It was once believed that brain function peaked during early adulthood and then slowly declined, leading to lapses in memory and brain fog during your golden years.
Now it's known that our modern lifestyle plays a significant role in contributing to cognitive decline, which is why exposure to toxins, chemicals, poor diet, lack of sleep, stress, and much more can actually hinder the functioning of your brain.
The flipside is also true in that a healthy lifestyle can support your brain health and even encourage your brain to grow new neurons, a process known as neurogenesis.
Your brain's hippocampus, i.e. the memory center, is especially able to grow new cells and it's now known that your hippocampus regenerates throughout your entire lifetime (even into your 90s), provided you give it the tools to do so.
These "tools" are primarily lifestyle-based, which is wonderful news. You don't need an expensive prescription medication or any medical procedure at all to boost your brain, and your memory. You simply must try out the following tricks to improve your memory.
1. Eat Right
The foods you eat – and don't eat – play a crucial role in your memory. Fresh vegetables are essential, as are healthy fats and avoiding sugar and grain carbohydrates. You can find detailed information about nine foods for brainpower here.
For instance, curry, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, and walnuts contain antioxidants and other compounds that protect your brain health and may even stimulate the production of new brain cells.
Increasing your animal-based omega-3 fat intake and reducing consumption of damaged omega-6 fats (think processed vegetable oils) in order to balance your omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, is also important. I prefer krill oil to fish oil, as krill oil also contains astaxanthin, which not only protects the omega-3 fats from oxidation but also appears to be particularly beneficial for brain health.
Coconut oil is another healthful fat for brain function. According to research by Dr. Mary Newport, just over two tablespoons of coconut oil (about 35 ml or 7 level teaspoons) would supply you with the equivalent of 20 grams of medium-chain triglycerides (MCT), which is indicated as either a preventative measure against degenerative neurological diseases, or as a treatment for an already established case.
Exercise encourages your brain to work at optimum capacity by stimulating nerve cells to multiply, strengthening their interconnections and protecting them from damage.
During exercise nerve cells release proteins known as neurotrophic factors. One in particular, called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), triggers numerous other chemicals that promote neural health, and directly benefits cognitive functions, including learning.
A 2010 study on primates published in Neuroscience also revealed that regular exercise not only improved blood flow to the brain, but also helped the monkeys learn new tasks twice as quickly as non-exercising monkeys.
This is a benefit the researchers believe would hold true for people as well.1 In a separate one year-long study, individuals who engaged in exercise were actually growing and expanding the brain's memory center one to two percent per year, where typically that center would have continued to decline in size.
To get the most out of your workouts, I recommend a comprehensive program that includes high-intensity interval exercise, strength training, stretching, and core work, along with regular intermittent movement.
3. Stop Multitasking
Used for decades to describe the parallel processing abilities of computers, multitasking is now shorthand for the human attempt to do simultaneously as many things as possible, as quickly as possible. Ultimately, multitasking may actually slow you down, make you prone to errors as well as make you forgetful.
Research shows you actually need about eight seconds to commit a piece of information to your memory, so if you're talking on your phone and carrying in groceries when you put down your car keys, you're unlikely to remember where you left them.
The opposite of multitasking would be mindfulness, which helps you achieve undistracted focus. Students who took a mindfulness class improved reading comprehension test scores and working memory capacity, as well as experienced fewer distracting thoughts.2
If you find yourself trying to complete five tasks at once, stop yourself and focus your attention back to the task at hand. If distracting thoughts enter your head, remind yourself that these are only "projections," not reality, and allow them to pass by without stressing you out. You can then end your day with a 10- or 15-minute meditation session to help stop your mind from wandering and relax into a restful sleep.
4. Get a Good Night's Sleep
Research from Harvard indicates that people are 33 percent more likely to infer connections among distantly related ideas after sleeping,3 but few realize that their performance has actually improved. Sleep is also known to enhance your memories and help you "practice" and improve your performance of challenging skills. In fact, a single night of sleeping only four to six hours can impact your ability to think clearly the next day.
The process of brain growth, or neuroplasticity, is believed to underlie your brain's capacity to control behavior, including learning and memory. Plasticity occurs when neurons are stimulated by events, or information, from the environment. However, sleep and sleep loss modify the expression of several genes and gene products that may be important for synaptic plasticity.
Furthermore, certain forms of long-term potentiation, a neural process associated with the laying down of learning and memory, can be elicited in sleep, suggesting synaptic connections are strengthened while you slumber.
As you might suspect, this holds true for infants too, and research shows that naps can give a boost to babies' brainpower. Specifically, infants who slept in between learning and testing sessions had a better ability to recognize patterns in new information, which signals an important change in memory that plays an essential role in cognitive development.4 There's reason to believe this holds true for adults, too, as even among adults, a mid-day nap was found to dramatically boost and restore brainpower.5 You can find 33 tips to help you get the shut-eye you need here.
5. Play Brain Games
If you don't sufficiently challenge your brain with new, surprising information, it eventually begins to deteriorate. What research into brain plasticity shows us, however, is that by providing your brain with appropriate stimulus, you can counteract this degeneration.
One way to challenge your brain is via 'brain games,' which you can play online via Web sites like Lumosity.com. Dr. Michael Merzenich, professor emeritus at the University of California, who I interviewed two years ago, has pioneered research in brain plasticity (also called neuroplasticity) for more than 30 years, has also developed a computer-based brain-training program that can help you sharpen a range of skills, from reading and comprehension to improved memorization and more.
