Do you know the full potential of your brain?
Despite what movies like Lucy and Limitless might lead you to believe, humans do use 100% of their total brain capacity. It’s simply that some portions of the brain may be more active than others during a particular task. A healthy brain will fire all its neurons and make use of all its areas at some point in its life.
While the brain is undoubtedly a remarkable organ, it can, like all areas of our body, benefit from a little extra attention. If you’re looking for ways to keep your brain healthy, adopting the following habits can help.
Improve your diet
A Mediterranean diet has been shown to reduce the risk of age-related cognitive decline. The best diet for brain health is low-sodium and contains vegetables, fruits, olive oil, nuts, beans, cereal grains, red wine and dark chocolate. You should also include some fish and dairy products and a small amount of red meat and poultry.
As Judy Rocher, a registered nutritional therapist and naturopath at the London Clinic of Nutrition, explains, “The [Mediterranean] diet, being predominantly vegetable based, provides a high level of phytonutrients and antioxidants.” Rocher also recommends an adequate intake of healthy fats such as the omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon, sardines, herring and mackerel.
This is backed by a study lead by nutrition and ageing researcher Gene Bowman exploring the brain functions of healthy elderly people. They found that those who had higher levels of omega fatty acids and higher levels of good vitamins in their blood did better in tests than those who had high levels of trans-fat.
Other healthy fats include coconut oil, which works as an anti-inflammatory, and lecithin found in egg yolks, liver, soya beans and hemp seeds which helps prevent deterioration of the brain. Another benefit of these healthy fats is the ability to absorb fat-soluble vitamins such as Vitamin A, D, E and K. According to Rocher, these vitamins are crucial to ward off memory issues and keep the brain healthy.
Listen to music and get creative
Music and art therapies (which include painting, crafts, drama and dancing) can help to alleviate the symptoms of depression, anxiety, trauma and low self-esteem in individuals with mental health disorders.
The use of music in therapy for the brain has evolved rapidly as advancing brain imaging techniques give researchers a clearer view of the neural networks that music activates. Neurologic music therapy has been shown to help brain injury patients who have difficulty with language, cognition or motor control. This suggests that listening to music in general can have a positive effect on the brain.
Bernice Chu, music therapist at the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability (RHN), explains: “Music is processed in more than one area of the brain. For a healthy individual, it encourages us to move, to relax, to feel emotion and to use our voice. Activating different areas of the brain keeps it healthy – like the saying goes, ‘If you don’t use it, you lose it’.” And, as Chu points out, the idea that classical music is most effective for brain health is really a myth – any kind of music will do.
“Playing music is the best form of exercise for our brains,” says Elizabeth Nightingale, a neurologic music therapist at Chiltern Music Therapy. “If one part of our brain is damaged or impaired, music can still reach multiple other areas, helping to stimulate the brain and keep it as healthy and as active as possible.”
In regulated art therapy situations, participants are encouraged to create something as a way of communicating feelings and experiences via non-verbal expression. “The science behind it relates to psychoanalytic psychotherapy, attachment theory and the importance of play,” says art therapist Themis Kyriakidou of CHROMA.
The benefits of art therapy on those with brain injuries can be varied, but for those with dementia or Alzheimer’s it can help by connecting the present to the past. As Themis Kyriakidou explains, art therapy, “provides a platform for bringing back to the surface, memories, thoughts and feelings of one’s past to the present moment. […] It enables linking of memories and feelings [… in a way that] can help ground them in the present, akin to the effect of an anchor.”
Whilst at least one study has suggested that older adults suffering with Alzheimer’s can benefit from art therapies, there is a wealth of qualitative and observational evidence that art therapy can improve mental health among these individuals. More research is needed to support the observations of improved quality of life from smaller trials.
While listening to and playing music is powerful exercise for your brain, actual physical activity can also help keep your brain healthy.
According to a study on exercise and the brain, it appears that exercise can have a broad rejuvenating effect on the brain. “Overall, converging evidence suggests exercise benefits brain function and cognition across the mammalian lifespan, which may translate into reduced risk for Alzheimer’s disease (AD) in humans.”
For Amy Zellmer, yoga “was the biggest help” in her recovery after an accident left her with a traumatic brain injury (TBI). After only a few days of doing just five simple yoga poses, “I was able to breathe deeper than I had since the accident, my flexibility was coming back (slowly), and my dizzy and balance issues were starting to bother me less. My range of motion was growing every single time I did yoga.”
Look after your mental health
There are a variety of exercises and habits you can adopt to help look after your mental health. Better mental health has been shown to have a significant impact on the brain’s ability to remain healthy and ward off degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. Some of these brain training exercises include:
Practicing mindfulness meditation: Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a practice that combines meditation, gentle yoga and mind-body exercises to help patients learn how to cope with stress. Following an MBSR programme can lead to lower levels of anxiety while mindfulness meditation can decrease negative emotions and self-belief.
Finding a Purpose in Life (PIL): PIL is a positive mental attitude that involves believing that your life has meaning and purpose, developing and maintaining a personal belief system and having the motivation and ability to achieve future goals and overcome future challenges. Studies have shown that people with high PIL were 2.4 times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s as those with a low PIL and had a reduced risk of developing mild cognitive impairment.
Building meaningful relationships: Studies have found that a socially enriched environment can bring multiple health benefits. For example, engaging in intellectual and social activities over a long period of your life can help reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s. As brain injury rehabilitation expert Christine Lefaivre notes, “The positive impact of stability, love and support of a healthy family cannot be valued highly enough […] because [it allows] a safe place [for a patient] to recover”.
Don’t take your brain health for granted
Adopting a healthy diet, participating in regular physical activity and consciously working on your mental health are all great ways to keep your brain healthy.
However, even the best efforts can become undermined if an accident or incident causes you to suffer a brain injury. Amy Zellmer’s traumatic brain injury (TBI) occurred after she slipped on a patch of ice one February morning. Her head took the full impact of the fall and she was left with a severe concussion, major whiplash, C4/5 damage, a dislocated sternum and multiple torn muscles. She faced a long road to a recovery that may never be 100% complete, and she continues to struggle with memory, vision, dizziness and cognitive functioning.
It’s important to remember that a knock to the head could cause lasting brain damage. Getting immediate medical assistance and being aware of common brain injury symptoms are important first steps in ensuring you get the right diagnosis and treatment as soon as possible.