Keeping your grey matter in shape, even improving its power, is a no-brainer. Everything you do to maintain and improve overall health also does the same for your brain.
“Exercise, sleep, and diet are important parts of improving your brainpower,” says Fiona Gupta, MD, a neurologist and medical director of the Deep Brain Stimulation program at the Movement Disorders Center, Hackensack University Medical Center.
The old adage “use it or lose it” has real validity, she says, if you use “it” the right way. “Some people believe that reading or crossword puzzles will increase brainpower, but it’s really more about doing new things, like following a recipe. There is also real power in socialization. When we socialize, we make bonds that enhance brainpower by activating various parts of the brain, creating new neuronal networks and pathways.”
As for exercise, studies show that mice increase their number of neurons while running on wheels, helping them perform better on tests of learning and memory, according to Emily Anthes, author of “The Instant Egghead Guide: The Mind,” in collaboration with Scientific American magazine.
Exercise in humans can improve the brain’s executive functions, which include reasoning, problem solving, and the ability to change course as needed during the performance of a task. People who exercise also are at lower risk of dementia as they age. Gupta suggests a combination of cardiovascular workouts and weight training.
Diet also plays a key role in maintaining and boosting brainpower, Gupta notes, especially by delivering “good” fats and antioxidants to the body. The brain is mostly fat in the form of cell membranes and insulating sheaths around nerve fibers that increase the speed at which impulses are conducted, Anthes writes. Omega-3 fats, found in a variety of foods including fish, nuts and seeds, are particularly beneficial.
Your mother’s constant exhortations to eat your vegetables were also sound advice when it comes to the body and the brain. Maybe you liked fruits better. That’s good because their mutual benefit lies in their antioxidants, chemicals that remove harmful free radicals. These molecules can damage brain cells as well as increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Vegetables with plenty of carotenoids and vitamins E and C are among the best known and most effective, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Many nutritional experts try making it easy to get what you need, advising to “eat your colors.” That means foods such as blueberries, spinach, carrots, sweet potatoes, winter squash, strawberries, sweet peppers, and citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruit.
For vitamin E, eat nuts and seeds (particularly walnuts), and cook with canola and olive oil, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated, or “good,” fats.
Next, make sure you get enough sleep. Everyone can describe how he or she feels when sleep deprived. It’s as if you can’t think clearly or concisely. Bullseye. The brain simply cannot operate at full capacity without enough sleep. Creativity, problem solving, and critical thinking are all reduced. Conversely, sleep is essential for optimal memory function. Studies have shown that people who review information just before bedtime remember more of it in their waking hours because a good night’s sleep aids memory consolidation.
And, if you get enough sleep – 8 hours on average – you will have better rapid eye movement (or REM) stages, during which your mind becomes highly creative and you dream.
Other brain boosters include yoga and meditation. A study by University of Minnesota researchers found that participants who practiced meditation and yoga for one year at least two times a week learned three times faster when focusing on computer skills. The researchers suggest the calming practices removed distractions.
In another study, researchers trained volunteers in Vipassana meditation, which focuses on minimizing distractions.
The volunteers were asked to pick a few numbers out of a stream of letters. People who had been meditation-trained were able to do the exercise much better. They also seemed to be able to complete the task without exerting as much mental energy.
Similar activities, such as deep breathing techniques or walking through nature, can relax the mind to allow new information to sink in.
Parents of kids hooked on video games might object, but Anthes writes that research has shown video games can “improve mental dexterity, while boosting hand-eye coordination, depth perception and pattern recognition.” Gamers also have “better attention spans and information-processing skills” than those of us who passed on playing “Grand Theft Auto.”
Finally, it’s been famously said that music calms the savage beast. While there is no evidence that singing to a charging rhino will save your life, music can stimulate the brain’s auditory cortex to analyze pitch, timbre, melody, and rhythm. Music also represses activity in the brain’s amygdala, home of our primitive fight-or-flight response, reducing fear and other negative emotions.
Music lessons, according to one study, can improve the brain stem’s sensitivity to human speech, while other research suggests that learning to play music can also improve the spatial ability of young children. So just deal with that sour clarinet concerto.
March 02, 2015
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA