthier. Socialising reduces the harmful effects of stress and requires many complex cognitive functions such as thinking, feeling, sensing, reasoning and intuition. Loneliness and social isolation have comparable impacts on health and survival as smoking.”

You can lower your risk of many mental illnesses and cognitive decline just by staying in touch with and supported by family and friends. Spending time with others helps to reduce stress levels and keeps your cognitive skills sharp. Your brain wants to be connected and included and feels calmer and happier when it is. Research finds:

  • Higher social engagement is associated with higher cognitive functioning and reduced risks of cognitive decline.
  • Volunteering helps lower mortality and depression rates and slows down the decline in physical health and cognitive function.
  • Larger social network sizes are associated with better cognitive function.
People having food and smiling

Stimulate and Challenge Your Brain

Your brain loves routine. However, studies show that staying in your comfort zone is not good for your brain. It kills productivity, creativity, and motivation, and promotes negative neuroplastic change. Humans are masters at unknowingly contributing to our brains’ decline with our habits.

Your brain needs novelty and stimulation to stay healthy. It’s important to kick your brain out of its comfort zone and into the enhancement zone by doing things that are unfamiliar and mentally challenging regularly. You want to push your brain beyond its norm by learning new skills, hobbies, or sports, continuing to educate your mind, putting yourself in new social situations, and traveling to new locations, for instance.

Recent studies have found that having an intellectually challenging job helps to preserve thinking skills and memory as you age. Learning a second language, playing a musical instrument, or undertaking a new craft or hobby all have brain benefits. Anything that forces your brain to stretch, grow, and learn is going to be good for it. Activities that require intense mental focus switch on neuroplasticity, promoting the growth of new synapse connections and leading to strong neural wiring.


You can take simple steps to start instilling brain-healthy habits in your life to keep your physical brain and mental health at its best. When you are trying to adopt healthier habits, start with small changes one at a time and add on from there when you are ready. Don’t overwhelm yourself. Small steps can add up to big results and a healthier brain and body.

At Grey Matters of Carmel, we are passionate about helping people live their best lives, including optimizing their brain’s health and function. Give us a call at (317) 215-7208 or send us a message today to talk about how we can help you.