Brain Health Awareness Month is a global awareness campaign to promote brain research and celebrate the brain. My love for learning about the brain began during a Psychology 101 lecture, after my professor finished a class on neural transmission. He ended the lecture by telling us that any thought or emotion we had ever had or experienced, no matter how magical or unique it may have felt, was “nothing more than a series of neurons firing.” Though the implication that we’re all nothing more than a collection of organic matter was liable to kick start the inevitable ‘who am I/what does it all mean’ existential college crisis, instead, I went home and tried to process the fact that all of my subjective experiences were made up of transmission of messages in this huge network that made up this matter that is the brain (update: if you can’t tell, I still haven’t quite processed it). Luckily for me, my fascination is sustained with the constant emergence of new neuroscience research about how the brain works.
Our physical brain can give us a lot of information about our mental health. The unique way our brains are wired in some cases can identify what mental health difficulties we may be predisposed to developing. For example, brain responses to rewarding or stressful triggers can be indicative of the potential to develop substance abuse problems [1,2]. Neuroimaging is also being used in research to identify biomarkers that may predict the way an individual’s depressive symptoms present [3, 4], and how well they will respond to specific treatments .
The experience of mental illness manifests through changes in mood, thoughts and patterns of behaviour, and these changes are often accompanied by visible changes or differences in the brain. However, it is important to remember that despite the impact of genetic influence, our mental health is not determined solely by our anatomy or genes. Neuroscience research repeatedly highlights the impact that the world around us has on our physiology.
This gives us the power to influence our brain health by changing our environment, and there are habits we can develop to promote brain health and longevity. These positive habits are things you can do to improve your mood, attention, memory, and stress levels (among other positive side effects).
6 Habits to Promote Brain Health
1) SLEEP MORE:
We already know that most of us should be getting more sleep. Getting enough sleep has been consistently associated with improved mood, memory, attention and cognitive functioning. Lack of sleep has also been associated with depression, anxiety and exacerbation of symptoms of mental illness.
One way sleep supports brain health is by clearing out the waste your cells leave behind while carrying out their daily tasks. Neuroimaging studies have highlighted that neural waste products are flushed from the sleeping brain twice as quickly as in the awake brain . This explains why long-term sleep deprivation contributes to the build-up of plaque in our brain – the same plaque that is later indicative of degenerative diseases.
What you can do: Get more sleep! Improve your sleep quality by avoiding using your smartphone before sleeping. Not only does the artificial light disrupt your sleep cycle, checking notifications on your phone when you’re trying to sleep can impact your emotional state and make it more difficult to fall asleep.
2) EAT BETTER:
The study of nutritional neuropsychological treatment has expanded in recent years, and a strong relationship has been identified between gut microbiota and the brain systems related to emotion and mood regulation  (hence the buzz about ‘gut health’). Fatty acids in particular seem to play a role in brain function and mood. Monosaturated and polysaturated fats have been associated with increased brain function , and polyunsaturated fatty acids have been linked to and a decrease in depressive symptoms . On the other hand, diets high in saturated fat are related to worse depressive symptoms . Dietary sources of the good fats include fatty fish, olive oil, walnuts and sunflower seeds.
The Mediterranean diet is widely considered the healthiest diet to prevent a variety of chronic diseases, and (surprise!) is a protective factor for the brain. Psaltopoulou et al. (2013) conducted a meta-analysis investigating the relationship between the Mediterranean diet, incidence of depression and symptoms of cognitive impairment. Across all ages, those adhering to a Mediterranean diet had a reduced risk of both, and the stricter they adhered to it, the stronger this effect.
What you can do: Stick to a Mediterranean diet, which includes: a high intake of vegetables, fatty fish (good fats!), fruits, nuts and seeds. Avoid processed foods and saturated fats as much as possible.
We all know that exercise seems to be good for everything and we should all get moving more. But really, exercising has consistently been shown to improve mood and cognitive processes. One way it does this is through increasing levels of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) [11, 12] – a protein that supports neuroplasticity (your brains ability to form new connections and re-organize old ones). Neuroplasticity allows you to learn faster and stay cognitively flexible by preventing cell death. Higher levels of BDNF are associated with improvements in attention and memory , and decreased levels have been associated with memory impairment . A meta-analysis  exploring the impact of exercise on BDNF found that a single session of aerobic exercise increased BDNF levels in the brain. This is why it’s helpful to exercise when studying for an exam – increasing your levels of BDNF, even in the short-term, will improve retention.
Although a single session of aerobic exercise produces visible benefits, individuals on a regular exercise program show a greater increase of BDNF in the brain following exercising than those who only had a single session .
What you can do: No surprise here: frequent aerobic exercise is good for you! It benefits your brain just as much as your body, and the more often you do it, the greater the benefit. Breaking a sweat is never a bad idea.
4) PRACTICE MINDFULNESS:
Practicing mindfulness is another habit that is worth working into your every day life. Regular meditation is associated with increased cortical thickness, which in turn, is related to a reduction in symptoms of depression and anxiety . Regular meditators also show increased brain activation and superior performance in tasks that require attention .
However, you don’t have to be an experienced yogi to reap these benefits. A neuroimaging study identified that even a 4-week mindfulness meditation program increased neuroplasticity of white matter in the brain . Even attending one yoga session increases levels of GABA in the brain, a neurotransmitter involved in reduction of anxiety .
What you can do: Working meditation or mindful exercise (like yoga) into your life will help contribute to your brain health. However, you can be mindful anywhere, anytime! Focus on the sensations of each one of your senses, lending your attention to one at a time. Remembering to do mindful deep breathing will impact your brain by turning off your ‘fight or flight’ response, lowering your stress.
5) GET OUTSIDE:
A Stanford University study found that individuals who spent even a few minutes outside in ‘green’ areas were more attentive and happier than those who spent their day getting exercise in cities . Another study found that participants with severe depression who had at least one prior suicide attempt who began hiking regularly (twice a week, 2-3 hours each time) experienced fewer suicidal thoughts than those receiving regular care . It is not clear how exactly nature impacts your brain, but it could be due, in part, to a tendency to become more mindful in nature.
What you can do: This one’s easy – go on a walk outside! Hiking is great because it combines exercise, mindfulness, and getting outside.
6) MENTAL EXERCISE:
An active brain is a healthy brain: continuing to learn new information, skills, or hobbies, increases neuroplasticity in the brain. Learning also requires executive function (the processes involving planning and your working memory) and the use of new brain pathways. We lose pathways we don’t use, so activating ANY new pathway helps prevent cell death and keep your memory, and attention, sharp.
What you can do: Learning a new skill or hobby, like a language or musical instrument is very challenging and rewarding for your brain. If that’s too much of a commitment, even doing everyday tasks in a slightly different way uses alternative pathways in your brain: try taking a different route to work or getting dressed in the morning in a different order than usual.
Happy Brain Health Awareness Month! Show some brain love by keeping it healthy and engaged.
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