Diet, rest, exercise. Those make up the brain maintenance level of the wellness pyramid. All three are crucial for maintaining body functions in general, not just the brain. This is not the first time I’ve posted about the importance of diet, rest or exercise; I’ll wager you’ve read about this elsewhere as well. This time around I will tie all these aspects of brain maintenance together.
While what you eat is important, more important is what you do not eat. Similar to the problem with chronic stress and cortisol, some substances you might constantly ingest will undermine brain health. There are four types of foods I recommend minimizing in your diet: high fructose corn syrup, processed foods, saturated fats and red meat (I include the latter with a bit of trepidation and hypocrisy regarding my love of bacon).
The body has an incredible ability to heal and recover from occasional slip ups in your diet. Indeed, there is one diet strategy that recommends eating whatever you want one day a week, as that provides better motivation to eat healthy the other six days. Even so, when you consider the extent of potential harm from high fructose corn syrup, along with it’s lack of any value as a food, I suggest eliminating this one entirely. High fructose corn syrup is found in “foods” such as soda and inexpensive white bread. Also, they’ve recently started to play games with the labeling (oh, those mischievous agribusinesses); you might want to avoid anything that simply has the ingredient fructose on the label.
Your body’s amazing ability to heal and adapt makes specific recommendations of what to eat less important. Chances are that if you have a diet with varied fruits, nuts, vegetables and fish your body will tease out all the needed goodies. Indeed, you should be leery of recommendations for eating high volumes of any one particular food source, like coconut oil or eggs. Both of these foods are excellent for brain health, the science is sound for both, but you won’t get dementia by failing to eat 6-8 eggs a day, as I’ve seen recommended.
High volumes of a certain type of food may be warranted for particular individuals with unusual deficiencies or intolerances. If you think this might apply to you pay a visit to your primary care provider. Yet recommending high volumes of a certain type of food reminds me of the gimmick I’ve seen insisting you must use a meditation practice (or some other routine) 1000 days in a row in order to work. In either case these are strategies to cover “one’s butt.” If someone eats only two eggs a day or misses a routine once every hundred days or so, then if something goes wrong the fault can be assigned to the negligent person rather than the recommended treatment. I urge you to see such ploys for what they are.
OK, OK, you want at least a few specific recommendations for what should be in your diet to maintain brain health. Very well, eggs and coconut oil ARE good staples for brain health. Add to that walnuts, blueberries, spinach and chia seeds. For the most common herbs and spices to both flavor your food and maintain brain health, I recommend parsley, sage, turmeric (or curry), ginger or cinnamon. Yet variety still is what will serve you best.
Perhaps the most important aspect of your diet is timing. You should fast for 12 hours overnight and 3 hours before you go to bed. This lowers your blood sugar while shifting to ketones as your brain’s main energy source while you sleep. Ketones have greater energy efficiency than glucose while reducing oxidant levels and protecting neurotransmitters.
The brain has important work to do while you sleep. Much of the plasticity, rewiring of synapses, occurs during sleep. Energy is delivered in to this energy hog organ and accumulated metabolic wastes such as adenosine removed. Many restorative functions such as tissue repair and protein synthesis occur.
Since I first started posting about brain health a very significant finding was made in 2015, that the brain is connected to the body’s overall lymphatic/immune system, rather than functioning separately as previously believed. This is worth mentioning as another reason for rest, which enhances our immune system. The finding also leads to an avenue of brain health research which should prove more fruitful than targeting amyloid plaques.
Having trouble sleeping? Exercise enhances your ability to sleep, though vigorous exercise increases adrenaline and cortisol levels, which can be a problem right before bed.. Considering that you should not exercise right after eating, simple math suggests that you should not start vigorous exercise any later than four hours before your planned bedtime. Mild exercise such as yoga or an evening walk does not pose this problem.
Here’s a practical guide for distinguishing the cardiovascular intensity of exercise. Mild exercise allows you to converse comfortably with someone at the same time. Moderate exercise makes conversation difficult. Vigorous exercise makes talking virtually impossible. Even a few minutes of vigorous exercise a day provides brain health benefits. The recommendation for moderate exercise ranges from 45 – 60 minutes. Just as with your diet, your body will deal with “slip ups” or days off from exercise just fine. Indeed, taking days off, like going off your diet once a week, might help you exercise better.
Moderate exercise provides a wide variety of benefits to the body. This may seem contradictory, considering the release of cortisol to stimulate performance. Yet this is precisely the point. As a mechanism for stimulating physical performance through adrenaline and cortisol, exercise also stimulates the antioxidant defense system that protects the body from free radicals. Exercise also helps brain health through the release of endorphins that enhance well-being, along with brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) that stimulates brain tissue growth and plasticity.
Yet researchers caution against too much vigorous or even moderate exercise, the reason being that so much cortisol is produced as to overwhelm the antioxidant defense system. From personal experience I challenge something misleading about these recommendations. You can engage in moderate exercise for more than 60 minutes in a day; you just need to intersperse that with sufficient rest time for the neutralizing of free radicals. However, running a marathon a day probably will lead you to cognitive decline.
The type of exercise matters in regards to the benefits for brain health. Activities such as running or hiking are good for brain health because the rhythmic footfalls have been shown to increase blood flow. In a controlled experiment dancing outperformed other exercises. I suspect several reasons for this. As a fun form of exercise people may engage longer in dancing at a moderate level. Also dancing is social and involves dexterity, both of which enhance the brain.
Diet, rest, exercise. Incorporate these properly into your lifestyle and you will maintain brain health, but why stop there? The remaining level of the wellness pyramid covers what you can do to enhance the function of your brain.