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Doing This Could Help You Grow New Brain Cells As An Adult

Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., Ph.D.
Integrative Neurologist
By Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., Ph.D.
Integrative Neurologist
Dr. Ruhoy is a board-certified neurologist practicing integrative pediatric and adult neurology in Seattle. She is the owner and founder of the Center for Healing Neurology, and received her M.D. from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
Image by Nataša Mandić / Stocksy
February 28, 2019

The human brain starts developing at conception and continues to grow until a person is about 21 years old. During childhood, it goes through critical growth spurts, and brain cells, called neurons, develop at a rapid pace. From our teenage years through our young adult years, the most important region of development is the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that modulates our impulse control, our abstract decision-making processes, our behaviors, and our ability to read and understand social cues, which can greatly influence how we interact with others. 

It has long been thought that we lose the ability for continued brain development with the formation of new brain cells—something called neurogenesis—when we become adults. Instead, scientists have postulated that once we reach adulthood, we can only improve upon the connections between the neurons we already have. For some context, there are over 100 billion neurons in a mature brain. Each neuron can make connections with more than 1,000 other neurons, which means that the adult brain has approximately 60 trillion neuronal connections.

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Do you grow new brain cells as an adult?

But as it turns out, neurogenesis can and does persist into adulthood. But what is neurogenesis, exactly? It gets very complicated very quickly, but basically, it's the process by which neural stem cells (NSCs) differentiate into mature neurons, playing an important role in not only neural plasticity but also in the repair and replacement of cells that are damaged by the normal aging process and neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer's. This process begins when NSCs are triggered by signals sent by damaged cells and other cellular mediators that are found in high-stress and disease states.

In adults, NSCs reside mostly in discrete areas of the brain—namely, the subventricular zone (SVZ) and the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus, which is why disruption of adult neurogenesis can lead to cognitive dysfunction (the hippocampus plays an essential role in our memory and recall). Knowing this, it's no surprise that active adult neurogenesis is associated with higher cognitive function as we age.

The ins and outs of neurogenesis (aka: growing new brain cells).

One of the most important things to know about neurogenesis is that it's a multistep process that relies heavily on the healthy functioning of our mitochondria. This means that yes, we have the ability to create new brain cells as we age but only if we maintain an optimal environment for neurogenesis—which has a very high energy demand and requires a lot from our body.

So how do we create an optimal environment for new brain cells? Studies show the detrimental effects of diets high in saturated fat and high in refined sugars on adult neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. This is because they promote oxidative stress and neuroinflammation, which creates a very poor environment for continued neurogenesis. On the flip side, carotenoids, vitamins, polyphenols, fatty acids, and flavonoids can play a crucial role in supporting the thousands of enzymatic reactions that are required for effective and functional neurogenesis.

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How to support neurogenesis and lifelong brain health.

To obtain the compounds necessary for continued neurogenesis and plasticity, try to incorporate the following recommendations into your wellness routine:

  • Eliminate saturated fat in your diet.
  • Eliminate refined sugars in your diet.
  • Include vitamins E, C, B12, B2, and B9 in your diet.
  • Eat a diet rich in dark leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, grapes, and berries.
  • Eat a diet rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids that are found in walnuts, Brazil nuts, flaxseed, and chia seeds.
  • Get a daily dose of grapeseed and holy basil extracts.
  • Start each day with a morning juice of turmeric and ginger roots.
  • Have a smoothie with berries, greens, banana, and lion's mane powder.
  • Eat a piece of dark chocolate each day.
  • Practice intermittent fasting.
  • Meditate daily.
  • Exercise each day for 30 minutes.
  • Sleep! Restorative sleep is critical for brain health.
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If you're able to do the above at least some of the time, you're well on your way to allowing the brain to do what it does best: maintain healthy neurons and healthy connections between the neurons for better cognitive protection for life.

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Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., Ph.D.
Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., Ph.D.
Integrative Neurologist

Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., Ph.D., is a board-certified neurologist practicing integrative pediatric and adult neurology in Seattle. She is the owner and founder of the Center for Healing Neurology and is on the faculty of Seattle Children’s Hospital. Her holistic approach includes full neurological care with the addition of acupuncture, neurofeedback, and herbal and nutritional guidance. She received her M.D. from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and completed her neurology training at the University of Washington in Seattle. In addition to becoming a certified medical acupuncturist, she has also completed the Integrative Medicine Fellowship at the University of Arizona. Her Ph.D. doctoral dissertation studied the effects of environmental toxins on our nation’s water systems.