Make 2023 the Year of the Brain!
A new and friendlier approach to New Year’s Resolutions
It’s that time of year again when weight loss and fitness club ads take over tv, radio and social media. While I am all for self-investment, I find that this season of reinvention can so often be motivated from self-deprecation or, worse, self-loathing. As questions of new years’ resolutions begin to pop up in conversation, it can seem like the most logical approach to ask ourselves “what do I most dislike about myself?” The biggest problem here is that this question so often acts like a pair of binoculars, zooming in and giving us tunnel vision on the things we don’t like about ourselves and completely blocking out the context in the situation, including the situational factors that drive us, the progress we may have already made, or the competing priorities that make that less than ideal habit or trait, one that just isn’t worth the energy to perfect right now.
So, this year I have a different proposal, rather than starting from a place of dislike, join me in starting from a universal place of potential, new knowledge. After reading this post, I hope you’ll take away some new factoid (or factoids) about how investing in the health of our brains is investing in the health of our entire lives. Every one of our experiences is processed in this central organ, so any investment in our brain is an investment in our body, mind, and soul as well. Rather than looking at what we do wrong, let’s look at what science has now shown us are habits that would improve anyone’s health, happiness, and longevity. Join me as we cover the first three of six areas that most directly contribute to brain health (don’t worry, we’ll be back in March with the final 3!) and see if you can find inspiration for a new years’ resolution that is based less in a negative self-image, and a little more in hope for our future.
If there is one factor that has emerged from the research in recent years as immensely beneficial to brain health and longevity of functioning (think staying sharp into your 70s, 80s and 90s), it is exercise. A multitude of studies are now demonstrating benefits to our brain, including improved blood flow, release of neurochemicals that boost mood and attention, and increases in neurohormones that promote neuroplasticity ( a fancy name for the process by which our brains renovate themselves to stay efficient and effective through our lifespans). Now exercise can feel like a dirty word this time of year, so I want to reframe the E word as its friendlier alternative, Activity. Often when we hear the word exercise we picture a very formalized (and often intimidating) fitness routine involving heavy weights, gym memberships and interval pacing. While these things do absolutely qualify, activity doesn’t have to look this way if that image is one that turns your stomach. Pickle ball, long walks with the dog, laps in the pool, intramural volleyball leagues and dance fitness classes are all equally as beneficial and may even hold the added benefit of a mindfulness or social component. The key is just to get active, however is most enjoyable, and, therefore, most sustainable for you. You might be wondering how intensely or how often you need to activate your body to see the benefits in your brain, and here’s the great news, anything helps! Now there is a clear threshold in the literature where the benefits really take off, and that is with 150 minutes per week (remember this could be 30 mins 5 days per week, 50 minutes 3 days per week, or 10-15 minutes two times daily, whatever fits into your life), but the reality is that any sustainable addition of activity will pay dividends in the end. Starting small has been shown to be the most effective way to build a new habit so if a 10-15 minute walk on your lunch break is what you have time for right now, take advantage of the brain boosting benefits those 10-15 minutes can bring!
There is a growing body of evidence demonstrating the impact of the foods and beverages we consume on our long-term brain and body health. That being said, diet and nutrition information can be among the most confusing bodies of information to navigate on your own. So, while we all know that we should probably be “eating better,” it can be incredibly difficult to identify just exactly what that means. The good news is that when focusing on brain health, one nutrition plan has emerged as a leader, the MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay diet). This diet, even when followed with moderate compliance, was shown to reduce risk of developing Alzheimer’s by 35%. And, even better news, this one is not as complex or detailed as some of the other diet plans you may hear about to improve your health and promote healthy weight. Some of the core tenets of the MIND diet are:
1. To include two or more daily servings of vegetables, with one of those servings being a leafy green vegetable.
2. To consume berries two or more times a week as your recommended serving of fruit.
3. To include seafood at least once per week as your source of protein.
4. To limit the presence of red meat, butter, cheese, fried and fast food and pastries and sweets as much as possible due to their connection to inflammatory and brain aging effects.
