I’ve talked in earlier blogs about hacking your neurotransmitters to make you more motivated, about why we love hugs, and about what your brain is doing when you have a meltdown.
But as well as knowing how to hack it, we should really go back to basics and talk about your brain itself.
Let’s start with some brain facts…
Your brain weighs about 3lb, (1.5kg) approximately 2% of an adult’s body weight. It was one of the first parts of you to develop in the womb and hasn’t really grown that much since you were born, being about 80% of adult size when you’re just 2 years old. By 6 years old, your brain was 95% of the size it is now.
It has the consistency of jelly, as it’s made up of water, with some fat and cholesterol.
It is the single most complicated thing in the known universe, with around 100 billion brain cells that can connect in a brain frazzling number of ways.
All its functions are powered by electricity, and it runs at around 15-20 watts, about the same as my eco friendly light bulbs. And it’s an expensive organ to run, biologically speaking, as all this activity takes up 20% of the energy your body needs daily to stay alive.
So, since nature and millions of years of evolution has gifted us this marvel of bioelectrical engineering, we’d better look after it, hadn’t we?
How can you look after your brain?
Your body already does the best it can, as it prioritises keeping your brain alive above all other parts of you, but let’s give it a helped hand!
So, without further ado, here are my top tips for keeping your brain in tip top condition!
1. Protect your head (perhaps the simplest but most important tip!)
Your brain is protected by a very strong box of bone, but it is still vulnerable to knocks and bangs, and to rattling around inside the skull, so if you play a contact sport or cycle, invest in a decent helmet.
And wear it.
2. Use it, or lose it
Your brain will get rid of connections that you don’t use, so to give yourself a bit of spare capacity, buffering you against the inevitable losses as you age, keep learning, using it and expanding its connections as much as you can.
Learning another language or an instrument are particularly good ways to keep your brain occupied and connected as they require using and connecting lots of its component parts.
Sadly, the brain training games on the Nintendo DS we were all told would make us smarter don’t really do that. If you want to ‘train your brain’ just think of it in the same way you might think about toning your muscles, and try to use it as much as possible!
3. Exercise for your brain
We are used to the idea that we need to exercise regularly to keep our bodies healthy and functioning well; the same is also true of your brain. Partly because a healthy and efficient heart and circulation system keeps your brain well supplied with oxygen and nutrients, but also because exercise boosts levels of lots of beneficial neurotransmitters.
One of the most beneficial effects of exercise is the release in the brain of a peptide called BDNF – brain derived neurotrophic factor – that helps support and maintain healthy connections in the brain.
While I said earlier that you pretty much have all the brain cells you need as a child, BDNF also prompts the brain to continue to make them in one specific part of the brain – the hippocampus – that is needed for processing and making memories.
The good news is that you don’t have to be in training for a triathlon for this to work. A brisk walk, cycle or swim three or four times a week will do it, and there’s bonus points if you can fit in dancing, as learning moves or routines taps into the ‘use it or lose it’ strategy I’ve already mentioned.
4. Minimise stress
Managing stress is important for health, generally, but it’s proving to be even more critical for lasting brain health. Constant stress, even at lower sustained levels that we might not even notice, can affect the brain by exposing it to stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.
If stress sounds like it might be an issue for you, the good news is the here at Inspired to Change we are experts at reducing stress! Take a look at our Top Tips for Reducing Stress or get in touch to find out how we can help.
5. Boost your social networks
Humans are social animals. We need to be with other people to stay mentally healthy. It’s why we all found lockdown so much of a challenge.
Being social requires us to interact in a multitude of ways that our brain is purposefully designed to do – whether that’s verbally, through body language or through reading and interpreting emotions. But spending time with loved ones, work colleagues or those who share our hobbies provides more than just keeping our brain’s connections alert.
Feeling connected to others generates the release of another neurotransmitter called oxytocin, which in addition to being responsible for the warm feels of hanging out with like-minded souls, also relaxes our cardiovascular system, counteracting the damaging effects of adrenaline and cortisol.
6. Find a purpose
Being more sociable is all mixed up with another thing that research shows time and again to be associated with having both a happy and a healthy brain – and that’s having purpose, a sense of shared value, of aiming for… something.
This might happen as part of your work if it’s something you feel passionate about, or you may find that excitement from a hobby, or simply in doing something altruistic – volunteering for a charity project for example.
What our ‘purpose’ actually IS is less important than what we get from it. So whatever your goal is – learning to crochet, perfecting your sourdough loaf, lifting 100kg, learning to play the piano or writing your memoirs….whatever it is that gives you purpose, just don’t stop doing it, and continue trying to move forwards.