The program is called Brain HQ, and the website has many different exercises designed to improve brain function and it also allows you to track and monitor your progress over time. While there are many similar sites on the Web, Brain HQ is one of the oldest and most widely used.
If you decide to try brain games, ideally it would be wise to invest at least 20 minutes a day, but no more than five to seven minutes is to be spent on a specific task. When you spend longer amounts of time on a task, the benefits weaken. According to Dr. Merzenich, the primary benefits occur in the first five or six minutes of the task. The only downside to brain games is that it may become just another "task" you need to fit into an already busy day. If you don't enjoy brain games, you can also try learning a new skill or hobby (see below).
6. Master a New Skill
Engaging in "purposeful and meaningful activities" stimulates your neurological system, counters the effects of stress-related diseases, reduces the risk of dementia and enhances health and well-being.6 A key factor necessary for improving your brain function or reversing functional decline is the seriousness of purpose with which you engage in a task. In other words, the task must be important to you, or somehow meaningful or interesting — it must hold your attention.
For instance, one study revealed that craft activities such as quilting and knitting were associated with decreased odds of having mild cognitive impairment.7 Another study, published earlier this year, found that taking part in "cognitively demanding" activities like learning to quilt or take digital photography enhanced memory function in older adults.8 The key is to find an activity that is mentally stimulating for you. Ideally this should be something that requires your undivided attention and gives you great satisfaction… it should be an activity that you look forward to doing, such as playing a musical instrument, gardening, building model ships, crafting or many others.
7. Try Mnemonic Devices
Mnemonic devices are memory tools to help you remember words, information or concepts. They help you to organize information into an easier-to-remember format. Try:
- Acronyms (such as PUG for "pick up grapes")
- Visualizations (such as imagining a tooth to remember your dentist's appointment)
- Rhymes (if you need to remember a name, for instance, think "Shirley's hair is curly)
- Chunking, which is breaking up information into smaller "chunks" (such as organizing numbers into the format of a phone number)
If you're serious about improving your memory and your cognitive function, you'll also want to know about these three important variables for brain health.
Activated vitamin D receptors increase nerve growth in your brain, and researchers have also located metabolic pathways for vitamin D in the hippocampus and cerebellum of the brain, areas that are involved in planning, processing of information, and the formation of new memories. In older adults, research has shown that low vitamin D levels are associated with poorer brain function, and increasing levels may help keep older adults mentally fit. Appropriate sun exposure is all it takes to keep your levels where they need to be for healthy brain function. If this is not an option, a safe tanning bed is the next best alternative, followed by a vitamin D3 supplement.
Contrary to popular belief, the ideal fuel for your brain is not glucose but ketones, which is the fat that your body mobilizes when you stop feeding it carbs and introduce coconut oil and other sources of healthy fats into your diet. A one-day fast can help your body to "reset" itself, and start to burn fat instead of sugar. Further, it will help you to reduce your overall calorie consumption, which promotes brain cell growth and connectivity.
As part of a healthy lifestyle, however, I prefer an intermittent fasting schedule that simply calls for limiting your eating to a narrower window of time each day. By restricting your eating to a 6-8 hour window, you effectively fast 16-18 hours each day. To learn more, please see this previous intermittent fasting article.
Your gut is your "second brain," and your gut bacteria transmits information to your brain via the vagus nerve, the tenth cranial nerve that runs from your brain stem into your enteric nervous system (the nervous system of your gastrointestinal tract). There is a close connection between abnormal gut flora and abnormal brain development, and just as you have neurons in your brain, you also have neurons in your gut -- including neurons that produce neurotransmitters like serotonin, which is also found in your brain and is linked to mood.
Quite simply, your gut health can impact your brain function, psyche, and behavior, as they are interconnected and interdependent in a number of different ways. In addition to avoiding sugar, one of the best ways to support gut health is to consume beneficial bacteria. You can use a probiotic supplement for this, but I'm particularly fond of using fermented vegetables, because they can deliver extraordinarily high levels of beneficial bacteria. Most people aren't aware that in a healthy serving of sauerkraut – two to three ounces or so – you're getting the equivalent of nearly 100 capsules of the highest-potency probiotic you can buy. It's clearly one of the most cost-effective alternatives.
Choline is an essential nutrient your body makes in small amounts. However, you must consume it through your diet to get enough. In adults, choline helps keep your cell membranes functioning properly, plays a role in nerve communications, prevents the buildup of homocysteine in your blood (elevated levels are linked to heart disease) and reduces chronic inflammation. In pregnant women, choline plays an equally, if not more, important role, helping to prevent certain birth defects, such as spina bifida, and playing a role in brain development.
Prior research has concluded that choline intake during pregnancy "super-charged" the brain activity of animals in utero, indicating that it may boost cognitive function, improve learning and memory, and even diminish age-related memory decline and the brain's vulnerability to toxins during childhood, as well as conferring protection later in life.9
If you're pregnant, making sure your diet includes plenty of choline-rich foods is important, as research shows higher choline intake led to changes in epigenetic markers in the fetus.10 Specifically, it affected markers that regulate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which controls hormone production and activity. The changes in fetal genetic expression will likely continue into adulthood, where they play a role in disease prevention. Eggs and meat are two of the best dietary sources of choline; if you're a vegan or vegetarian who does not consume any animal foods, you may be at risk of deficiency and may want to consider supplementation.