If you feel like your brain isn't working properly, don't worry - you can get better.
The brain is a lot more adaptable and “plastic” than originally believed, and you have the power to mould it.
But where should you start?
I reached out to some of my favourite cutting-edge health practitioners and researchers and asked them one question:
“What is the one piece of advice you would offer to people who want to improve and optimize their brain health?"
They sent me lots of inspiring and informative ideas, and you can see their responses below.
“Brain health is body health. Part of moving beyond the failing paradigm of the mind as separate from the body is understanding that we can influence our brain health, our thoughts, and even our beliefs by healing the body first.
This process looks like speaking to the body in a language that it understands. It does not understand modern chemicals, processed foods, and industrial pollutants. It also doesn't understand chronic stress, poor sleep, minimal movement, and indoor living. Healing and preventing brain pathology can be as simple as learning the language the body speaks.”
“In my opinion, aerobic exercise is at the top of the brain healthy list.”
“If the gut is inflamed, so is the brain! Many psychiatric issues are due to inflammation, so avoid inflammatory foods. Gluten and dairy tend to be the worst offenders.
And don't follow a low-fat diet! Make sure to get sufficient fats and protein. Avoid trans fats, but eat healthy fats like omega 3’s found in fatty fish, and medium chain triglycerides from coconut oil. These are known brain boosters.
Also, avoid sugar and excess carbohydrates, as they can induce insulin resistance and brain inflammation. In fact, Alzheimer’s disease is now known as Type 3 Diabetes.
Lastly, eat five servings of fruits and vegetables every day, as their antioxidants can preserve our brain and overall health.
“Make better decisions.
It's the most important thing to start doing.”
“Realize that there are tools out there to help you take control of your brain. Don't be satisfied with problems in brain function or performance.
The brain is a pattern matching machine whose job is largely to shift and adapt. You have a lot of control already, through modifiable behaviors that change trajectories of performance and quality in life.
The most accessible are removing sugar and developing a meditation practice. If you want even more change, explore tools like nootropics or neurofeedback, for either short-term support or long-term gains. Technology and quantified culture has brought these tools within reach. Don't settle for suboptimal. Shift happens. How will yours?”
“Turmeric is one of the most remarkable neuroprotective and neurorestorative agents yet identified. Not only does it mitigate a variety of heavy metal, toxin, and toxicant exposures, it also has been demonstrated to stimulate asymmetrical neural stem cell division, which results in a regenerative effect by producing new daughter cells that replace dysfunctional neurons.”
“My one piece of advice would be to exercise. Diet and sleep are vitally important too, but there's simply nothing like exercise for the brain. It can grow new neurons, increase the size of your memory center, boost insulin sensitivity, and actually make you smarter. Who doesn't want that?”
Dr. Peter Breggin, MD, Psychiatrist, Author of Guilt, Shame and Anxiety: Understanding and Overcoming Negative Emotions
“If possible, avoid taking psychoactive substances, whether herbal or prescribed psychiatric medications, because all of them work by impairing and even disabling normal brain function, making the recovery of brain or mind more difficult.
Instead, pursue a wide variety of generally accepted health measures, including rest; moderate physical exercise; mental exercise in the form of any activities that personally interest and engage you; meditation, prayer and other practices that calm the mind and lift the spirit; and possibly individual, couples or family therapy with a professional who does not recommend psychiatric medications. Recognizing yourself as a source of love, and finding people and activities to love, is the best brain medicine.”
“My one piece of advice would be to manage your insulin.
And stay mentally active.”
“Research by Dr. Robert Sapolsky has proven that cortisol imbalance leads to brain atrophy. Cortisol is secreted when you’re under chronic stress.
You can improve your brain health by practicing stress management on a daily basis with things like deep breathing, meditation, yoga, or journaling, and get plenty of “Vitamin R” - Rest, Relaxation and Recreation.”
“This a tough question and I can think of many things such as eating sardines or other oily fish for the omega-3 benefits; eating pumpkin seeds as a great source of zinc and tryptophan (both great for anxiety and depression); dumping the bread and cookies due to the inflammatory effects of gluten on the brain and body; and eating grass-fed red meat as a great source of zinc, omega-3s and iron, all of which are needed for brain health.
