Brain Awareness Week: How to take good care of your brain
You’re probably quite aware that you have a brain. But are you really? A lot of the amazing work this energy-consuming organ is doing is often taken for granted. Everything from walking and talking to planning tasks and solving complex puzzles is orchestrated by the brain. So we’d better take good care of it. In the context of Brain Awareness Week, I will share with you some tips for cherishing this valuable pudding in your skull.
Protect your brain
The brain looks like a watery, jelly-like pudding. Without the protection from the skull, it would easily be damaged. But even with the skull, a hard blow to the head can have serious consequences. The problem with brain damage is that it is very difficult to repair. The recovery time from a concussion can take up to three months, while for more severe injuries to the head this can take much longer and some damage can even be permanent. Moderate and severe brain injury has even been linked to a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. In addition, frequent mild injuries from contact sports, such as boxing, soccer or American football have been linked to the above diseases . It is therefore very important to protect your brain with a helmet when you’re doing sports at high speeds or playing contact sports.
Use your brain
Even though the brain does not make a lot of new cells, what its master at is generating new connections between brain cells. This is what makes our brains so good at learning new things, especially at a young age. When connections are used often they grow stronger, and when you learn or experience something new, new connections are made. Having a lot of connections builds a kind of ‘cognitive reserve’. It is therefore recommended to keep challenging your brain, no matter how young or old you are. The best way to challenge your brain is by doing things that are not automatic or standard. Walking a different route to work for instance can already help to form new connections between brain cells. Other brain training activities are learning a new language, playing an instrument, solving puzzles, playing games, or even reading a nice book .
Exercise your brain (and body)
When we exercise, we often do this in order to stay fit and have a healthy body. But regular exercise is also very good for our brain and mental health. Research has shown that physical exercise can reduce symptoms of depression or ADHD, reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, and improve sleep and cognitive functions such as memory . However, it is difficult to exactly pin-point what type of exercise, for how long, and in what conditions exercise is most effective. There have been research studies that found no positive (or negative) effects of physical exercise. Still, it is generally recommended to for instance take a walk each day. To encourage people, the Dutch Hersenstichting recently released an app called Ommetje. With each walk you earn points, and you can read about interesting brain facts from Neuropsychologist professor Erik Scherder.
Feed your brain
Next to exercise, a healthy diet is also key to a healthy brain. Not only does your brain consume 20% of your body’s total energy, it also needs a lot of different nutrients to work properly. For instance, the brain’s signalling molecules (called neurotransmitters) are made from amino acids that are obtained from food. Dopamine for example is made from the amino acid phenylalanine, which is present in most protein-containing foods. The bacteria that live in your gut play an important role in this, as they are needed to digest the food you eat. For instance, certain bacteria are needed to digest complex fibres, which they convert into short-chain fatty acids, essential substances for your body and brain. A healthy diet consists of fruits, vegetables, legumes (e.g., lentils and beans), nuts and whole grains . Saturated fats and trans-fats (i.e., from animal products and processed foods) and sugars should be limited. The Mediterranean diet is considered as a good example of a healthy diet. Of course, smoking, alcohol and drugs are not beneficial for brain health (although a very moderate consumption of alcohol is part of the Mediterranean diet).
Rest your brain
After all those puzzles, exercise and eating, it’s time to give your brain some rest. Sleep is important for your brain to process everything that has happened during the day. It is thought that the new connections, that I mentioned above, are mainly formed while you’re sleeping. If you don’t sleep (enough), your brain can’t properly process what you learned, and is less able to receive new input . That’s why pulling an all-nighter while studying for a test is a bad idea. You can better get a good night’s sleep and let your brain do the work for you. This will not only boost your cognitive performance the next day, but you’re also more likely to remember what you learned for a longer period of time. Poor sleep has also been linked to poor mental health such as depression and ADHD.
This blog was written by Jeanette Mostert. Jeanette obtained her PhD at the Radboud University Nijmegen on the topic of brain connectivity and cognitive differences in adults with ADHD. She now works as dissemination manager for several EU-funded research projects, where she works closely together with patient representatives and researchers, trying to reduce the gap between them. One example of her efforts is the website www.newbrainnutrition.com that shares information about lifestyle and mental health. She is also the communications officer for Pint of Science Netherlands.
Further reading / sources
1. Traumatic brain injury & Alzheimer’s disease: https://www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/what-is-dementia/related_conditions/traumatic-brain-injury (accessed 12 March 2021)
2. Training for brain health (in Dutch): https://www.hersenstichting.nl/dit-doen-wij/voorlichting/gezonde-hersenen/training/ (accessed 12 March 2021)
3. Biddle et al. (2016) Physical activity and mental health: evidence is growing. World Psychiatry 15(2): 176–177: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4911759/
4. WHO healthy diet: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/healthy-diet (accessed 12 March 2021)
5. Sleep and brain health: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/the-science-of-sleep-understanding-what-happens-when-you-sleep (accessed 12 March 2021)