How to take good care of your brain

Dr. Jeanette Mostert
About the Author

Dr. Jeanette Mostert specializes in Cognitive Neuroscience and Biological Psychiatry and is the Dissemination Manager for several Horizon2020 projects, including CoCA, PRIME and Eat2BeNice/New Brain Nutrition.


A few weeks ago we celebrated Brain Awareness Week. During this week in March neuroscientists all over the world, help to raise awareness about how the brain works, how you can take good care of your brain, and how to deal with neurological or mental illnesses. For this occasion, I wrote a blog that was published here. Especially for our New Brain Nutrition readers, I’ve slightly adapted my blog to publish it here.

You’re probably quite aware that you have a brain. But are you really? A lot of the amazing work this energy-consuming organ is doing is often taken for granted. Everything from walking and talking to planning tasks and solving complex puzzles is orchestrated by the brain. So we’d better take good care of it. I will therefore share with you some tips for cherishing this valuable pudding in your skull.

  1. Use your brain

Even though the brain does not make a lot of new cells, what it’s master at is generating new connections between brain cells. This is what makes our brains so good at learning new things, especially at a young age. When connections are used often, they grow stronger, and when you learn or experience something new, new connections are made. Having a lot of connections builds a kind of ‘cognitive reserve’. It is therefore recommended to keep challenging your brain, no matter how young or old you are. The best way to challenge your brain is by doing things that are not automatic or standard. Walking a different route to work for instance can already help to form new connections between brain cells. Other brain training activities are learning a new language, playing an instrument, solving puzzles, playing games, or even reading a nice book [1].

2. Exercise your brain (and body)

When we exercise, we often do this in order to stay fit and have a healthy body. But regular exercise is also very good for our brain and mental health. Research has shown that physical exercise can reduce symptoms of depression or ADHD, reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, and improve sleep and cognitive functions such as memory [2]. However, it is difficult to exactly pinpoint what type of exercise, for how long, and in what conditions exercise is most effective. There have been research studies that found no positive (or negative) effects of physical exercise. Still, it is generally recommended to for instance take a walk each day.

3. Protect your brain

When you’re doing exercises at high speeds or contact sports, it is very important to protect your brain with a helmet. The brain looks like a watery, jelly-like pudding. Without protection from the skull, it would easily be damaged. But even with the skull, a hard blow to the head can have serious consequences. The problem with brain damage is that it is very difficult to repair. The recovery time from a concussion can take up to 3 months, while for more severe injuries to the head this can take much longer and some damage can even be permanent. Moderate and severe brain injury has even been linked to a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, as well as frequent mild injuries from for instance boxing, soccer, or American football [3].

4. Feed your brain

Next to exercise, a healthy diet is also key to a healthy brain. Not only does your brain consume 20% of your body’s total energy, it also needs a lot of different nutrients to work properly. For instance, the brain’s signaling molecules (called neurotransmitters) are made from amino acids that are obtained from food. Dopamine for example is made from the amino acid phenylalanine, which is present in most protein-containing foods. The bacteria that live in your gut play an important role in this, as they are needed to digest the food you eat. For instance, certain bacteria are needed to digest complex fibers, which they convert into short-chain fatty acids, essential substances for your body and brain. A healthy diet consists of fruits, vegetables, legumes (e.g., lentils and beans), nuts, and whole grains [4]. Saturated fats and trans-fats (i.e., from animal products and processed foods) and sugars should be limited. The Mediterranean diet is considered a good example of a healthy diet. Of course, smoking, alcohol, and drugs are not beneficial for brain health (although very moderate consumption of alcohol is part of the Mediterranean diet).

5. Rest your brain

After all those puzzles, exercise, and eating, it’s time to give your brain some rest. Sleep is important for your brain to process everything that has happened during the day. It is thought that the new connections, that I mentioned above, are mainly formed while you’re sleeping. If you don’t sleep enough, your brain can’t properly process what you learned and is less able to receive new input [5]. That’s why pulling an all-nighter while studying for a test is a bad idea. You can better get a good night’s sleep and let your brain do the work for you. This will not only boost your cognitive performance the next day, but you’re also more likely to remember what you learned for a longer period of time. Poor sleep has also been linked to poor mental health such as depression and ADHD.

References:

  1. Training for brain health (in Dutch): https://www.hersenstichting.nl/dit-doen-wij/voorlichting/gezonde-hersenen/training/ (accessed 12 March 2021)
  2. Biddle et al. (2016) Physical activity and mental health: evidence is growing. World Psychiatry 15(2): 176–177: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4911759/
  3. Traumatic brain injury & Alzheimer’s disease: https://www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/what-is-dementia/related_conditions/traumatic-brain-injury (accessed 12 March 2021)
  4. WHO healthy diet: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/healthy-diet (accessed 12 March 2021)
  5. Sleep and brain health: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/the-science-of-sleep-understanding-what-happens-when-you-sleep (accessed 12 March 2021)