But if I had to pick only one piece of advice, I would say to optimize gut health because of the very strong gut-brain connection. This means healing a leaky gut with an amino acid like glutamine; improving the microbiome by eating fermented foods like sauerkraut; improving protein digestion with enzymes; cooking and eating quality food at home; chewing our food slowly, and addressing issues like candida, parasites, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth and dysbiosis.”
“I definitely would advise anyone who is concerned with optimizing their brain health to avoid all brain-damaging therapeutics. Some of the most toxic pharmaceuticals where brain health is concerned are commonly prescribed for depression and anxiety (antidepressants, anxiolytics, antipsychotics, mood stabilizers), ADHD and narcolepsy (stimulants such as methylfenidate), sleep disorder (antipsychotics, hypnotics such as benzodiazepines), and pain (opiates such as Vicodin and Oxycontin).
Even short term, all of these drug categories can diminish cognitive function and negatively impact memory. Long-term usage ensures physical/emotional dependency and/or addiction. More importantly, their use often precedes more serious psychiatric diagnoses such as bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder and schizophrenia.
Do your own due diligence before taking any pharmaceuticals. Put the name of the drug into a search engine followed by the words "controversy" and "side effects". Most people only research their drug once a problem has occurred. And for some, that may be too late to reverse the damage that’s been done.
Simply put, if you want a happy, healthy brain, just say "know" to drugs!”
“Eat well, exercise, find time to sleep, and pursue curiosity.”
“Strength train two to three times each week.
Strength training exerts its effects through a variety of mechanisms. It induces the synthesis of BDNF, a brain-derived chemical messenger which enhances synaptogenesis and neurogenesis, increases cerebral blood flow (potentially washing out toxic metabolites), improves insulin sensitivity, and positively affects one’s lipid profile.
Stick with basic exercises such as the squat, deadlift, overhead press, bench press and pull-up or chin-up.”
Dr. Jennifer Bahr, ND, Integrative Mental Healthcare Practitioner
“My recommendations vary depending on what my patient is struggling with.
For those with depression and anxiety, it is to exercise and meditate daily.
For those with bipolar disorder, it is to keep a consistent daily schedule with everything from the time they wake up and go to sleep to when they eat and exercise.
For my patients with OCD or schizophrenia, I recommend that they do not meditate, but focus more on a healthy anti-inflammatory diet of whole foods and daily exercise.
The two common themes across the board for anyone looking to improve their mental health, regardless of their concern or the severity of their condition, is to exercise daily and eat a diet that is high in nutrient-dense plant material and low in processed foods and sugar. In some cases, these two recommendations alone will bring relief.”
Dr. Julia Rucklidge, PhD, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Canterbury
“Consider any lifestyle factors that could be improved to optimize brain health – increase exercise, reduce stress, optimize nutritional intake, cut out processed foods.”
"Compelling scientific evidence now identifies malnutrition as a critical factor in brain health fitness and various mental illnesses. As vitamins and minerals serve as co-factors in almost every enzymatic reaction in the brain, it is important to assess for adequate nutrient levels regularly to ensure that you are optimizing brain health.
One of the most important messages that I always share with my patients is that dietary intake is not always reflective of adequate nutrition. It is important that individuals consult with their health care providers to regularly assess for simple nutritional deficiencies such as vitamin D and vitamin B12 levels, which both have profound effects on brain function and mood. Nutritional deficiencies of these two vitamins have been found to exacerbate symptoms of depression, anxiety, and even contribute to memory loss and cognitive decline."
Dr. Romie Mushtaq, MD, Physician and Mindfulness Teacher
“As a neurologist and mindfulness teacher, I bring Western Medicine and Eastern wisdom together for clients to optimize brain and mental health.
The one thing I routinely advise clients is that sleep is sacred. In our overscheduled lives, sleep is the first thing to be sacrificed. When we deprive ourselves of sleep, we deprive our minds and bodies of critical rest and healing time. The end result of sleep deprivation is poor focus, declining memory and cognition, depression, imbalanced hormones, and weight gain.”
Dr. Jill Littrell, PhD, Psychologist, Associate Professor at Georgia State University
“Eat an anti-inflammatory diet (lots of fish, tumeric, fresh vegetables, cut out high fructose corn syrup, and foods prepared with shelf extenders), exercise, add yoga, and spend time with supportive others. Check out my website Littrell's Neuroscience of Well-Being and Mental Illness for references and rationale.”
