By Dr. Mercola
Looking for ways to boost your intellect, stave off mental aging, and maybe even live a longer life? You might be surprised to learn that not only do such strategies exist, but many are easily attainable by making simple tweaks here and there to your daily routine. Embracing the strategies that follow may give a hearty boost to your brainpower, help you keep mentally healthy and ultimately even make yourself smarter.
Nine Tips for a Smarter You …
Exercise encourages your brain to work at optimum capacity by causing 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. Further, exercise provides protective effects to your brain through:
- The production of nerve-protecting compounds
- Greater blood flow to your brain
- Improved development and survival of neurons
- Decreased risk of cardiovascular diseases such as stroke
A 2010 study on primates published in Neurosciencei 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, a benefit the researchers believe would hold true for people as well.
Still more research has shown that exercise boosts mitochondria, organelles that produce energy within every cell of your body, which suggests exercise may help your brain work faster and more efficiently.ii
To get the most out of your workouts, I recommend a comprehensive program that includes Peak Fitness high-intensity exercise, strength training, stretching, and core work.
2. Animal-Based Omega-3 Fats
Docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, an omega-3 fat, is an essential structural component of both your brain and retina. Approximately 60 percent of your brain is composed of fats—25 percent of which is DHA. DHA is also an essential structural ingredient of breast milk, which is believed to be a major reason why breastfed babies consistently score higher on IQ tests than formula-fed babies.
Omega-3 fats such as DHA are considered essential because your body cannot produce it, and must get it from your daily diet. DHA-rich foods include fish, liver, and brain—all of which are no longer consumed in great amounts by most Americans.
DHA is found in high levels in your neurons -- the cells of your central nervous system, where it provides structural support. When your omega-3 intake is inadequate, your nerve cells become stiff and more prone to inflammation as the missing omega-3 fats are substituted with cholesterol and omega-6 instead. Once your nerve cells become rigid and inflamed, proper neurotransmission from cell to cell and within cells become compromised.
The influence of omega-3 fat on physical and mental health has been the subject of intense research over the last four decades, and there's compelling evidence that animal-based omega-3 fats can help reduce the symptoms of a variety of psychiatric illnesses and degenerative brain disorders. For example, low DHA levels have been linked to memory loss and Alzheimer's disease.
Even more exciting is research showing that degenerative conditions can not only be prevented but also potentially reversed. For example, in one study, 485 elderly volunteers suffering from memory deficits saw significant improvement after taking 900 mg of DHA per day for 24 weeks, compared with controls.iii
Another study found significant improvement in verbal fluency scores after taking 800 mg of DHA per day for four months compared with placebo.iv Furthermore, memory and rate of learning were significantly improved when DHA was combined with 12 mg of lutein per day.
Interestingly, research suggests that the unsaturated fatty acid composition of normal brain tissue is age-specific, which could imply that the older you get, the greater your need for animal-based omega-3 fat to prevent mental decline and brain degeneration.
To compensate for our inherently low omega-3 diet, a high quality animal-based omega-3 supplement is something that I recommend for virtually everyone, especially if you're pregnant. I prefer krill oil compared to all other animal-based omega-3's, because while the metabolic effects of krill oil and fish oil are "essentially similar," krill oil is as effective as fish oil despite the fact that it contains less EPA and DHA.v This is because krill oil is absorbed up to 10-15 times as well as fish oil, due to its molecular composition, and is less prone to oxidation (rancidity) because it is naturally complexed with the potent fat-soluble antioxidant astaxanthin.
Sleep is not only essential for regenerating your physical body, but it is imperative for reaching new mental insights and being able to see new creative solutions to old problems. Sleep removes the blinders and helps "reset" your brain to look at problems from a different perspective, which is crucial to creativity.
Research from Harvard indicates that people are 33 percent more likely to infer connections among distantly related ideas after sleeping, 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 growth, known as plasticity, is believed to underlie the 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.vi Even among adults, a mid-day nap was found to dramatically boost and restore brainpower.vii You can find 33 tips to help you get the shut-eye you need here.
4. Coconut Oil
One of the primary fuels your brain needs is glucose, which is converted into energy. Your brain actually manufactures its own insulin to convert glucose in your bloodstream into the food it needs to survive.
If your brain's production of insulin decreases, your brain literally begins to starve, as it's deprived of the glucose-converted energy it needs to function normally. This is what happens to Alzheimer's patients -- portions of their brain start to atrophy, or starve, leading to impaired functioning and eventual loss of memory, speech, movement and personality.
In effect, your brain can begin to atrophy from starvation if it becomes insulin resistant and loses its ability to convert glucose into energy. Fortunately, your brain is able to run on more than one type of energy supply, and this is where coconut oil enters the picture.
There's another substance that can feed your brain and prevent brain atrophy. It may even restore and renew neuron and nerve function in your brain after damage has set in.
The substance in question is called ketone bodies or ketoacids. Ketones are what your body produces when it converts fat (as opposed to glucose) into energy, and a primary source of ketone bodies are the medium chain triglycerides (MCT) found in coconut oil! Coconut oil contains about 66 percent MCTs. Therapeutic levels of MCTs have been studied at 20 grams per day. 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 MCT, which is indicated as either a preventative measure against degenerative neurological diseases, or as a treatment for an already established case.
Everyone tolerates coconut oil differently, so you may have to start slowly and build up to these therapeutic levels. My recommendation is to start with one teaspoon, taken with food in the mornings. Gradually add more coconut oil every few days until you are able to tolerate four tablespoons. Coconut oil is best taken with food, to avoid upsetting your stomach.
