Are You Looking After Your Brain?
I was a bit of a wild child in the nineties…and it doesn't seem that long ago when I was dancing to the Pixies and shouting out the words "where is my mind". Do you remember that song? I loved it!
Now, only a few decades later, a few decades of growing older, having children and trying to cope with adulthood, those words don’t seem so much fun anymore - I seem to have lost not quite my mind, but my memory, and I often struggle with brain fog.
Although our brains have an amazing ability to continually form new neural pathways, known as "neuroplasticity", they do need to be healthy for this to occur. In other words, we need to look after them...rest them, feed them and exercise them.
Often we’re so busy looking after our families and our general health that we don’t make time to specifically look after our brains, yet it is surprisingly easy to ensure we’re resting, feeding and exercising them. Below you’ll find a few different ways in which you can look after your own brain. Try one and let me know how it goes.
Kirtan Kriya: Improve Your Memory and Brain Health through Meditation and Breathing Techniques
Meditation and breathing techniques are well-known for improving mental health and practising your own routine or joining a regular group practise will not only help you keep your brain healthy but will also help you cope better with stress.
There is one meditation in particular that is known for improving memory. This is the yogic meditation Kirtan Kriya in which you combine breathing, chanting and specific hand movements all into one. According to The Alzheimers Research and Prevention Foundation, “practicing it for just 12 minutes a day has been shown to reduce stress levels and increase activity in areas of the brain that are central to memory”. Click here to watch Dr Helen Levretsky from the Semel Institute of Neuroscience and Human Behaviour at UCLA explain how to do Kirtan Kriya >
The Default Mode Network: A Healthy Brain Starts with a Rested Brain
You don’t always have to do something to improve your brain function. In fact, simply doing nothing is one of the best ways you can look after your brain.
Interestingly, when we're doing nothing, specific regions of our brain activate. Together these regions are known as the Default Mode Network and they're the same regions that activate when we ponder our past, plan our future, think about our beliefs and explore social and emotional themes. These mental explorations are what enable us to learn from our experiences, adapt to our environments and integrate with our community. So next time your teenager is lying on the couch, staring into space and doing nothing give them a break...their Default Mode Network is hard at work helping them improve their social understanding of both themselves and others.
Back to the topic of you doing nothing ... it really is easier said than done, isn't it? How often do you actually do nothing? How often do you give yourself “downtime” in which to relax, daydream, stare into space, let your mind roam?
In his article, Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime, Ferris Jabr explains the importance of downtime:
“What research to date also clarifies, however, is that even when we are relaxing or daydreaming, the brain does not really slow down or stop working. Rather—just as a dazzling array of molecular, genetic and physiological processes occur primarily or even exclusively when we sleep at night—many important mental processes seem to require what we call downtime and other forms of rest during the day. Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to achieve our highest levels of performance.”
Try to give yourself a little bit of downtime every day. Find something you enjoy doing that takes you away from the daily grind of your life: walking in nature, playing outdoors with your kids, doing a puzzle, painting - something in which you can switch your mind off and lose yourself.
Eat to Feed Your Brain
Feeding our brains is essential to keeping them healthy and rather than focusing on what you should cut out of your diet, focus on what you need to include. For example:
With every meal try to eat some "brainfood" - add seeds, nuts, oily fish, avocados, olive oil or coconut oil to your meal to ensure you get a good dose of essential fatty acids and vitamin E.
If you’re under a lot of stress, then try to increase your intake of foods rich in B-vitamins as they are essential for a healthy nervous system. A vitamin B-complex supplement is often a good idea when you are under a great deal of stress or if you are vegan as some of the B-vitamins are only found in animal products such as meat, dairy and eggs.
There are also many herbs that can help improve your memory, your sleep and your ability to cope with stress. Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera) and Brahmi (Bacopa monnieri) are two of my favourite adaptogenic herbs that help soothe and support our brain health. Ask your naturopath or herbalist for more information on these wonderful herbs.
Exercise for a Healthy Brain
If you’re like me and you shudder at the word "exercise", then I apologise for the following statement but it is true - regular exercise is vital not only for the health of your body, but also for the health of your brain.
Cardiovascular exercise ensures there is adequate blood-flow to the brain, improves your sleep and helps you de-stress. There is study after study showing how important movement is to mental health and if you genuinely care about the health of your brain, then you need to get off the couch, or out of your office, and do some kind of cardiovascular exercise every single day.
Last but not least, regular mental exercises help ensure neuro-plasticity. As the saying goes, "use it or lose it". So try doing a crossword or brainteaser every day or learn something new and challenging such as a musical instrument or even a new language.