Like our muscles, our brains require oxygen, nutrients, and regular stimulation for optimal function. Whereas we once thought humans were stuck with the same number of neurons we’re born with, with a steady decrease in neurons as we age, researchers have found some promising evidence that things are not so dire. Evidence of neurogenesis in the hippocampus has been indicated in several studies; in other words, brand new baby neurons are being born, even in adult humans.
As moms or mothers to be, this is really exciting news. Pregnancy and birth, not to mention motherhood, can result in stressors that can tax our brain’s long-term performance. Many mothers are also guilty of putting just about everyone else’s health before their own. But maintaining brain health throughout our lives is important for mood, cognition, memory, and may decrease age-related brain degenerative diseases well into old age. Plus, mom’s nutrition has a big impact on baby’s brain health while he or she is in the womb and while breastfeeding since most of the brain’s growth is completed by about 5-6 years of age.
Brain development during childhood is crucial, but enough research exists to show us that we can, in fact, improve brain function as adults. Enhanced cognitive performance, lower incidence of age related cognitive decline, and a lesser prevalence of depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders can be achieved with relatively simple diet and lifestyle changes. No laser beams or fancy nootropic medications required! The best part is, you can get started on some of these today:
1) Get regular exercise: Is there anything that exercise isn’t good for? Regular physical exercise reduces stress, promotes heart health, and prevents or decreases depression. Extensive research shows that exercise may boost cognitive function, particularly later in life. Intentional exercise can increase neurotrophic growth factors, stimulate the birth of new neurons, and promote brain plasticity, all resulting in increased memory and thinking skills. I recommend raising your heart rate at least 30 minutes most days of the week or participating in any exercise that promotes circulation and blood flow to the brain, such as yoga.
2) Eat fat: In recent years, we’ve come to realize that fat, specifically essential fatty acids (EFAs), is flat out required for brain maintenance and health. This makes a whole mess of sense considering the human brain is nearly 60 percent fat. You’ll most likely be more familiar with EFAs as the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids found in fish, pastured meats and eggs, whole fat (organic!) dairy products, nuts, and seeds. These crucial fatty acids are not synthesized in the body and must be obtained from food.
Omega-3s tend to be the EFAs we need to work a little harder to get into the diet and the most important as they produce DHA (decosahexaenoic acid), which is used by the brain in preference to other fatty acids. Deficiencies of DHA are associated with deficits in learning, as well as the cognitive decline commonly associated with aging. Enough DHA in the diet has been shown to improve memory, speaking ability, and motor skills. Increasing omega-3 fats has also been shown to improve depression and bipolar disorder. The use of omega-3 fatty acids from fish or fish oil may also reduce the severity of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) while improving mental function.
Fatty fish is also high in arachidonic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid that is important for neurological health, promoting growth and repair of neurons, and protecting the brain from free radical damage.
DHA and EPA from omega-3 fatty acids are critical for a child’s brain development during the fetal and postnatal period, both times when baby could be receiving these healthy fats from mom. Dietary DHA has positive effects on brain structure, the growth of the retina and visual cortex, the development of the immune system, and EFAs are involved in the synthesis of neurotransmitters.
For more of these essential fats, consume wild fatty fish at least two times per week in addition to a high quality fish oil supplement. Most practitioners will recommend about 2 grams per day from supplements, especially on the days you do not consume fish. Just to add some context, there’s about 1.5 grams in one 3.25 oz. can of sardines. Ask your doctor about supplementation at your next checkup.
Is it ever unsafe to increase fat intake? If you decide to increase healthy fats, incorporate these into your diet slowly. If you experience bloating, gas, pain, or oily, floating stools, please contact your naturopathic or functional medicine doctor.
3) Check your vitamin D3 levels: Low blood levels of vitamin D have been associated with Multiple Sclerosis , depression, and cognitive impairment. Vitamin D is produced in the skin when it’s exposed to the ultraviolet rays of the sun, and actually acts as a steroid hormone in the body, not a vitamin. It’s best to get your vitamin D by basking in sunlight with skin exposed for about 15 minutes per day. When sun is not an option, supplementation may be important. Cod liver oil or other animal-based supplements are the best sources of D3. Get your vitamin D levels checked often (every season or so) and speak with your doctor about supplementing if your levels are below 30 ml/dL.
4) Play brain games: Learning increases the production of new neurons. Just as our bodies benefit from different, increasingly challenging physical routines, our brains’ elasticity and synapses will grow with new and challenging games or tasks. Try new things regularly, learn a new language, take up the guitar, or simply complete a crossword puzzle every day.
5) Reduce stress: We’ve known for a while that stress related illness, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), can change the brain’s structure, size, and connectivity. But it’s only recently that researchers have found that chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels can cause long-term changes in brain structure and function. Stress creates free radicals that can kill healthy brain cells, can make you more forgetful, emotional, or aggressive, and can reduce levels of critical neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine. Honestly, this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. When it comes to the brain, chronic stress is enemy #1, resulting in everything from depression to forgetfulness, to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Luckily, there’s a way to decrease stress and it’s relatively simple and free. Mindfulness and meditation have been proven to increase density in the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory, and promote growth in structures associated with self-awareness and compassion. If you’ve tried meditation and hate it, start with just 5 minutes per day and work your way up to 20 minutes per day.
6) Get more sleep: We’re well aware of the positive role sleep plays on health in general, but what about brain health in particular? Lack of sleep impairs reasoning, attention to detail, and problem solving. Researchers have shown that even partial sleep deprivation can have significant effects on mood, resulting in feeling more stressed, sad, and angry. One study suggests that sleep helps restore brain function by flushing out toxins that build up during waking hours. Other studies suggest that chronic sleep deprivation can lead to the damage of neurons essential for alertness and cognition. Some researchers believe there are chemicals released during sleep that are crucial for repair of brain and body.
There are many natural ways to enhance sleep quantity and quality, but my best tip is to pick a standard bedtime sometime before 10 p.m. It’s also best to sleep in a very dark room at about 65-72 degrees Fahr-enheit. If you have trouble sleeping, please schedule an appointment with a naturopathic or functional medicine practitioner asap!
7) Have more sex: Can sex actually make you smarter? Luckily, a team of researchers at the University of Maryland is trying to find out. Their findings suggest that regular sexual activity may indeed promote the creation of new neurons, which leads to improved cognitive function. Other studies suggest similar effects, proposing that sex can help prevent the brain decay that leads to memory loss and dementia in old age.
Sexual activity may also increase the natural production of DHEA, a hormone associated with cell growth and the improvement of mental function. Low levels of DHEA have been linked with Alzheimer’s disease and depression.
So, not bad right? To boost brain function, all you need to do is eat a bunch of delicious fat, exercise, and have more sex! You’re welcome!