7 instantly actionable tools that will improve your brain health
First thing's first, here’s something to think about: earlier this year, it was announced that one million people in the UK will be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease by 2025. In fact, the number of people already living with the condition is greater than the population of Liverpool, costing the country about £26bn a year.
Those statistics needn’t weigh heavily on your mind, however. Because while some amount of cognitive decline is an inescapable truth of the ageing process, it is in no way the vertiginous slope it once was. The latest research proves that, with the right application, a few innovative and seemingly inconsequential lifestyle hacks can have a vital, beneficial effect on your cerebral functions. And you won’t have to meditate or practise a single moment of mindfulness.
So, in collaboration with Debbie Hampton, author and founder of thebestbrainpossible.com, we present the most instantly actionable tools that will have a lasting impact on your brain health, protecting your neurological powers and boosting intellect, durability and memory. Have we got your attention? Then let’s begin.
The brain represents just 2% of your bodyweight but burns through 20% of its energy. If the stomach is your second brain, your first is just as hungry. Using a fifth of your total calorie intake per day, it is made up of 60% fat, and to function properly you need to maintain that magic ratio. So it follows that what you put in your mouth makes a difference to what happens in your head.
This isn’t quite a free pass to load up on Styrofoam boxes of saturated fats, however. New research published in the journal Physiology & Behavior found that when rats were fed diets high in saturated fats and sugar, harmful agents were able to enter their brain, leading to inflammation and diminished activity in the hippocampus – which translates to a decline in learning and memory. If that sounds like the post-Domino’s carb coma, there is a reason. In a landmark paper, researchers Scott Kanoski and Terry Davidson suggested that this same effect in humans leads to an increased appetite for such foods, leading to a cycle of obesity and cognitive decline.
Your brain’s preferred fuel is the essential fatty acids (EFAs) found in seafood such as tuna and shellfish, and nuts and oils. Martha Clare Morris, a nutritional epidemiologist at Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center, took this further, developing the MIND diet, focused on reducing your risk of hypertension through upping your intake of heart-healthy minerals – potassium, calcium and magnesium. Morris found that those who followed that menu took a 53% bite out of their Alzheimer’s risk while reversing their brain age (mental wear and tear) by up to 7.5 years. A whopper of a case for fewer takeaways, basically.
Routine is the enemy of invention. Worse still, it leads to physical, social and mental decline, which is probably why you tend to switch off by about Tuesday lunchtime.
The subconscious mind processes around 20 million environmental stimuli, 100,000 chemical reactions and around 400 billion bits of information per second, explains hypnotherapist Dr Kate Beaven-Marks (affinityhypnosis.com), who also specialises in neural linguistic programming. Still with us? It’s a lot to compute, but when dealing with a deluge of information, it is simpler for the brain to repeat an existing blueprint – or neurological pathway – than build a new one. In short: your brain likes to stick to what it knows.
Let’s put it this way: imagine a field of grass, with a gate on either side. The first time you walk across the field you expend effort, trampling the grass. It’s hard. But after a while it becomes easier to use the path you have created than to create a new one. This is how processes are learned in your mind, explains Beaven-Marks. But by relying on the well-trodden pathways, you run the risk of stagnating mentally and are unlikely to push yourself to think or act in new, potentially life-enhancing ways.
Harvard psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson considered that when it comes to your fitness and career, you only get out what you put in. Their research shows that a state of relative mental comfort generates a steady level of performance. But we aren’t interested in promoting the average. To maximise output, our brain needs to experience a state of relative excitement or anxiety just outside its comfort zone. Otherwise, your ability to think outside the box will exponentially decline as you get older.
Active cognitive functioning – or changing up your habits – can fight this decline. And, for those who fear change, it needn’t be hugely dramatic. Take a different route to work. Slink off to a new pub at lunchtime. Or, even better, move your heaviest training session to a Sunday. Not only will this overlay stagnated routines, but by forcing your body to go heavy on what is usually a rest day, your mental muscle will be stimulated to adapt in the same way as those you see in the mirror. You can stop at that new pub on the way home.