Dr. Ann Childers, MD, Psychiatrist
"It is increasingly clear that refined starches (grain starches, including whole grains) and sugars impair brain health. These are nutritionally destitute calories, suspected of promoting what some researches refer to as Type 3 Diabetes (also known as Alzheimer’s disease).
And the brain is about 60% fat, and holds as much as 25% of the body's cholesterol. So my advice for people who want to optimize brain health is to reduce calories from carbohydrates and follow a nutrient dense diet that includes ample healthy fats and cholesterol. This includes grass-fed butter or ghee, and well-sourced, unprocessed whole eggs."
Dr. Bonnie Kaplan, PhD, Professor of Medicine at the University of Calgary
“Feed your mitochondria and optimize your brain metabolism. Every cell in our brains and bodies contain these little energy manufacturing organelles, which need a steady supply of micronutrients (minerals, vitamins, amino acids, and essential fatty acids).
A litre of blood goes through your brain every single minute that your heart is beating; it brings oxygen and takes away waste products, and it also brings all the nutrients you have absorbed from your food.
Bottom line: replace all processed food with high-nutrient healthy food to optimize mitochondrial function and brain metabolism in general, and then consider additional nutrients in pill form if you still have mental health challenges.”
“For improving ones brain health, I always recommend my clients get back to the basics. Regular cleansing of toxins because we live in such a toxic world. Also consuming organic food, daily exercise that you enjoy, adequate sleep (7-8 hours), and nature connection every day, even if just for 5-10 minutes.”
Dr. Scott Clack, ND, Founder of the Touchstone Naturopathic Centre
“To improve and optimize a person’s brain health, they must change their diet. None of us wish to give up dairy and grains, but their consumption is increasingly linked to neurodegenerative or neurodevelopmental disorders, to diabetes and heart disease, as well as gastrointestinal and mental health complaints (the gut/brain connection).
People need to learn that eating fat in their diet is good, not bad. Meat is back in vogue. Processed foods, junk foods and pre-prepared foods are out. Intuitively we all know we shouldn’t eat junk foods or carbs, but we do: we’re drugged by them. Let’s get off the “drugs” and get healthier with one of the key things we should do every day: eat FOOD.”
“The brain is a part of the body.
The best way to optimize the brain is to have good health habits: proper diet, regular vigorous exercise, lots of sleep.”
“After learning how to reduce inflammation and support the brain nutritionally, make sure you use it.
Learn a new skill set. Taking on the task of learning a new language is without a doubt one of the best ways in my experience to improve and optimize brain health.”
Dr. Raj Raghunathan, PhD, MBA, Happiness Expert and Author of If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Happy?
“I'd say the single biggest thing you could do for your brain health is to exercise. There is, of course, a lot of research on the topic, and I have personally experienced many of the benefits. One of the most reliable ways to get unstuck, for example, is to go for a run or do a work out."
Eve Prang Plews, Licensed Nutrition Counselor at Full Spectrum Health
“Stop eating yummy industrial food-like products that aren't real food. Eat what occurs in nature! That's to stop damage. To improve, exercise and get good sleep.”
“Recognize that your emotions evolved as a behavioural guidance system, not as a disease.
Our spectrum of emotional experience developed in a primitive environment in which we no longer live, so it can often tempt us to move in the wrong direction (“Hit your boss!” “Run screaming away from that public speaking situation!”). They remain valuable cues about what’s happening in the environment, however. If we feel lasting ennui in our job, perhaps we should pay attention and think how to make changes.
Increasingly, the field of mental health has relabeled normal emotional experience (like sadness or bereavement) as diseases, thereby alleviating them of any signal value they may have. I’m not dissatisfied with my life, I’m just experiencing an upswing in my subclinical depression and so need to change my dosage.”
“What is good for your mind and body is what has always been good for it: being safe and secure, having enough money not to worry, taking part in purposeful or meaningful activities that contribute to your community, being able to sustain yourself, developing your skills, doing things you enjoy, having loving friends and family. Aristotle described it as living a ‘good’ or ‘virtuous’ life.”
Clearly, we have a lot of control over the short and long-term health of our brains. The habits we maintain everyday make a huge difference.
Now it's your turn. What do you think is the most important habit for optimal brain health? Has anything been missed? Let me know in the comments below.