Oct 14, 2008
By: Dr. Simon Evans
As the Brain Fitness industry continues to gain momentum, and people explore all the incredible brain-training tools being developed, we hope that enthusiasts don’t take their eye off the importance of the physical health of the brain and all the systems it communicates with. The brain is unique in that it houses our cognitive and emotional capacities in the form of the mind. It is a ‘cognitive’ organ that hungers for stimulation from new experiences and challenges. Many brain fitness programs strive to satisfy this need. Yet the brain is also a physical organ that plays by many of the same rules as the heart, lungs, liver and kidneys. To stay healthy and perform optimally it requires quality nutrition, physical activity and optimal sleep. The brain, especially, relies on a healthy vascular system to efficiently deliver oxygen and key nutrients and remove waste. In fact, the brain uses approximately 20% of the oxygen we breathe to satisfy its high-energy demands. Given that the brain only weighs about 2% of the body, we can consider it an energy hog and we must cater to its needs very carefully.
Nutrients play key roles in brain function. Several have shown efficacy in clinical trials treating cases of mood disorders, cognitive decline and of course benefiting the physical health of the brain. Nutrients are both the raw materials employed in creating new neural connections and important components in regulating the activity of genes involved in these processes. Specific nutrients involved in mitochondrial efficiency, the energy factories of brain and body cells, are particularly important for many aspects of brain function. Other nutrients are involved in the inner workings of neuronal membranes, responsible for ensuring that electrochemical signals, which make up our thoughts, transmit efficiently and reliably. Finally, antioxidants, important throughout the body, are especially important in the brain due to its high energy production rates and concurrent high capacity for free radical leakage. Keeping this in mind, it is readily apparent that nutrition provides the building blocks for our brain’s structure and function, and therefore cannot be ignored.
Exercise is a clearly established component for promoting brain health as well. No longer can we think that the brain is completely separate from the brawn. Human studies have shown the value of exercise in controlling stress and maintaining positive mood states; in improving cognitive function, including performance on memory and executive tasks; and in improving the brain’s two-way communication streams with the rest of the body. Some of these benefits are likely due to the positive effects of exercise on neurovascular health, which parallel cardiovascular health. Other benefits seem due to increased grey matter in ‘front office’ functions of the cortex; and neuronal birth, or neurogenesis, in the hippocampus, a brain region that controls aspects of memory and mood regulation. Whatever the mechanism, giving your body a workout will produce substantial benefits in terms of brain health. Remember, a body in motion tends to stay in motion, and your brain and body will be together your whole life.
Mental activity is an obvious, and critical, ingredient for optimizing and maintaining brain function. Studies have established relationships between the degree of life-time mental activity and late-life cognitive function. It’s clear that those who engage in intellectually challenging endeavors on a regular basis reap the benefits of a clear mind. There is, however a need for each individual to balance sufficient variety with a proper degree of challenge. Without variety and challenge, tasks become too mundane and too easy, eventually growing stale and losing their capacity to adequately stimulate the brain. We must also realize that mental activity goes beyond ‘cognitive’ tasks. Mental activities also include practices like meditative focus, relaxation and stress reduction techniques, as well as social interaction. These active and dynamic processes challenge the mind as well. Mixing cognitive challenges with emotional regulation provides a more complete mental workout that will help you to use it to improve it.
An often neglected component contributing to brain health is optimal sleep. On average, we sleep approximately 1.5 hours per night less than we did 100 years ago. Modern technology makes it easier to get less sleep and our busy lives encourage us to do it. Sleep is far more than a time of rest, and is too often misclassified as a period of lost productivity. It is an active metabolic period for our brains. Sleep is a time when we consolidate memories of the previous day, a time when we re-synchronize the circadian rhythm of at least dozens, if not hundreds, of hormones controlling our metabolism. Sleep loss is associated with a high percentage of mood disorders and certainly reduces our cognitive efficiencies. We must give ourselves permission to sleep by realizing that it is counterproductive to steal from it.
In our new book BrainFit For Life: A User’s Guide to Life-Long Brain Health and Fitness, we focus equally on the cognitive, emotional and physical health of the brain and all of the lifestyle factors that come into play to maintain them. Today’s aging population is becoming increasingly focused on the maintenance of cognitive health and the value of ‘brain training’ programs. But we must realize that such training is not unlike that of an athlete, who must focus on their diet, sleep needs and psychological preparation in addition to their physical skill development. We explore specific aspects of nutrition, exercise, mental activity and sleep. We discuss how they regulate emotional, physical and intellectual functions of the brain. After all, they are not separable.
“To keep the body in good health is a duty…otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear.” – Buddha, circa 500 B.C.
— This article was co-written by Drs. Simon Evans and Paul Burghardt. Drs. Evans and who currently collaborate in the University of Michigan’s Department of Psychiatry, and the Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience Institute to study the effects of nutrition and exercise on brain function. They are co-authors of BrainFit For Life: A User’s Guide to Life-Long Brain Health and Fitness.