Your brain cells are in a constant state of flux, and many are destroyed just days after being formed. Though much of the growth and development of neurons occurs in the womb, neurogenesis continues in adulthood. And research in the Journal of Neuroscience shows that exercise is the single most effective way to accelerate this process.
In February, researchers at the University of Bath pointed to a sedentary lifestyle and high blood glucose levels as a ‘tipping point’ for developing degenerative neurological conditions. But a study in the journal Plos One found that a tough workout encourages the growth of your hippocampus – that’s the memory bit of the brain, remember? Increase blood flow to this area of the brain and you’ll stimulate its growth while also releasing norepinephrine, a chemical known to sharpen attention, motivation and perception. And you’ll get yoked in the process. Clever, no?
To achieve this, we asked PT Luke Grahame (roar-fitness.com) to design an adaptive barbell complex that requires full-body input to stress the nervous system while keeping your mind engaged. Perform all of the movements described here as a single flowing complex without letting go of the bar until each set is complete. There’s no time limit, but it’s advised you rest twice as long as it takes to complete each set. For the first two weeks, perform 4x8 reps of high pulls from the floor, snatches and overhead squats. In the third week, add 4x8 reps of jump squats with a bar. And for the fourth, a snatch grip military press. Complete each session twice a week for core and cognitive strength alike.
4. Cognitive Capsules
Beginning in Silicon Valley and spreading across the US, the once techy trend of dosing with mind-boosting drugs – or nootropics – has now spread to workplaces here in the UK. But while they’re no substitute for a healthy lifestyle, recent research suggests the right kind of self-medication can help your brain shift into a higher gear as you age.
First let’s examine the market. The number of neuro-active pills currently on offer is unprecedented, but Modafinil – an FDA-approved substance originally developed to treat narcolepsy – has the greatest body of evidence. It works by increasing levels of certain mood-boosting neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and norepinephrine, stimulating neural activity in the same way as amphetamines, just without the unwanted side effects or the P45 at home-time. A systematic review of studies published in the journal European Neuropsychopharmacology found it has significant brain-enhancing capabilities, including the ability to improve executive function, attention, memory and learning.
But a long-term leg-up to career-crushing concentration this, unfortunately, is not. Evidence suggests the most readily available nootropics – including prescription drugs such as Adderall and Ritalin, and some illegal recreational drugs – can be highly addictive, and when taken in high doses over a sustained period can actually break down muscle mass and reduce cognitive abilities. When it comes to smart drugs, just say no.
For those who want to boost their brainpower without synthetic supplementation, CILTEP – a blend of natural compound forskolin (thought to aid weightloss and prevent some cancers) and artichoke extract – may be just the tonic. It is available as capsules (£35 evolutionorganics.co.uk) and is thought to boost ‘synaptic plasticity’, according to research published in the Journal of Neurophysiology. Evidence, at last, that it is entirely possible to drug your way to a younger brain without the accompanying comedown. We’ll have two, thanks.
5. Reset Your Habits
From social media to sugar, addiction can become hard-wired into our cognitive circuit board, hastening mental decline along the way. The same neuroplasticity that makes your brain so resilient also makes it vulnerable to the formation of harmful habits – such as robotically checking Instagram every time you unlock your phone, for example.
Neuronal connections are forged based on repetitive thoughts and behaviours. Over time, those fleeting indulgences compound your brain’s dependence
on the dopamine hit they trigger. Dr Nora Volkow, director of the US National Institute on Drug Abuse, believes dopamine’s role is not to provide pleasure but to help us notice, remember and act upon things essential to human existence, like high-calorie foods or sex. In this way, new neurological pathways are formed.
