Our brain, magical organ though it is, behaves a bit like the rest of us: It's at its best when we treat it well.
"Brain health is taking care of your brain so that it can help you to function," said Rochelle Manor, Ph.D., Neuropsychologist and co-owner of Brains in Grand Rapids.
Healthy Body, Healthy Mind
How on earth do we take care of our brain? Many ways we care for ourselves physically also contribute to a healthy brain. Exercise, sleep, nutrition and stress are the four biggies—but managing stress is key. "If you don't manage your stress, it impacts your ability to take care of yourself in the other three dimensions," Dr. Manor said.
1. Exercise. Getting your heart pumping can help you avoid hypertension, high cholesterol and diabetes. It's also good for your brain. "Those types of conditions interfere with the flow of oxygen to the brain, which can cause structural changes," explained Christopher Baker, Ph.D., a clinical neuropsychologist at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services. The good news: Any amount of exercise helps. "If you're fairly sedentary, you can benefit by walking five to 10 minutes a few times a week, then gradually increasing your time."
2. Sleep. Feeling forgetful? Insufficient sleep may affect your memory and recall ability. When we don't get enough zzz's, we don't get into the stage of sleep where memory consolidation occurs. "That's when the events that took place that day are laid down into longer term memory," said Baker, who suggested seven to nine hours a night as ideal.
3. Nutrition. Focusing on nutrition doesn't mean you can't have an occasional chocolate chip cookie. It does mean that cookie shouldn't be your go-to soother after a bad day. Current brain health research supports the Mediterranean Diet, said Baker. Among other things that diet is high in Omega 3 fatty acids, which reduce inflammation in the brain.
4. Stress. When our bodies are stressed, they produce more cortisol, which can increase inflammation in the brain and interfere with its functioning. "When this happens," Baker notes, "people perform more poorly on measures of intellectual and cognitive functioning."
What to Do?
Get social. Embrace your friends and family, because people with strong social networks and connectedness have lower rates of dementia. "If you find that you don't want to interact with anyone, and have a lot of anxiety, negative energy or anger, you may want to seek help," said Cynthia L. Gladyness, LMSW, ACSW, CAADC, Clinician at Forest View Hospital's Assessment Referral Center. From one-on-one counseling or group therapy to inpatient and outpatient services, there are plenty of options. Forest View Hospital in Grand Rapids offers free assessments, 24 hours a day, every day.
Learn something. "Focus on learning something every day," suggested Gladyness. When you do, whether through extended education, volunteering or pursuing a hobby, you stimulate your brain.
Be positive. To combat triggers that lead to anxiety or stress, which can prompt us to make choices that aren't great for our bodies or our minds, we can use mantras or music or write ourselves positive notes—to keep us upbeat and remind us, in difficult moments, that we have a choice.
"What you believe and what you affirm is often what happens," said Manor. "Tell yourself, 'I can do this.'"
Develop Your Emotional Intelligence
While we may know these things, we may not put them into practice because our emotions get in the way. "Emotional Intelligence is about putting yourself in the right situation, for the right reason, even when it doesn't feel good," explained Manor. The things we say to ourselves are paramount in developing EI. "That cognitive piece of our thought life is what's going to make or break us."
Yet those negative voices in our head can be difficult to quiet. They're pesky and persistent. By working with a therapist and doing traditional Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), you can learn to change the way you speak to yourself. Instead of thinking, "I can't resist doughnuts!" when someone brings them to the office, CBT can help you reframe your mindset and think, "I've lost five pounds and I feel great. I'm going to go eat that protein bar at my desk."
In addition to learning to reframe your thoughts, Manor suggests finding an accountability partner. "We live and function in community as women. Having someone with similar goals or a similar process can be extremely helpful."
Written by Kirestin Morello, a contributing writer for West Michigan Woman.