The brain is the organ of learning, loving, and behaving for every member of a family, school or business. When the brains in a family or organization work right, the family or organization tends to be positive and effective. When the brain of one or more family or organization members is troubled, the family or organization experiences increased stress and strain.
Your brain is only about 3 pounds, or about 2 percent of your body’s weight. Yet, it uses 20 to 30% of the calories you consume, 20% of the oxygen you breathe and 25% of the blood flow in your body. Unbelievably, given that it is the bedrock of your personality, some think even your soul, the brain is 85% water! It is estimated that the brain has 100 billion nerve cells and more connections in it than there are stars in the universe, which is about the number of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. There are also trillions of supportive cells in the brain called glia. Each neuron is connected to other neurons by up to 40,000 individual connections (called synapses) between cells.
A piece of brain tissue the size of a grain of sand contains 100,000 neurons and 1 billion synapses, all “talking” to one another. Information in your brain travels at about 268 miles per hour. If you don’t take care of your brain, you lose on average 85,000 brain cells a day. That is what causes brain aging. With appropriate forethought, however, you can reverse that trend and dramatically slow the aging process and increase your mental agility.
Knowing how to care for your brain and the brains in your family or organization is the first and most important step to success.
Given the brain’s central role in success, we offer 12 prescriptions to optimize it for a better life in all you do. Here are the first 6:
1. LOVE YOUR BRAIN
Before we truly understand our brain health, we tend to have many bad brain habits. Eating a lot of fast food, too much sugar, diet sodas, not enough sleep at night, working long hours, and not getting enough exercise, are all common bad habits that we’ve likely fallen victim to at some point.
By giving our patients visibility through brain SPECT imaging to the overall health of their brain, we’re able to validate the methods of how to keep your brain healthy as you age, for optimal performance throughout your life, and to get you to truly love your brain and want to take care of it every day. Loving your brain is the first step toward creating a brain healthy life.
2. INCREASE THE BRAIN’S RESERVE
Have you ever wondered why certain stresses or injuries affect some people and not others? Why do some people get depressed after losing a parent while others, although sad, keep on going; why some people, after having a minor head injury, seem to be really affected, while others don’t; or why some people can roll with being fired or getting divorced and others nearly lose their minds.
After looking at tens of thousands of brain scans, we began to think about the concept of “brain reserve.” Brain reserve is the cushion of healthy brain tissue we have to deal with the unexpected stresses that come our way. The more reserve we have, the more resilient we are in times of trouble. The less reserve, the more vulnerable we are. Here is an example:
Mary and Katie are identical twins. They share the same genes, the same parents, and the same upbringing. Yet their lives have been very different. Mary is a successful journalist, in a long term happy marriage with three great children, while Katie barely finished high school. She suffered with depression and a bad temper and went from job to job and relationship to relationship. Their lives have been nothing alike. When we scanned them, Mary had a very healthy brain, while Katie had clear evidence of a brain injury, affecting her prefrontal cortex and temporal lobes. At first, when we talked with the twins together Katie didn’t remember a head injury. Then Mary spoke up saying, “Don’t you remember the time when we were 10 years old and you fell off the top bunk bed onto your head? You got knocked out and we had to rush you to the hospital.” The injury likely caused Katie to have less brain reserve, which may be why she was always more vulnerable to stress than her sister.
When we are conceived, let’s say, we all start with the same amount of brain reserve. Many things can decrease it and many things can increase it. For example, if your mother smoked, drank alcohol or was under constant stress when she was pregnant with you, likely she decreased your brain’s reserve, even before you were born. If she exercised, ate a healthy diet, and took prenatal vitamins, likely she increased your reserve.
If you fell off a bunk bed onto your head at age of ten, were exposed to chronic stress from alcoholic parents or drank much alcohol or used drugs as a teenager you decreased your brain’s reserve. On the other hand, if you protected your head, were raised by reasonably loving, consistent parents, ate a healthy diet and avoided drugs and alcohol you increased your reserve.
The exciting news is that it is never too late to work on increasing your brain’s reserve.
Anything you do that harms how your brain decreases its reserve. Some examples: • Chronic stress kills cells in the memory centers (hippocampus) of the brain • Brain injuries, concussions, or other types of physical head trauma • Too much alcohol or drug abuse • Negative thinking disrupts healthy brain function • Poor diet/nutrition • Environmental toxins • And, anything that decreases blood flow to the brain, such as a lack of sleep, untreated sleep apnea, smoking or too much caffeine, steals from your reserve
Likewise, living a brain healthy life will increase your brain’s reserve and your ability to deal with the inevitable stresses that come your way.
3. PROTECT YOUR BRAIN
You brain is soft and your skull is hard. Brain injuries can ruin your life, so wear your seat belt, drive in safe vehicles, protect your head in sports or steer clear of contact sports.
4. STOP POISONING YOUR BRAIN
Do not put toxic substances in your body. If you poison your brain, you poison your mind. Avoid alcohol, illegal drugs (including marijuana), smoking, limit your caffeine intake, and stop using cleaning products without proper ventilation.
