Wellness

The Brain: Your Body’s Most Important Muscle

Image credit: Gerd Altmann

When you think about being healthy and fit, you probably think of a strong core, lack of aches and pains, having lots of energy, and being able to perform the physical activities you enjoy – everything from playing with your kids or grandkids, to running a marathon. But do you ever think about the health of your brain?

The World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Having a healthy, functioning brain is an essential part of your wellbeing, and you can take steps now to ensure this critical organ stays healthy throughout your entire life. Consider these facts:

  • Your brain weighs about 3 pounds on average. It comprises only about 2% of your body’s total weight, yet it consumes 20% of your body’s total energy production.
  • 80 to 90% of your brain’s mass is water. This means your brain has the highest proportion of water of any organ in your body.
  • 60% of your brain tissue is comprised of essential fats (so if someone calls you a “fat head” it isn’t actually an insult, but a factual statement!)
  • 1 in 10 Americans over age 65 has Alzheimer’s Disease. Every 66 seconds, someone in the United States develops AD.[1]
  • Approximately 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease each year.[2]

In 2019, I became a Certified Brain Fitness Coach through the Spencer Institute. My partner developed Parkinson’s when he was only 48 years old, and I wanted to learn how to help him manage this disease and have a long and happy life, as well as educate others about the importance of keeping the brain healthy.

So how do you develop and maintain “brain fitness”? Here are 5 things you can do, starting right now:

1. Stay well hydrated

When you’re well-hydrated, you’re supporting your entire central nervous system. Remember the brain’s mass is  80% water – the highest proportion of any organ in the body. When you become dehydrated, your brain is the first thing to be impacted. Feeling “foggy” and stressed out are key indicators of dehydration.

2. Consume healthy fats

60% of your brain is comprised of fats. Not the kind of fat that accumulates around your midsection, though – but essential fatty acids, specifically Omega 3’s and Omega 6’s. They’re “essential” because your body cannot produce them itself – you can only get them from food. They’re further broken down into the core components EPA and DHA. Your body’s highest concentration of DHA is in your brain. It’s vital to neurogenesis (growth of new neurons), and neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience). An Omega 3 deficiency can adversely affect cognition. Good food sources of Omega 3’s are fish, seafood and flaxseed, as well as hemp, sunflower and pumpkin seeds.

3. Meditate

No, I’m not talking about sitting in the lotus position on a mountaintop for days at a time. Meditation is simply a practice of comfortably sitting still and focusing only on your breathing. [Read:  Meditation is for Everyone]  In the past 20 years, there’s been significant scientific research into the neurological benefits of meditation. One key finding is that meditation increases the flow of blood to the brain. The image below is from the website of Dr. Andrew Newberg of Thomas Jefferson University, an expert in the field of brain imaging and meditation (www.andrewnewberg.com). The image on the left is at baseline, with the yellow, orange and red areas denoting blood flow to the brain. On the right is the same person’s brain after meditation. You can see the significant increases in blood flow to the frontal lobes (at the top) and the temporal lobes at the sides. Both of these areas of your brain are involved in high level functioning and conscious thought.

Bottom line: meditation has many positive effects – on your mental and emotional health, awareness and mindset, enhancing creativity, learning, focus and attention. Just a few minutes a day is all you need to get started. Once you develop this habit, you’ll find yourself wanting to go longer each time – just because of how good it makes you feel.

4. Exercise

There are so many benefits to exercise – a strong heart and lungs, lower blood pressure, more energy, reduced stress, less body fat, and significantly lower risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and osteoporosis. (And perhaps for some people, awesome selfies on Instagram.) But did you know the powerful impact of exercise on the brain? Dr. John Ratey MD, in his groundbreaking book “Spark – The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain” [3] describes how exercise creates tangible, measurable changes in brain chemistry and physical structure at a fundamental level – meaning exercise spurs the growth of new brain cells and increases the number of synaptic connections. He explores how and why physical activity is crucial to the way we think and feel, and can even reverse some of the effects of aging in the brain.

5. Fuel your body well

Your brain is fueled with the same food as your muscles – and that fuel is glucose, or blood sugar. The brain lives on glucose and uses up to half of all the glucose in your bloodstream. That means what you eat – or don’t eat – has a huge impact on your cognitive functioning. Have you ever heard of the “keto flu?” It’s a group of symptoms that occur when someone goes on an extreme low-carb diet, such as the ketogenic diet. Headache, foggy brain, fatigue, irritability, nausea, and difficulty sleeping are the hallmarks. While there’s been no published medical research on what causes this phenomenon, one theory is the immediate, dramatic reduction in blood glucose on the brain. So rather than making a drastic (and probably unsustainable) change in your diet by eating less, focus instead on eating more vegetables, leafy greens, fruits, and lean proteins. What you should cut out, though, are refined sugars – like in regular soft drinks, table sugar, baked goods, and sneakier sources like ketchup, white bread, breakfast cereal, flavored yogurt, salad dressing and more. Here’s a good article on the hidden sugar in common foods.

In these turbulent times as we all grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic’s overwhelming impacts on our lives, maintaining “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being” is more important – and more challenging – than ever before. By keeping your brain healthy, you’re able to better handle stress, you’ll have more energy, and you’ll be accruing benefits to your health and quality of life for decades to come.

Want to learn even more about boosting your brain fitness? Contact me and let’s have a conversation about the many ways to enhance your brain health.

Laurie Kelly, CPT, CES is a Brain Fitness Coach certified through the Spencer Institute. She incorporates brain fitness into her personal fitness and nutrition coaching practice, helping clients from all around the U.S. to move better, feel better, and live better. Learn more about her and follow her blog at www.dragonfly-fitness.com.

References:

[1]  Alzheimer’s Association. 2020 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures. www.alz.org

[2] Parkinson’s Foundation. Understanding Parkinson’s. www.parkinson.org/Understanding-Parkinsons/Statistics

[3] Ratey MD, John J. Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. Little, Brown & Company, 2008.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.