Brain Health: Can These Tricks Make You Smarter?

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May 07, 2015 | 91,682 views

Story at-a-glance

  • By providing your brain with appropriate stimulus, you can counteract the degeneration that typically comes with aging
  • Brain-game apps, puzzle books, specially designed card games, and more can help keep your mind fit and sharp

By Dr. Mercola

Becoming forgetful is often regarded as a normal part of getting older, but it’s possible to maintain your quick wit and intelligence at any age.

This should come as welcome news, since the notion of losing your mental capacity evokes twice as much fear among Americans as losing physical ability, and 60 percent of US adults say they are very or somewhat worried about memory loss.1

One principle to remember is that if you don't sufficiently challenge your brain with new, surprising information, it eventually begins to deteriorate. Just as physical inactivity allows your muscles to atrophy, cognitive inactivity does the same to your brain.

Challenging Hobbies Help Keep Your Brain Young

When it comes to brain function, stress is an important factor that can have a direct effect. For example, one recent animal study found that higher levels of stress hormones can speed up short-term memory loss in older adults.7 In a nutshell, the stress hormone cortisol has a corrosive effect that, over time, wears down the synapses responsible for memory storage and processing. Previous research has also linked chronic stress with working memory impairment.8

An inspirational talk can help you get into a more relaxed, positive mood, which may, in turn, help you think better, be more creative and communicate better with others. In the TED talk above, psychologist and author Shawn Achor discusses the happy secret to better work.

Remember to Include Physical Exercise, Too

Your brain is capable of rejuvenating and regenerating itself throughout your life. This information is completely contrary to what I was taught in medical school. At that time, it was believed that once neurons die, there’s nothing you can do about it. Hence, deterioration and progressive memory decline was considered a more or less inevitable part of aging. Fortunately, that’s simply not true, especially if you exercise.

According to John J. Ratey, a psychiatrist who wrote the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, there’s overwhelming evidence that exercise produces large cognitive gains and helps fight dementia. Research shows that those who exercise have a greater volume of gray matter in the hippocampal region of their brains, which is important for memory. According to the authors:9

“After controlling for age, gender, and total brain volume, total minutes of weekly exercise correlated significantly with volume of the right hippocampus. Findings highlight the relationship between regular physical exercise and brain structure during early to middle adulthood.”

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.10

This is a benefit the researchers believe would hold true for people as well. 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 (especially super slow workouts), stretching, and core work, along with walking about 10,000 steps a day.

What You Eat Matters for Brain Health

Along with mental challenges and exercise, 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 is particularly important to support brain health. Coconut oil is another healthy 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.

In addition, 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.

Along with 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.

If you really want to jumpstart your brain health, you might want to also try intermittent fasting. 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.

Proper Sleep Boosts Brain Function

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. Among adults, a mid-day nap was even found to dramatically boost and restore brainpower.11

As with most aspects of health, it’s not one factor but many that create or destroy a healthy brain. Just like your physical health, your mental health will flourish with a balanced healthy lifestyle of eating right, exercising, tending to stress, stimulating your mind and, last but not least, sleeping well. For the latter, you can find 33 tips to help you get the shut-eye you need here.

[+]Sources and References [-]Sources and References

  • 1 CDC.gov Cognitive Impairment: A Call for Action, Now!
  • 2 Neurology April 8, 2015
  • 3 J Psychosoc Nurs Ment Health Serv. 2010 May; 48(5): 42–51.
  • 4 J Neuropsychiatry Clin Neurosci. 2011 Spring;23(2):149-54.
  • 5 Psychol Sci. 2014 Jan;25(1):103-12.
  • 6 CNN April 23, 2015
  • 7 Iowa Now June 17, 2014
  • 8 The Journal of Neuroscience, 15 February 2000, 20(4): 1568-1574
  • 9 Nature Scientific Reports December 12, 2013: 3; 3457
  • 10 Neuroscience. 2010 Jun 2;167(4):1239-48.
  • 11 American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting, San Diego, California, February 21, 2010