When our patients make a wish list of what they’d like most for their health, maintaining an active, creative, and well-functioning brain always scores near the top.
By the time we hit our 30s, we accept that we may not be the smartest people on the planet. There will always be someone else who grasps nuclear physics, the remote control for your cable TV, or Boolean algebra (and yes you can click there to learn more about it, part of the program I’ll be laying out here to boost your brain power) better and faster than we can. Still, we appreciate our uniqueness and we’ve grown fond of our brains. We definitely don’t want to lose what we’ve spent all these years acquiring.
Brain researchers are increasingly intrigued by the way humans can enhance and preserve brain function. Although some of us (though certainly not all) will experience age-related memory loss, we can definitely slow its progress and we can begin our work right now.
Here are your brain-boosting goals:
• Connectivity You want your brain cells to make more and more internal connections with each other.
• More flow, more grey please You want a healthy flow of blood to your brain, pretty much the opposite of the dreaded hardening of the arteries. If you were to undergo an MRI, you’d want to see lots of grey matter (the functioning part of your brain) and less white matter (signs of scars and brain breakdown).
• Neurotransmitters matter You want to maintain good levels of neurotransmitters, the molecules that chemically allow brain cells to “speak” to each other. These include serotonin, norepinephrine, acetylcholine, and dopamine.
For #1, you’ll make more connections by using your brain a lot.
Here’s an example: right now, this very moment, start working your mouse or trackpad with your non-dominant hand. Since most of you are righties, switch to your left. No, your cursor hasn’t vanished. You’ll get used to it. You’ve already made several new brain connections just by trying this, and they’ll be strengthened by keeping it up.
A few other easy tasks to create new brain connections:
• Take a different route to work.
• Brush your teeth with your eyes closed using your non-dominant hand.
• Go to a different grocery.
• Do two tasks at once (walk and smell flowers, read and listen to music).
• Learn new stuff (languages, geography, botany).
For #2, the two best ways to keep the small blood vessels in your brain wide open so your brain-y grey matter constantly gets the nutrition it needs are:
• Eating a traditional Mediterranean diet (easy, tasty, no big deal).
• Exercising regularly.
This week’s Archives of Neurology has an article by researchers who tracked patients and their eating habits and made MRIs of their brains (you know where this is going). People of all ages whose food inventories were essentially those of the traditional Mediterranean diet had the very healthiest looking brains, with lots of grey and virtually no white scars.
The relationship between aerobic exercise and brain health was proven years ago and numerous studies from around the world continue to confirm it. A Mayo Clinic study released on February 14, 2012, found that regularly overeating (established at 2,100 calories or more per day) doubled a person’s risk of gradual memory loss over time. Their compelling conclusion: Cutting calories and eating foods that make up a healthy diet may be the simplest way to prevent memory loss as we age.
For #3, healthful eating causes your brain to pretty much manufacture all the neurotransmitters it needs for optimal functioning. Conversely, by deliberately depriving the brain of certain nutrients, researchers showed that temporary memory problems could be induced. For example, when placed on a low-tryptophan diet (tryptophan converts to feel-good serotonin in your brain), after four weeks subjects scored lower on memory tests than they had at the outset of the study.
If you feel your brain hasn’t been working optimally and want to add nutritional supplements, consider the following to boost neurotransmitters and brain energy. (This is not, however, a substitute for everything else we’ve discussed here.) Google each of these supplements with the word “memory” and you’ll discover there’s a lot more research than you might have expected:
- To boost serotonin Either St. John’s wort 450 mg twice daily or tryptophan 1,000 mg at bedtime.
- For dopamine and norepinephrine The amino acids phenylalanine and tyrosine are the building blocks of these neurotransmitters. To bolster them, take Brain Energy (Douglas Labs), two caps every morning.
- For acetylcholine Citicholine twice a day.
- For overall enhancement of brain metabolism Acetyl-L-Carnitine twice daily.
Now, quick quiz. Do you remember the three goals to maintain your healthy brain? Don’t scroll up and peek.
You didn’t remember? You think it might be your diet? Too much TV?
Hmm…put your left hand back to the mouse. You can use your right hand to pull out your hair in frustration.
David Edelberg, MD