Now you might be wondering if you can just consume an omega 3 supplement in place of your serving of seafood, or up your daily vitamins to replace those leafy greens. My response to this is, in my opinion, one of the more important rules of healthy eating: nutrients consumed in supplement form are just not the same as nutrients consumed from whole food sources. So skip the expensive supplements (unless specifically recommended by your medical team) and take a look at ways to tweak your favorite recipes to add a little spinach or substitute olive oil for butter.
In recent years, there has been an increasing focus on the impact of restorative sleep on our physical and mental functioning. From professionals in high stakes, high demand, high performance careers like military and first responders, to those trying to maximize their cognitive performance later in life, sleep has increasingly been shown to promote optimized performance in the mental and physical domains. All this said, sleep has traditionally been one of the lowest priority activities in our busy days, causing us to lose out on the regenerative effects in our tissues, re-energizing effects in our bodies and mental faculties, and the restorative effects to virtually every body system. Sleep is an activity that, with a few behavior changes, may be able to significantly improve our efficiency and effectiveness every single day, and even protect us from illness and injury in the long and short term. So how, then, do we improve our sleep? Think of sleep improvement as a three-pronged mission. First, as I alluded to just a minute ago, is our attitude toward sleep. So many of us will squeeze our sleeping hours to try to eek just a little more productivity out of each day without realizing that we are, in fact, growing less efficient with each passing night of sleep deprivation. So step one in this sleep improving journey is to prioritize sleep as an investment in our functioning each and every day. As a general rule, adults should aim for a minimum of 6 hours nightly. While you may feel that you have been able to function “just fine” on 5 hours or less, the research has shown that 6 hours is the threshold where all things bad start to appear. So bite the pillow and prioritize that extra hour of sleep to invest in your own health and efficiency in your waking hours. The second prong in this mission is routine. Our bodies are easily conditioned to achieve better quality and more predictable sleep with the simple implementation of routine. Use a pre bed-time line up of activities to communicate to your system that it is time to wind down and head toward dream land. This can include reading, your favorite decaf tea, podcasts or music and/or a relaxing hot bath. Best to avoid the screen use (we’ll cover that in a moment) but any quieting and restful activity can make a great relaxing addition to prepare your body to fall and stay asleep. Also included in your routine is consistency in your bed and wake times where possible. This one can be tough for all of my weekday early risers out there, but if you can keep your wake time to within 90 minutes, and your bedtime to within two hours, you will most definitely be doing yourself a favor in helping yourself fall and stay asleep when it counts. The last prong in the sleep enhancing mission is environment. Ensure your sleep environment is cool, calm, dark and comfortable. I’ll place some special emphasis here on dark, because light is the primary signal your brain uses to manage its sleep and wake cycles. Your brain is literally tracking the amount and color of the light streaming in through your eyes to regulate your daily wake and sleep cycle, and to determine when to flood your brain with wonderful sleep inducing neurohormones that allow you to drift peacefully into dreamland. Practically what this means is that limiting your exposure to bright white or blue light (the kind that streams in from your devices or from those bright overhead lights) is crucial during the evening hours to ensure you are not confusing the area of your brain responsible for that pleasant drift off to dream city. On the flip side, getting that bright light at mid-day, maybe through an outdoor walk on your lunch break, can be tremendously helpful in creating contrast for your brain to interpret in regulating sleep and wake cycles. So switch to warmer bed side lamps after dinner, put down your devices at bed time, and take advantage of the bright mid-day sunshine to help your body and brain benefit from the best quality sleep your habits can bring you!
Whether you pick one focus area to center your year on, or choose one habit from each area, making 2023 your year of brain health is a decision I assure you that you will not regret. Invest in the organ at the center of every one of your experiences and make life richer, not by focusing on the areas you dislike, but by offering yourself a little brain boosting love all year long! Stay tuned for the remaining three brain boosters, and as always, if you need some help in your journey to finding health and well-being, reach out to Tailored Brain Health by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or call 336-542-1800.