One of the outcomes of the ‘Neuroscience Academy’ I graduated this year was to have a clearer image of the things I need to do to keep my brain healthy long term. Sarah McKay, the founder of the Neuroscience Academy has focused on it during the course and in some other materials, and I found her recommendations very useful.
Today, I want to share a summary of these here. I hope it will bring you value and you’ll hopefully start to apply some (if not all) of these points.
After I’ve read Matthew Walker’s book, ‘Why we sleep?’ I actually went and bought myself a Fitbit that can also trace sleep. The book made me understand that sleep is a lot more important than I thought. And those of us (myself included) who have spent years thinking ‘Who needs sleep… I need to work/have fun’ and can wing it with 4-5 or 6h of sleep/night… well… we got it all wrong.
The book actually mentions some very well-known former politicians and public figures who were known to only sleep 4-5h/night. And unfortunately, they all suffer/suffered from brain-related diseases (mainly dementia) in older age.
A good night of sleep (7-9h) should be our first priority, as it is the bedrock of good health. When we don’t sleep, we negatively impact our cognition (thinking), memory, mood and learning, plus we predispose our body to chronic disease.
When we sleep, we consolidate memories and, even more importantly, we ensure the draining of waste products from the brain, a process that keeps our brain healthy.
Of course, there can be periods in life when we cannot make the 7-9h of sleep (e.g. baby wakes up every 2h), but as a general rule, sleep = health. So, it should be our top priority.
Short afternoon naps can also do the trick in consolidating our memories, pumping up our creativity and help us smooth our rough emotional edges.
Physical exercise is the best type of exercise we can do for our brains. Daily physical exercise increases the blood flow to our brain and triggers the release of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). BDNF is like the ‘brain fertiliser’: it promotes the growth and survival of neurons, reduces inflammation and has a role in the formation of long-term memories.
Additionally, exercise acts as an anti-depressant and regulates mood and reduces the risk of dementia (as well as other chronic lifestyle diseases).
A simple walk outside counts as a good exercise. Our brains evolved under conditions of almost constant motion, to support us while we were moving around, making sense and responding to the natural world around us.
A 2018 Lancet Psychiatry Review of 1.2mn people arrived at the conclusion that any exercise reduced mental health burden. Out of all, team sports were the most beneficial.
The ‘sweet spot’ for the amount of weekly exercise has been found to be: 3-5 times/week, 45 minutes per session.
A healthy brain needs at its base a healthy and well-nourished body. Research shows that a Mediterranean-based diet is an optimal nourishment for our brain health. The Mediterranean diet consists mostly of plants (veggies, fruits and legumes), fish, small amounts of meat, olive oil and nuts. Wine and coffee in moderation seem to prevent cognitive decline, memory loss and protect against dementia (Just a sec… I’ll go get another glass of w…coffee 😛 ).
Not all stress is detrimental to our health. But chronic stress, and especially situations and events that are out of our control can change the way our brains are wired. Too much cortisol (one of the stress hormones) will prevent the creation of new neurons and will cause the hippocampus (brain structure that supports learning and memory) to shrink. This, in turn, will reduce our powers of learning and our memory.
This means that we need to find our moments of calm, so we can de-stress. For each of us, this might be something different: a walk, a nap, meditation or mindfulness practice.
We have a fundamental need for human connection. We are social animals. Having a circle of support: friends, family, social connections, has been proven by science to help us live longer, happier and healthier lives.
When we socialize, the harmful effects of stress are reduced. At the same time, we use many complex cognitive functions, such as thinking, feeling, sensing, reasoning and intuition, which keep our prefrontal cortex busy and healthy.
Loneliness and social isolation have been proven to have the same impact on our health as smoking 15 cigarettes/day…
We must keep our brains active. When adults regularly challenge their brains and keep them active throughout their life, they have healthier brains and a lower likelihood of developing dementia. Ongoing education and mentally challenging work are thought to build the capacity of the brain to cope better and keep working appropriately even if any brain cells are damaged or die (cognitive reserve).
Here, we should focus on mentally challenging activities that we can practise regularly, and which take us out of our cognitive comfort zone. The odd crossword, sudoku, jigsaw puzzle is not enough, unfortunately.
The mental activities should involve learning something new and ideally will combine mental, social and physical challenges.
Some examples: learn to knit or paint, enrol in further study, travel, explore, etc.
Finding our north star, our passion, our purpose helps us live longer, healthier and more fulfilling lives. Once we find our flow (see Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book ‘Flow’), the sweet spot where we completely focus on the present moment and the task at hand, so that we don’t even perceive the time passing by, we’ll know we’re on the right path. As the author said, ‘Flow is the very thing that makes us come alive. It is the mystery. It is the point.’
I hope you will find these recommendations useful. I know I did. I translated most of them into habits that I added to my agenda. Not all at once, as that doesn’t work for me. But step by step. I started with Sleep and Exercise. I’m not within the ideal guidelines constantly, but a lot more than before. Now I started to focus more on Food and Connect. And later on, I will continue with the rest of them. And this is what I recommend to you too. Take it slowly, but start. And if you’re already well on your way to applying these recommendations… good for you!
Thank you for reading,
PS: A big reason I write is to meet people so feel free to say Hi! on Linkedin here as I’d love to learn more about you.
The Neuroscience Academy, Dr Sarah McKay