The ability to build new neural connections and rewire existing ones is known as neuroplasticity. The old thinking? You can accomplish this only when you’re young (we’re talking teen years, people). The reality: It’s possible at any stage and age, if you know what to do.
For years, neuroscientists were seriously bah-humbug about the brain. They pretty much thought it was a static lump that just declined over time. But recently (as in, the past 30 years—a blink of an eye in the research world), they realized they had it wrong. Really effing wrong. Here’s what the latest, most exciting science reveals: The brain is malleable, like a muscle, able to continuously grow cells and make brand-new connections.
“We now know that you can change the machinery in the brain to refine how it operates, boost its reliability, and continuously get sharper, speedier, and just plain better at everything you do,” says Michael Merzenich, PhD, a professor at the University of California at San Francisco and founder of the Brain Plasticity Institute. Um, yes, please!
But here’s the key: You have to take a peek under the hood and learn a little about the inner workings—something many of us neglect to do, says Merzenich. Don’t feel bad—it’s not just you, he assures. “Brain health is an almost entirely ignored area of human health,” he says. “We pay almost no attention to it until it crashes and becomes dysfunctional in some way.”
Where we’re devoting the least attention to learning more? Women’s brain health, sadly. And new stats are sounding the alarm bells: We’re more than twice as likely as men to have an autoimmune disorder that affects the brain (like multiple sclerosis), three times more likely to get migraine headaches, and much more at risk for stroke or a “brain attack” (one in five of us will have one).
Experts have also started using the “E” word when talking about Alzheimer’s disease, calling it an epidemic among women because we account for two out of every three people diagnosed with the cognitive disorder. Another drag: Despite research clearly illuminating the fact that brain health issues affect more women than men, there’s a scary gender gap when it comes to funding for studies solely on the female brain, says Lisa Mosconi, PhD, director of the Women’s Brain Initiative at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City.
The upside—promise, we’re getting to it!—is that what neuroscientists are able to gather about the brain is downright badass. You can constantly fine-tune it to perform more efficiently, across the board. So take a few seconds and think about yours right now (how’s that for meta?): Does it feel like an F1 racer—high-speed, firing on all cylinders? Or is it more like a pair of burned-out wheels with creaky gears? Because you can refurbish it for a new whip, and once we all think differently about approaching (and supporting) brain health, we’re in for a smoother ride. Consider this the guide to your souped-up self.
Tune-Up » Make Quick Decisions: Want to be less ambivalent about what to order for lunch? (Don’t we all?) The secret: Force yourself to choose faster, even if it means changing your mind later, says Jessica Caldwell, PhD, a neuroscientist focused on sex-based brain research at the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health at Cleveland Clinic. In other words, don’t waffle—just go for it. “You’ll create stronger links between neurons,” she says.
Some 86 billion specialized cells— neurons—call your head home and transmit info to other cells. This is how they operate and make you you:
With each neuron, messages (a.k.a. brain waves!) come in via dendrites (which are like branches) and leave via axons (think: roots). A neuron can have 10,000 connections with others—sending messages that enable you to function.
Brain waves transmit between neurons via neurotransmitters, and information moves at a minimum of 260 miles per hour. There is a gap between neurons called a synapse, which you can picture as an invisible highway.
Every time you see or learn something, you’re more likely to make connections between areas of the brain more efficient than you are to find a new direct route. Fresh synapses can be made and existing synapses can be strengthened.
Tired of the same-old brain food lists? So is Mosconi, who’s also a neuronutritionist. “That advice is too general,” she says. “Sure, blueberries are good for your brain—but there’s only so many you can eat!” The simple truth is that the main nutrient providing energy to the brain is glucose. The thinking on how to get what you need to perform is to eat specific foods that are high in glucose and fiber (a.k.a. complex carbs), which feed your neurotransmitters (chemicals your brain relies on) without spiking your blood sugar. Check out your for-real mind shifters:
A whopping 88 percent of the sugar in this veggie is glucose, which helps your body make your beast-mode neurotransmitter (glutamate).
These little guys have a high concentration of tryptophan—an essential amino acid your body can’t produce on its own—which is made into serotonin, the neurotransmitter that makes you feel happy.
High in phenylalanine, an amino acid used to make dopamine, the neurotransmitter that surges when you accomplish something, these eats give you a problem-solving lift. (If you prefer meat, go for chicken or fish.)
Hey, the brain will run into speed bumps (e.g., anxiety bombs, hormonal changes). Understand what’s ahead so you can take alternate routes to avoid getting stuck in a slow zone as you move along.
You know the feeling: You’re so lost in what you’re working on that you don’t realize it’s 9 p.m. and you’ve got 42 unread texts. There’s a scientific name for this: flow. While you can’t will yourself into this awesome zone on demand, with these hacks you can re-create the brain activity that occurs when you’re in the moment.
Your sex hormones (as in, when you’re not on hormonal birth control, FYI) are the gas that drives how you think and feel, and what you do. They’re ruled by one simple fact that’s going to sound aggressive: Your brain’s goal is to make babies, whether you want ’em or not. The hot tip: You can use them to boost memory, energy, and more—if you know what’s happening when.
Your levels of the three major sex hormones (estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone) are about as balanced as they’ll be, but a spike in prostaglandins (hormone-like substances involved in pain and inflammation) can make you feel crampy and crabby. So take your workouts down a notch, don’t jam-pack your calendar, and sneak in more shut-eye on these nights.
Once your period ends, your body ramps up estrogen production to trigger ovulation. Estrogen is like Miracle-Gro for your brain, prompting cells to sprout new connections. You also get a testosterone surge, which ramps up sex drive and can make you feel more social and sharp. Needless to say, this is the time to ask for a raise, have a tough convo, or schedule a date with that person you’re actually excited about.
If you’re now pregnant, estrogen and testosterone levels fall (buh-bye, sex drive), and that follicle that released your egg starts pumping out progesterone, which is like the body’s natural sedative. Not knocked up? You’ll still feel relaxed, even-keeled, and most like yourself. This is a great week to get in the zone—at work, at the gym, and at home.
Progesterone plummets, and you may start to feel irritable. Something your friend says that would typically be NBD feels fingernails-scratching-chalkboard cringey. Cut yourself some slack: If you have to pull it together for, say, a big event or a tough talk, do things that fire up your frontal lobe (the decision-making part of the brain), like making a checklist and banging out your to-dos.
Tune-Up » Enhance Your Attention Span: To focus better during snooze-worthy meetings, do more activities that make you think, Wow. “Positive surprises engage the brain area that controls attention, because your brain wants to resolve the meaning of them,” says Merzenich. So ask your S.O. to plan a few mystery dates, or go to a park with your toddler and try to look at life through their lens.
Your wheels are spinning but you’re not going anywhere. Classic burnout is a major bummer, but the playbook here will help safeguard you from stalling out physically and emotionally—and enable you to surge forward with a fresh outlook and a pumped-up brain.
Be on the alert for signs you’re teetering on the edge of burnout.
Tune-Up » Keep More Fuel in Your Metaphorical Tank: Two words: cognitive reserve. It’s the extra capacity your brain has to stay mentally there as you age. You can build it proactively over the years with constant learning, says Marilyn S. Albert, PhD, director of cognitive neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Note to self: Time to master Italian and actually pick up that book club read.
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