5. PROTECT YOUR MEMORY
It is critical to take early memory problems seriously and not just dismiss them as normal aging.
One of the MOST important things you can do to keep your memory strong is exercise. Cognitive abilities are best in people who are physically active. There are also several supplements that have good supporting research for memory including fish oil, gingko biloba, sage and a Chinese moss extract called huperzine.
6. GOOD SLEEP IS ESSENTIAL TO THE HEALTH OF YOUR BRAIN
Unfortunately, 60 million Americans have trouble sleeping, which affects your mood, memory and ability to concentrate. It is estimated that sleep deprived people cause more accidents than drunk drivers. Because of sleep problems, doctors are prescribing sleep medications that can affect your moods and memory at alarming rates.
First, you need to eliminate anything that might interfere with sleep, such as caffeine or alcohol. Additionally, natural supplements such as melatonin, valerian, or 5-HTP can be helpful.
Hypnosis is also a powerful tool for many patients, that often acts as a holistic replacement for sleeping pills or medications. Hypnosis and self-hypnosis are very powerful tools to help us gain mastery over our own minds and bodies and can be helpful for sleep, as well as for anxiety and pain.
7. LEARN BRAIN HEALTHY WAYS TO DEAL WITH PAIN
Pain is one of the most frightening symptoms that we can have. Chronic pain affects everything in a negative way, such as sleep, mood, memory and concentration. Brain SPECT scans have taught us that the use of chronic pain medications, such as Vicodin or Oxycontin, may be harmful to brain function. Long term use of these medications makes the brain look toxic, like people who drink too much alcohol.
This is not to say we must completely rule out pain medications, they can be necessary until other treatment options are available. Possible alternative treatments for pain are fish oil, acupuncture, music therapy and hypnosis.
Pain and depression tend to go hand in hand. For some people, using the natural supplement SAMe or the antidepressant medicine Cymbalta can help both problems.
Again, there are many natural ways to help the brain. Of course, you should talk to your doctor. If your physician does not know much about natural supplements, a naturopath can be helpful.
8. YOU NEED A BRAIN HEALTHY DIET
What does that mean? • Lean protein, such as turkey or chicken. • Low glycemic, high fiber carbohydrates, which means carbohydrates high in fiber that do not raise your blood sugar, such as whole grains and green leafy vegetables. • Healthy fats that contain omega three fatty acids, found in foods such as tuna, salmon, avocados and walnuts.
Since the brain is 85% water, anything that dehydrates you is bad for the brain, such as alcohol, caffeine, excess salt or not drinking enough fluids. Drink plenty of water to keep yourself well hydrated.
9. PHYSICAL EXERCISE
It is literally the fountain of youth because it boosts blood flow to the brain, plus it increases chemicals that are important for learning and memory and stimulating the growth of new brain cells. Thirty minutes 3 or 4 times a week is all you need. If you don’t know what to do, walk fast, like you’re late to be somewhere.
10. MENTAL EXERCISE
Once you exercise and boost blood flow to your brain, you then need mental exercise. In one study, exercise was shown to improve memory function and maintain brain health as we age. If you stimulate new brain cells by using them, by learning something new, they connect to other cells and become part of the fabric of your brain.
Learning new dance steps is a great mental exercise, because it involves learning, coordination, music AND physical exercise. All those things are great for your brain. Crossword puzzles, learning a musical instrument or exploring a new language can also help.
11. NOTICE WHAT YOU LOVE ABOUT YOUR LIFE, A LOT MORE THAN WHAT YOU DON’T LOVE
Dr. Amen once did a study with psychologist Noelle Nelson on the power of appreciation. He scanned her twice: once when she was focused on what she loved about her life, and then again while she focused on what she hated about her life. The scans were radically different. The loving scan looked healthy, while the hateful scan showed decreased activity in several important areas of her brain, involving emotions and memory.
Other studies too have found that focusing on negative thoughts changes the brain in a negative way. Creativity, learning, and imagination all go DOWN with negative emotion; while focusing on positive, happy, hopeful thoughts helps both the brain and you work better.
Here is a simple exercise: write down 5 things you are grateful for EVERYDAY and then meditate on these things throughout the day.
12. NOTICE WHAT YOU LOVE ABOUT OTHER PEOPLE, A LOT MORE THAN WHAT YOU DON’T LOVE
Spending time with family, friends, coworkers, and even acquaintances, is a part of necessary social interaction as humans. However, with social interaction and with certain types of people in our lives, these situations can be stressful and cause anxiety. We’ve all been there. To start, it’s beneficial to surround yourself with positive energy and disassociate with negative people in your life that don’t contribute to your overall happiness. Then you can focus on the people that truly benefit you and your development throughout life.
The next step is to also be a positive light in people’s lives, focusing on what you love about the meaningful people in your life and be a guiding force for them during their shortcomings just as they hopefully are for you. In this way, we can truly learn and grow together.
There are many ways to optimize your brain and your mind. You CAN create a brain healthy life by learning how to love and care for your brain, and by focusing on what you love about your life. Take what you have learned here to develop your brain healthy life and teach it to others. By creating brain healthy families, businesses and communities ALL of us benefit.