Image of underside of brain from the Human Connectome Project

Optimizing Your Brain

Image of underside of brain from the Human Connectome ProjectThe brain’s the thing. It’s a gloppy collection of staggering numbers of neurons and other stuff, made up mostly of water, that can’t support its own weight if you put it on a table (which I don’t recommend). The fluid that supports it in your skull is about the same density as the brain itself. In short: It’s delicate, unbelievably complex, and needs proper care and feeding.

Obviously, we need this Jello-y, incredibly well-organized blob to function as well as possible. Over time, I’ve gathered some very do-able actions you can take to keep it at its best. (Note that this isn’t a comprehensive list, nor intended as medical advice. Please consult your licensed healthcare provider.)

  •  Sleep:
    • Amount: Yes, eight hours—certainly at least seven.
    • Timing: Earlier bedtimes, even with the same number of hours of sleep = more deep non-REM sleep—important for the consolidation of newly learned facts & experiences.
    • Quality:
      • Eliminate all light from your sleeping area. (More about light, sleep, melatonin and your e-devices in this blog post.)
      • Take snoring seriously—you could be starving your brain of oxygen on a nightly basis.
  • Nutrition:
    • Omega-3 fatty acids: Fish or flax oil supplements; freshly-ground flax seeds; English walnuts; wild-caught salmon, sardines. Keep all nuts/seeds in freezer to prevent rancidity. For fish oil supplements, look for those that are “micro-ionized” or “micro-distilled” to eliminate potential toxins such as mercury. If you’re a vegetarian, do an online search for “vegan DHA” or “vegan EPA”. (Keep in mind: If you have problems with easy bleeding or bruising, consult a health professional adding more omega-3 to your diet.)
    • Vitamin D3: Vitamin D comes in two forms, ergocalciferol (D2) and cholecalciferol (D3). The cholecalciferol is the one with evidence that it provides health benefits when taken as a supplement.
    • B vitamins, especially B6 and B12. (B12 needs to be in sublingual form, dissolved under your tongue, since it’s destroyed when it goes through your digestive system.)
    • Organic foods: At minimum, avoid the “Dirty Dozen.”
    • Reduce or eliminate refined sugar and refined flour, which are linked to inflammation and, increasingly, heart disease.
    • Berries! Frozen berries are fine. Look for organic, no sugar added.
    • Investigate other ways to reduce inflammation, such as avoiding food allergens.
  • Lifestyle:
    • Daylight: At least 20 minutes each morning and afternoon, “bare-eyed”
    • Exercise: Regular exercise stimulates new neurons and neural connections. Yoga and tai-chi are excellent choices.
    • Reduce/eliminate TV (and other “passive screen time”).
    • Cultivate connections (friends, family, and your community).
    • Reduce stress—the number of stressors, as well as how you stress about stress.
    • Receive regular, safe touch. (There are massage therapists who specialize in working with trauma survivors.)
    • Novel experiences: Doing and creating new things stimulate neuronal health and growth.
  • Medical:
    • Avoid concussions, which are indeed brain injuries: Wear a helmet when bike-riding; stop taking headers in soccer; and avoid contact sports. If you receive a blow to the head, seek qualified evaluation.
    • Medications: Be a wise partner with your prescribing physician. Some common medications (such as statins, for cholesterol) may affect cognitive function.
    • Thyroid and adrenal function: Beyond TSH, check the Free T4 and Free T3, reverse T3, and a saliva-based cortisol test
  • And, of course: MINDFULNESS PRACTICE. As a neuropsychologist who demands scientific rigor, I find the research on the brain (and other) benefits of mindfulness practice to be compelling. More about it: ‘Rewire’ Your Brain.