5. Vitamin D
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.
The National Institutes of Mental Health recently concluded that it is vital that the mother get enough vitamin D while pregnant in order for the baby's brain to develop properly. The child must also get enough vitamin D after birth for "normal" brain functioning. In older adults, too, research has shown that low vitamin D levels are associated with poorer brain function, and increasing levels may help keep older adults mentally fit.viii
Appropriate sun exposure would take care of these issues, as the sun is irreplaceable when it comes to the body's ability to produce adequate amounts of vitamin D.
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. It now appears as though most adults need about 8,000 IU's of vitamin D a day in order to get their serum levels above 40 ng/ml, which is the lowest they should be. Ideally, your serum levels should be between 50-70 ng/ml, and up to 100 ng/ml to treat cancer and heart disease. However, it's important to realize that there's no magic dosage when it comes to vitamin D. What's important is your serum level, so you need to get your vitamin D levels tested to make sure you're staying within the optimal and therapeutic ranges as indicated below.
6. Optimize Your Gut Flora
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.
Your gut bacteria are an active and integrated part of your body, and as such are heavily dependent on your diet and vulnerable to your lifestyle. If you consume a lot of processed foods and sweetened drinks, for instance, your gut bacteria are likely going to be severely compromised because processed foods in general will destroy healthy microflora and sugars of all kinds feed bad bacteria and yeast. Limiting sugar and processed foods, while eating traditionally fermented foods (rich in naturally occurring good bacteria), taking a probiotic supplement and breastfeeding your baby are among the best ways to optimize gut flora and subsequently support brain health.
7. Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12, or rather a lack thereof, has been called the "canary in the coalmine" for your future brain health, and recent research has bolstered the importance of this vitamin in keeping your mind sharp as you age. According to the latest research, people with high levels of markers for vitamin B12 deficiency were more likely to score lower on cognitive tests, as well as have a smaller total brain volume,ix which suggests a lack of the vitamin may contribute to brain shrinkage.
Mental fogginess and problems with memory are two of the top warning signs that you have vitamin B12 deficiency, and this is indicative of its importance for your brain health.
In addition, a Finnish study found that people who consume foods rich in B12 may reduce their risk of Alzheimer's in their later years.x For each unit increase in the marker of vitamin B12 (holotranscobalamin) the risk of developing Alzheimer's was reduced by 2 percent. Research also shows that supplementing with B vitamins, including B12, helps to slow brain atrophy in elderly people with mild cognitive impairment (brain atrophy is a well-established characteristic of Alzheimer's disease).xi
Vitamin B12 deficiency is widespread and many have trouble absorbing this nutrient properly from food sources. Blood tests for vitamin B12 are not always a reliable indicator of B12 status, so watching for symptoms of deficiency and increasing your dietary and supplemental intake is a practical alternative to blood testing.
B12 is available in its natural form only in animal food sources. These include seafood, beef, chicken, pork, milk, and eggs. If you don't consume enough of these animal products (and I don't recommend consuming seafood unless you know it is from a pure water source) to get an adequate supply of B12, or if your body's ability to absorb the vitamin from food is compromised, vitamin B12 supplementation is completely non-toxic and inexpensive, especially when compared to the cost of laboratory testing. I recommend an under-the-tongue fine mist spray, as this technology helps you absorb the vitamin into the fine capillaries under your tongue.
8. Listen to Music
It's long been theorized that listening to music may boost your brainpower; you've probably heard of this with the "Mozart Effect," which suggests listening to classical music can make you smarter. Indeed, research has shown that listening to music while exercising boosted cognitive levels and verbal fluency skills in people diagnosed with coronary artery disease (coronary artery disease has been linked to a decline in cognitive abilities). In this study, signs of improvement in the verbal fluency areas more than doubled after listening to music compared to that of the non-music session.xii
Listening to music has also been associated with enhanced cognitive functioning and improved mental focus among healthy adults, so take advantage of this simple pleasure whenever you can.
9. Challenge Your Mind
One of the simplest methods to boost your brain function is to keep on learning. The size and structure of neurons and the connections between them actually change as you learn. This can take on many forms above and beyond book learning to include activities like traveling, learning to play a musical instrument or speak a foreign language, or participating in social and community activities.
Another important method? Brain aerobics. As with learning, challenging your brain with mind-training exercises can keep your brain fit as you age. This can be something as simple as thinking of famous people whose first names begin with the letter A, doing crossword puzzles or playing board games that get you thinking. Research has even shown that surfing the Web activates regions in your brain related to decision-making and complex reasoning.xiii So unlike passively watching TV, using the Internet is an engaging task that may actually help to improve your brainpower.
- i Neuroscience. 2010 Jun 2;167(4):1239-48.
- ii Journal of Applied Physiology February 15, 2012 vol. 112 no. 4 552-559
- iii Alzheimer's and Dementia 2010 Nov;6(6):456-64
- iv Nutritional Neuroscience 2008 Apr;11(2):75-83
- v Lipids. 2011 Jan;46(1):37-46
- vi Psychological Science August 2006; 17(8): 670
- vii American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting, San Diego, California, February 21, 2010
- viii J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 2009 Jul;80(7):722-9.
- ix Neurology. 2011 Sep 27;77(13):1276-82.
- x Neurology. 2010 Oct 19;75(16):1402-3.
- xi PLoS ONE 5(9): e12244.
- xii Heart Lung. 2003 Nov-Dec;32(6):368-73.
- xiii Am J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2009 Feb;17(2):116-26.