7. Watch what you eat
Food gets a lot of attention whenever we speak about brains and it’s true, a healthy diet in general is important for good brain health.
While your body, and as a result your brain, is able to make glucose – our body’s fuel – from pretty much any food source, feeding your body a poor quality diet that’s too high in fat or sugar and too low in the good stuff will make that process harder, subtly increasing physical stress.
Studies show that a diet high in fruit and veg, what’s often known as the ‘Mediterranean diet’ gives us the antioxidants we need to help repair wear and tear to the body, and brain.
While it’s tempting to buy into the myth of superfoods, the truth is that there’s no real shortcuts – a healthy brain diet requires a bit of effort to get the best variety of nutrients, but you’ll be pleased to hear that a little wine and a little chocolate are recognised as part of that!
As for all the array of supplements that are out there claiming to guarantee good brain health, very few if any have any evidence behind them. Some studies show that compounds found in green tea are helpful, caffeine too, as long as it doesn’t impact on your sleep, and omega 3 oils may be beneficial, but taking huge doses of B vitamins or vitamin E won’t make a difference unless you’re deficient in them, so check that with your friendly pharmacist.
The herbal extracts of gingko biloba and ginseng have traditionally been recommended for brain health but again, there’s not much convincing evidence, although there are some very small studies that show curcumin, in turmeric, might help prevent memory loss.
8. Keep an eye on cholesterol and sugar
A healthy diet will also naturally support healthy cholesterol and sugar levels, keeping the tiny blood vessels that supply our brain in good condition. If your cholesterol and indeed your blood sugar is raised despite watching what you eat, you may need medication to lower it further, so don’t forget to check in with the GP for a physical MOT once in a while.
9. Check your numbers
It goes without saying that strokes are very bad for brain health, so keeping an eye on your blood pressure is another key part of looking after your brain.
Staying at a healthy weight, exercising regularly and watching the amount of sodium in your diet are all things you can do before resorting to medication, if your blood pressure is still regularly past that magic 120 over 80, it may be time to consider seeing the GP for his input.
10. Stop smoking
It also goes without saying that smoking is bad for your brain, as well as for your body, so just….don’t.
And if you do and want to stop… come and see one of our team!
11. Take it easy with alcohol
Another of our vices, alcohol, isn’t great for brain health either, which I suspect you probably already knew.
It interferes with many of our brain’s neurotransmitter systems, basically interrupting how our brain communicates within itself, so while many of us enjoy a glass or two, drinking is best kept to that – a glass or two, with plenty of alcohol free days.
12. Get enough sleep
Out of all these tips, getting enough sleep is perhaps the most important.
During sleep, our brains have a thorough clean. There are specialised cells in the brain that flush out waste from around our hard working brain cells, removing the toxins that could otherwise build up and contribute to diseases like Alzheimers.
During sleep the energy stores in the brain are also topped up, and damaged or unneeded connections are pruned, for efficiency.
Sleep also allows us to process emotional waste – to learn from or delete all the things that we experience in our day by replaying and assessing them in our dreams. If we don’t get enough mental filing time during sleep, we will inevitably become more and more overwhelmed, and stressed and we know how that impacts our lives.
Brain maintenance is crucial …
Our brains are the control panel for our bodies, so much like your car or your electrical appliances it is absolutely crucial to think about their maintenance and ensure they run smoothly. I hope these tips have given you something to think about adding into your maintenance routine!
About the Author: Claire Noyelle practices online and from her tranquil garden therapy room at her home in Bearsted, Maidstone East, in the heart of the garden county of Kent. Claire is a member of the Association for Solution Focused Hypnotherapists, National Council for Hypnotherapy and the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council and a member of both the General Pharmaceutical Council and the Royal Pharmaceutical Society.
If you’d like to find out how solution focused hypnotherapy could help you to reduce anxiety, cope with stress and maintain your brain, why not get in touch to book your FREE initial consultation with your local Inspired to Change hypnotherapist? Inspired to Change Hypnotherapists are based across the UK in Bristol, Cambridgeshire, Devon, Essex, Kent, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Norfolk, Somerset and South Gloucestershire.
Inspired to Change Hypnotherapists are all recognised by the National Council for Hypnotherapy, the UK’s leading not-for-profit hypnotherapy professional association.
To find out how you can train as a solution focused hypnotherapist click here for our hypnotherapy school information.