Professor Michael Merzenich, neuroscientist at the Uni of California, has a slightly more hashtag-appropriate name for it: “negative learning”. While a predilection for buttery croissants is not to be derided, per se, the sugar addiction it represents packs a two-fold risk: interfering with brain patterns in the same way as other hooks, while also being linked to depression and memory disorders.
Research by Dr Gene-Jack Wang at New York’s Brookhaven National Laboratory concluded that even when relaxed, the sensory cortex of overweight people remained stimulated, in effect putting out subconscious feelers for food – the one stimulus they know is certain to get their neurons firing again.
So if you’ve been overdoing it on the Haribo/Netflix/Call of Duty, there is a smarter way of trying to kick the junk than going cold turkey. All you need to do is recruit the prefrontal cortex, or thinking brain, in a new and challenging way – and that means interval sprints. Complete five lots of 200m sprints, with 30 seconds of rest in between, twice a week. Not only will you burn off the morning muffin, it will also provide the cerebral wake-up you need to escape your vice’s grip.
6. Embrace The Chaos
Researcher and TED speaker, Barbara Arrowsmith-Young, refused to accept her diagnosis as a ‘slow’ child. By developing exercises to target specific regions of the brain, she fortified her grey matter to become one of the leading minds in her field. And you can do the same when faced with mental sticking points.
As a child, Arrowsmith-Young struggled to understand even the most basic concepts until, aged 26, she read about a Russian soldier who had been shot in the brain. The bullet destroyed his left occipital-temporal-parietal region – the area where incoming information is filtered. Recognising her own difficulties, she began to research the powers of mental rejuvenation. The idea that the brain continues to shape itself throughout life – and that by training specific areas, weak links can be forged anew – was a revelation. Arrowsmith-Young dedicated her life to pursuing this theory.
By adopting a similar approach, you can boost your own brain growth to become a fitter, more coordinated man. A study by the Uni of South Carolina illustrates the brain’s adaptivity: mice were made to run on a treadmill every day for two months. At the end of the study, researchers found that mitochondria – cells’ energy packs – had grown not just in their muscles, but also in their brains.
But run-of-the-mill cardio isn’t the only – or even smartest – way to benefit. Spatial awareness, for example, is the remit of the right superior temporal cortex, and performing new movements in the gym can home in on this section of the brain. So mix up your routine. Swap dumbbells for kettlebells, grab a sandbag, then pick up a Bulgarian bag. Forcing your brain to sweat a little harder can lead to permanent cerebral progress. Not to mention serious kudos.
Light exposure – or lack thereof – affects far more than just sleep. Allow us to shed a little illumination on the issue: sunshine enters your body through your eyes and skin, and the energy it provides directly influences your circadian rhythm, metabolism, blood composition, cell formation and protein synthesis –
making it one of the most valuable health supplements out there. Scientists at Moscow State University, even found that our bodies contain numerous ‘switches’ that are activated by the energy transfer resulting from light exposure.
New research suggests light therapy could help protect brain health, too. In a recent paper, Turning On Lights To Stop Neurodegeneration, published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, researchers argued that “red to infrared light therapy… is emerging as a safe, effective therapy, capable of arresting neuronal death”.
But it is still light’s effect on our circadian rhythm that has the biggest impact on brain function. When light hits the hypothalamus, it stimulates the pineal gland to produce the ‘sleep hormone’ melatonin, and studies suggest that interference with this leads to short-term losses in memory, creativity and our ability to learn new information.
The quality of the light you get is crucial. Light intensity is measured in lux. The dreaded blue light is the worst, while artificial light goes only a short way to topping up your health, often maxing out at 2000 lux. Midday sun, however, averages about 100,000 lux. Which means investing in a simple TRX rig (£137 trxtraining.com), and swapping the workout dungeon for the great outdoors, will keep your brain hooked up to the big smart pill in the sky. You might even hang on to your holiday tan, too.
Words: Debbie Hampton and Tom Ward