A Neuroscientist’s Guide To Looking After Your Brain

It makes sense that lifestyle factors can impact how efficiently your brain functions – especially when you realise it’s made up of 86 billion cells responsible for everything from producing hormones to controlling mood. To find out what they are and how to keep your brain functioning well, we asked four neuroscientists to share their advice.
By Tor West /

Exercise Regularly

Countless studies show regular exercise will keep you fit, and your mind sharp. “The human body was designed to be active,” says Professor James Goodwin, director of science and research at Brain Health Network. In a nutshell, raising your heart rate through exercise means your brain gets more oxygen, which in turn provides a better environment for your brain cells to grow. “Research shows aerobic exercise – i.e. anything that raises your heart rate – can increase the size of the hippocampus, leading to improvements in memory. In studies, one year of regular exercise increased hippocampal volume by 2% – the same amount most of us lose per year from our 40s onwards if we don’t take action.”

Get Your Steps In

Regular exercise will also reduce stress levels and inflammation and promote the release of chemicals that promote the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, adds Dr Emer MacSweeney, consultant neurologist at Re:Cognition Health. “Being active is one of the best things you can do to reduce the risk of neurodegenerative conditions. A recently published, seven-year study which followed 80,000 people, found those who walked 10k steps every day reduced the risk of dementia by 51%.”

Raising your HEART RATE through EXERCISE means your brain gets more OXYGEN, providing a better environment for your BRAIN CELLS TO GROW.

Keep Your Mind Active

To maintain a healthy brain, it needs a workout, too. “You have to make the brain work out of its comfort zone,” says neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart. “Keeping the brain challenged is vital for neural plasticity, i.e. the ability of the brain to change and adapt to new information. Puzzles like sudoku and crosswords are great, but they aren’t attention-intense enough to change your brain. On the other hand, learning a new language, a musical instrument or sport will keep the brain healthy and flexible. Meditation and yoga are also very protective for brain health.” Professor of neuroscience Hana Burianová adds that the brain thrives in the face of new challenges. “It can be as simple as walking on the other side of the road on your usual route to work or brushing your teeth with your opposite hand.”

Stop Multitasking

Science shows that when the brain is constantly switching gears between tasks – especially when those tasks are complex – we become less efficient and are more likely to make a mistake. Multitasking may feel like a great way to get a lot done, says Hana, but the brain isn’t nearly as good at handling multiple tasks as we think it is, and some research even suggests it can hamper productivity by reducing attention and overall performance. “In the long term, multitasking causes a fragmented mind and shallow thinking, poor concentration and memory, as well as fatigue, anxiety and stress, all of which also contribute to poor brain processing.”

BANNON MORRISSY/UNSPLASH

Use Your Phone Less

Did you know the average person checks their phone up to 85 times a day? “As a society, we’ve become far too reliant on them,” says Emer. “We no longer need to memorise things such as calendar dates, phone numbers, maps, directions or other instructions – everything is provided for us at the touch of a button, which makes the brain lazy.” Her advice? Put your phone down and boost your brain with an anti-ageing mental workout. “The next time you go shopping, try to memorise your list instead of writing it down, or recite the alphabet backwards while on the train or tube. Even taking the time to read a chapter of your book every day counts. With every page, the brain works to store and retain more information, providing a wonderful mental exercise.”

Get Eight Hours Of Sleep

Although the brain doesn’t switch off when we sleep, sleep plays an important role in its health. “Sleep is fundamental to brain health,” stresses Tara. “Getting high-quality sleep is one of the most important things you can do for your brain. The reality is that one bad night’s sleep can seriously affect memory, concentration, decision-making power and energy levels the following day. In the long term, if the overnight cleansing of the brain is disrupted, toxins from the wear and tear of daily life start to accumulate. If you naturally wake up at the same time at the weekend as you do during the week, then you’re probably getting enough sleep. If you need to lie in, nap or feel like you could sleep all weekend, you probably aren’t getting enough. Aim for seven to nine hours, with eight hours and 15 minutes being the sweet spot.” Sleep is essential for supporting cognition, adds Emer, and sleep deprivation is now linked with a myriad of health issues, including poor mental health and Alzheimer’s. “If you aren’t getting enough quality sleep, expect issues with your memory, language and speech.”

In the long term, multitasking causes SHALLOW THINKING and HAMPERS MEMORY.

Eat A Brain-Friendly Diet

Your brain may only account for 3% of your total body weight, but it uses around 25% of your daily calories. But it’s not just about the calories your brain needs to function – quality matters. “The Mediterranean diet is the best diet for your brain. Research reveals those who eat a Mediterranean diet and exercise regularly cut their risk of dementia by up to 40%. Eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds, herbs, extra virgin olive oil, lean meat and fresh fish. When it comes to fish, oily fish is the gold standard due to its high omega-3 levels. Omega-3 supports blood flow to the brain, reducing the risk of cognitive decline. If you don’t eat fish regularly, you can also find omega-3 fats in avocado, nuts and seeds, flaxseed and olive oil,” says Hana.

Load Up On Antioxidants

Eating the rainbow is nothing new, but it’s especially important in the brain health equation, adds Tara. Studies show that a diet rich in deeply pigmented fruits and vegetables positively influences both the gut and brain. “Dark skinned foods – such as black beans, purple sprouting broccoli and blueberries – are high in anthocyanins, which are powerful, brain-protecting antioxidants. Salmon and mackerel; leafy greens; olives and avocado; small amounts of dark chocolate (at least 80% cocoa); good quality coffee; and green tea are all great – try to include as many of these in your diet as often as possible.” 

Boost Your Brain With A Supplement

What we eat nourishes our brain, but a quality supplement can keep things ticking over. “Busy schedules and modern agricultural practices unfortunately mean we don’t always get the nutrients we need from our diet,” says Tara. “A B vitamin complex will help support the nervous system and is a great place to start, while an omega-3 supplement (ideally in the form of DHA, as opposed to EFA) is a brain must. I’m also a fan of magnesium supplements as stress leaches it from the body and it’s incredibly hard to replace with diet alone. A good-quality probiotic will also support the gut microbiome and in turn the brain, especially against the effects of stress, processed food and alcohol.”

For more information visit TaraSwart.com, Brain.Health, RecognitionHealth.com & Healthspan.co.uk. You can also listen to Tara’s new podcast, Reinvent Yourself, here

DISCLAIMER: Features published by SheerLuxe are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prevent any disease. Always seek the advice of your GP or another qualified healthcare provider for any questions you have regarding a medical condition, and before undertaking any diet, exercise or other health-related programme.

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