A Neuroscientist Shares 3 Sneaky Factors That Affect Brain Health + What To Do
The list of ways to bolster your brain is a long one—it might even make your head spin. Of course, it's great to have so many avenues for better brain health, and we're only continuing to learn more about the dynamic organ. At present, we know certain foods, supplements, movement styles, and stress management techniques can help you remain sharp and mentally well.
According to neuroscientist and author of Biohack Your Brain Kristen Willeumier, Ph.D., a few more brain health fundamentals deserve a seat at the table. On this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast, she discusses the underrated, yet important, factors that affect your brain; optimize them all, and chances are you'll be better off. If you're super well-versed in the brain health conversation, you might recognize the science behind these tips—but we could all use the friendly reminder:
"One of the first things I do when I teach people about taking care of their brain health is to make sure they are drinking their daily requirement [of water]," Willeumier says. Now, that exact number differs for everyone (generally, experts say you should drink half your bodyweight number in ounces of water, but you may need more or less depending on your diet, environment, and the like), but you want to ensure you meet your personal threshold.
"Your brain is 75% water," Willeumier continues. "It's going to help keep your blood pressure normalized; it's going to help flush out [waste] from your cells; it keeps your cells metabolically active and healthy," all of which are crucial functions for brain health. In fact, she explains that even if you have a 1 to 2% drop in hydration, you can start to have symptoms associated with brain fog1, like fatigue, headache, and poor concentration.
And according to Willeumier, "The No. 1 thing people don't do is drink enough water." That's why she's so quick to inquire about hydration—drinking water is just downright fundamental, and it's often overlooked. Point being: Make sure to gulp down your daily water requirement! "You can [also] get 20% of that water from hydrating fruits, vegetables, or green juices," she notes, so take a gander at this list of thirst-quenching foods.
Experts have discussed the link between vascular health and overall well-being, and brain health is no exception. Blood flow to the brain is crucial: "We want to keep our brains oxygenated," says Willeumier, as the brain uses 20% of the oxygen and blood flow in your entire body.
There's much you can do to optimize your circulation (exercise, stress management, et al.), but Willeumier emphasizes the importance of diet: "[You] want to make sure blood sugars are regulated because over time the blood sugar can actually damage your blood vessels," she says. "If you have too much sugar circulating in your blood, and it's not able to get into your cells, that's going to cause problems. Can you imagine not being able to get the fuel that you're eating into the neurons in your brain?"
Reading & writing
Willeumier is no stranger to the occasional brain game or mind teaser, but when was the last time you cracked open a book or penned a page by hand? According to Willeumier, people generally do not read and write as much as they should—and it's affecting their brain health.
"[When you read], the brain learns and forms these cognitive maps2," she says. "So the more reading you do as you age will still keep your brain sharp; you're going to continue to learn." And she's not talking about reading text messages, tweets, or grocery lists: "The No. 1 thing I think people need to do more is long-form reading," she explains. Meaning, find a book you like and read for 15 to 20 minutes—get comfortable!
Writing by hand follows a similar track: When you write, says Willeumier, your mind organizes the information better3. That's why many experts recommend journaling as a helpful method for managing your thoughts. "Learning how to get back into writing is going to be very supportive for the brain," she adds.
There's so much you can do to optimize your brain health—this list is by no means exhaustive! However, hydration, blood flow, reading, and writing are a few underrated factors that deserve your attention. According to Willeumier, focusing on each can give your brain the baseline support it needs.