5 Things This Neuroscientist Does Every Day For Better Brain Health
It’s the little life habits that can make a huge difference with brain health. Every day we make choices for our brain, and we have the opportunity to ask ourselves: "Is this good for my brain or bad for my brain?" This simple question can help you decide to choose the right course of action that will improve focus, performance, memory, and decision-making.
Here are five small daily habits I've cultivated over the years that have positively contributed to better brain health:
Be proactive about protection.
Protecting the brain from injury, pollution, and stress is the first step to optimizing brain function. The brain is soft, while the skull is really hard. Inside the skull, there are many sharp bony ridges. Several brain areas are especially vulnerable to trauma, especially the parts involved with memory, learning, and mood stability.
In order to be your best, it is essential to protect your brain from injury. Simple things you can do that make a huge difference include wearing your seat belt in cars and wearing helmets when riding a bicycle or motorcycle.
Modeling good safety for the brain is also important to the brain health of your children and friends. If you set the example, they will do it, too. A single head injury can ruin a life. Also gravitate toward, and encourage, sporting activities that are safer for the brain such as golf, baseball, and tennis rather than football, soccer, or hockey.
Given that your brain is about 80% water, the first rule of brain nutrition is to drink adequate water to hydrate your brain. Even slight dehydration can raise stress hormones, which can damage your brain over time.
Drink at least 84 ounces of water a day. It is best to have your liquids unpolluted with artificial sweeteners, sugar, caffeine, or alcohol. You can use herbal, noncaffeinated tea bags, such as raspberry or strawberry flavored, and make unsweetened iced tea. Green tea is also good for brain function as it contains chemicals that enhance mental relaxation and alertness.
Try to avoid alcohol whenever possible. People who consume just one to seven alcoholic drinks per week1 have smaller brains than nondrinkers, according to a study published in Archives of Neurology. This same research found that people who have two or more drinks per day have even more brain shrinkage.
Eat a protein-filled breakfast and a carb-free lunch.
The fuel you feed your brain has a profound effect on how it functions.
Lean protein, complex carbohydrates, and foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, like tuna, salmon, walnuts, and olive oil, are essential to brain function. Unfortunately, the American diet is filled with simple sugars and simple carbohydrates, causing many people to feel emotional, sluggish, spacey, and distracted.
What do you have for breakfast? Do you even have breakfast? Today, many people start the day with either nothing at all or by loading up on simple carbohydrates, such as sugar cereals, prepackaged, processed breakfast snacks, muffins, bagels, waffles, pancakes or doughnuts. In our fast-paced society these foods are simple to prepare for busy schedules but can cause brain fog and lower performance.
Begin the day with a healthy breakfast that includes protein, such as eggs, lean meat, or dairy products. When it comes to lunchtime, most people struggle with energy and mental clarity. I have found that eliminating all simple carbohydrates at lunch including sugar, white bread, or other products made from white flour such as bagels and white pasta, potatoes, and rice can make a dramatic difference in energy and focus in the afternoon.
An additional benefit of skipping sugar and simple carbohydrates at lunch is that most people do not feel hunger until dinnertime.
Take an omega-3 supplement.
DHA, one form of omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, makes up a large portion of the gray matter of the brain2. The fat in your brain forms cell membranes and plays a vital role in how our cells function. Neurons are also rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Additionally, DHA is found in high quantities in the retina, the light-sensitive part of the eye.
Research in the last few years has revealed that diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids may help promote a healthy emotional balance and positive mood in later years, possibly because DHA is a main component of the brain's synapses. Diets lacking omega-3 fatty acids can have worsened effects over consecutive generations. This means that we may very well see a continued, and even elevated, trend of cognitive impairment conditions in both the young and old over time.
Most Americans are deficient in omega-3s, getting barely a third of the daily amounts they likely need for optimum brain and body health, so supplementing omega-3 in your diet daily is beneficial. The nerve cells in the human brain have a lot of cell membranes that require fatty acids, and when you stock your brain with adequate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, you give the cell membrane the building blocks it needs to operate with peak connectivity and processing performance.
Get seven hours of sleep.
Healthy sleep is absolutely essential to a brain-healthy life. Sleep rejuvenates all the cells in your body, gives brain cells a chance to repair themselves, helps wash away toxins that build up during the day, and activates neuronal connections that might otherwise deteriorate due to inactivity. Skimping on sleep can affect your health in more ways than you might imagine.
Sleep deprivation decreases brain activity and limits access to learning, memory and concentration3. A recent brain-imaging study showed that people who consistently slept fewer than seven hours had less overall brain activity.
Sleep problems are common in people who struggle with their thoughts and emotions. It can also be associated with many health risks4 including type-2 diabetes, depression, anxiety, stroke, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's disease. Getting enough sleep every day is essential to brain function.
Some simple steps I suggest to make sure you get at least seven hours of sleep include going to bed at the same time each night and waking up at the same time each day, even on the weekends. Also avoid daytime naps that make the nighttime sleep cycle disruption worse. Make sure the temperature in your bedroom is not too hot, or too cold, and keep your room as dark as possible while sleeping.
These are just five simple things I do every day for better brain health that you can do, too. Once you incorporate these healthy brain habits into your life, you will feel more confident operating with a clearer mind that can make more productive decisions that are good for the rest of your body as well!
Daniel Amen, MD, is a clinical neuroscientist psychiatrist, physician, professor and 10-time New York Times bestselling author. He is a double board-certified child and adult psychiatrist and founder of Amen Clinics, Inc., which has eight clinics across the country with one of the highest published success rates for treating complex psychiatric issues with the world’s largest database of functional brain scans relating to behavior, with more than 160,000 scans on patients from 121 countries. Amen is the lead researcher for the largest brain imaging and rehabilitation study for professional football players that demonstrates high levels of brain damage in players with solutions for significant recovery as a result of his extensive work. His research on post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury was recognized by Discover magazine’s Year in Science issue as one of the “100 Top Stories of 2015.” Amen has authored and co-authored more than 70 professional articles, seven scientific book chapters and 40-plus books, including the No. 1 New York Times bestsellers, “The Daniel Plan” and “Change Your Brain, Change Your Life.” His most recent book, “Change Your Brain, Change Your Grades,” includes editorial contributions from his teenage daughter, Chloe Amen, and niece, Alizé Castellanos.