When you think of productivity and career success, what comes to mind? Maybe you think of time management tools, goal setting, or climbing the corporate ladder. Maybe you think of business strategy, networking, or financial investment. Perhaps even reading and self-care come to mind.
But what about brain health?
Our brains are arguably the most important organs in our bodies. They enable us to think, feel emotions, and connect with other things and people. They are what power our innovations, our strategies, and our decision-making. In this FitBliss blog, we will discuss why the health of our brains is essential for building a successful career (not to mention for living a healthy and happy life).
Despite the importance of our brains, they are easy to neglect. Compared to popular health goals like “weight loss” and “toning up,” achieving brain health isn’t easy to evaluate — we can’t simply step on a scale or look in the mirror to quickly assess how our brains are doing. It’s therefore up to each of us to realize the importance of our brains and to take action to protect them.
“Brain health isn’t something to worry about when we’re older—
it’s something to worry about now.”
It’s inevitable that as we age, our brains age with us. Common symptoms of an aging brain include memory loss and trouble concentrating, among others. While these are harmless and relatively common for most of us, regular and increasingly severe symptoms can be suggestive of a more serious illness.
Perhaps the most well-known and most common brain disease is Alzheimer’s, which is estimated to affect just under 6 million people. Recent research demonstrates that indicators for Alzheimer’s can be detected in the brain years—even decades—before the first sign of symptoms. Regardless of our individual likelihood to develop the disease, this research suggests something critical: brain health isn’t something to worry about when we’re older—it’s something to worry about now.
The good news is that we do have agency over how quickly our brains age; just like with obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and similar chronic diseases, the development of Alzheimer’s is strongly correlated with lifestyle habits.
Living a Brain-Healthy Lifestyle
Eat a Healthy Diet
While maintaining brain health involves more than the foods you eat, improving your diet is arguably the most important change you can make to decelerate brain aging.
The Standard American Diet, appropriately abbreviated as “SAD”, is characterized by red meats, dairy, sugar, refined carbohydrates, refined oils, processed/packaged foods, and fried foods. Though there are a variety of mechanisms by which these foods trigger poor health, one of the most significant effects of the SAD is chronic inflammation.
Inflammation is the body’s natural, healthy response to infection or injury. However, chronic inflammation (i.e., inflammation that lingers for an extended period of time) is damaging to the body and has been linked to heart disease, depression, arthritis, and other serious conditions. At a biochemical level, chronic inflammation causes the release of inflammatory cytokines, which have been linked to brain damage and psychiatric disorders.
The two primary culprits of diet-induced inflammation are:
- Refined vegetable oils (such as canola and corn oil), which are high in pro-inflammatory omega 6 fatty acids, and
- Refined carbohydrates (such as white flour) and sugar, which cause pro-inflammatory blood sugar spikes in the body.
In order to reduce inflammation in the body, then, it’s important to reduce consumption of these two categories of foods, as well as to increase consumption of anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids and antioxidants. You can follow a specific “anti-inflammatory” diet, but really any healthy diet is an anti-inflammatory one.
FitTip: eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, replace one processed food each week with a healthier alternative (e.g., 100% whole grain pasta instead of white pasta, fresh fruit and nuts instead of a granola bar, medjool dates or other fruit instead of candy), and use a food journal for a week to gain more awareness around food intake and habits.
Get Enough Sleep
Sleep is one of the most underrated components of a healthy life. One third of Americans don’t get enough sleep each night, despite the fact that inadequate sleep is linked to obesity, depression, and other chronic illnesses (not to mention a poor quality of life). When it comes to the brain, sleep is an important time for a number of different neurological processes to occur, and these processes directly impact our ability to learn, process, remember, and apply new information.
FitTip: establish a regular bedtime and wake-up time, improve your sleep hygiene (e.g., no electronics immediately before bed), minimize evening snacking, reduce caffeine consumption (especially in the afternoon), and practice deep breathing before bed.
Manage Stress Levels
Stress is essential to living a healthy and productive life—not only does it help our bodies respond to real, imminent danger, but it helps stave off boredom and keep us engaged in day-to-day life. A large portion of our population today, however, suffers from excessive and chronic stress. As with poor eating habits, chronic stress leads to inflammation in the body, which we know triggers damage in the brain. Furthermore, studies have shown that stress alters brain structure, strengthening the defensive, “survival mode” parts of the brain, while weakening the parts responsible for memory and working through complex tasks.
FitTip: establish a daily mindfulness practice, regularly engage in a type of movement you enjoy (whether that be walking, dancing, weight lifting, or something else), practice gratitude by writing down 3 things you’re grateful for everyday, carve out relaxation time every week (or every day!), and spend time with friends and loved ones.
Research consistently demonstrates that regular exercise improves cognitive function, and some even suggest it helps increase the size of the hippocampus, our brain’s center for memory and learning. Not only does exercise help improve blood flow to the brain, but it helps us reduce stress, improve sleep quality, and maintain a healthy weight, all of which are important to keeping the brain young. Though more research is needed to determine how different types and amounts of exercise affect brain health, it appears that cardio, resistance / strength training, and low-intensity workouts (like yoga) all positively impact the brain.
FitTip (for more, check out this article): spread exercise throughout the day (move for 10 minutes at a time, 3 or more times per day), experiment with different types of movement to find something you truly enjoy, and suggest movement-based activities for social gatherings and events (e.g., a hike with friends).
A few final lifestyle tips:
While improving diet, sleep, stress management, and exercise habits will get you most of the way there, consider these final tips to support a healthy, happy brain:
- Protect the brain: Wear helmets and avoid dangerous activities where head injuries are common.
- Minimize environmental toxins: Eat organic produce; opt for eco-friendly/toxin-free cleaning, hygiene, household, and cosmetic products; minimize plastics and BPA-containing containers.
- Be creative: Pick up a creative hobby like painting or pottery-making.
- Connect: Build and nurture a supportive and positive group of friends and family.
Regardless of your goals and motivations, prioritizing your brain health is one of the most important things you can do; from improving productivity to enhancing quality of life, brain health is the key to our personal and professional success.
If you’ve spent most of your life neglecting your health, that is okay—as long as you start paying attention now. We might not be able to prevent brain aging entirely, but we can surely decelerate it. And the power to do so is in our hands.
Dominique Alessi, Health Coach
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