How to help keep your brain cells healthy while most of those around you are losing theirs.
We all loose thousand of brain cells a day during adulthood. Fortunately, we start with 100 billion – so we should all still have a few left by the end of the day.
While the volume of our grey matter peaks about seven years old, and by 80, we have the same volume of grey matter as a 2-year-old – the decline is not inevitable. Research shows that with the right lifestyle, we can increase the number of brain cells we retain.
Useful brain cell function is essential for all aspects of our health – physically (how well our joints and muscles work), chemically (how well are digestive system works), and mentally and emotionally. The nervous system also has a significant influence over our immune system and cardiovascular system.
These brain cells are called neurons.
They are your grey matter. These cells need stimulation, food, and oxygen.
Neurons carry information. They receive messages to their dendrites (like roots on a tree). If they get enough messages, they send a signal down their axon, to connect with other cells. This signal either excites or inhibits these other cells. When a neuron is stimulated, it increases its production of protein. Proteins are needed to keep sending signals and develop new connections with other nerves. This is learning. Temporary strengthening of connections is what is called short term memory. Forming new connections is long term memory.
Each neuron, on average, is connected to thousands of others. Neurons that fire at the same time become wired together. Neurons working together, form electrical networks, which perform different duties. With every thought you have or sensation you perceive, networks of neurons are switching on and off.
The intensity, duration, and repetition that a neuron is stimulated will alter how healthy a neuron is. In other words, the brain cells we use (without under or overusing them) get fitter and are more likely to survive. If they get too stressed – too much or too little food, oxygen, or stimulation, they die. That part of the brain starts to thin and will begin to malfunction. That’s why we say “use it or lose it, but don’t abuse it.”
A graph of the level of performance on the vertical axis, and status of arousal on the horizontal axis for a neuron, fits a typical standard distribution curve. The top of the curve shows the optimal level of performance and arousal. If you’re busy, it’s tempting to rush from one thing to the next, to keep pushing yourself. As your arousal increases too much, performance in your nervous system declines. You might start to feel tired and agitated. If you push on regardless, you might start to get a headache or other pain. This might be a sign that some of these neurons are beginning to die on you.
So what do we need to do? The most beneficial thing to do would be to pause, that’s coming to rest between activities. From a neurological view, this gives a chance for the neurons to recover and helps us to optimize our performance. A well-placed nap can also help stave off mental burnout and keep our brains sharper.
Another thing that can help is meditation. On average, people lose 1g of brain mass per year, after their early 20’s. Meditation helps to protect against this age-related deterioration. Different kinds of meditation appear to affect other parts of the brain.
In general, meditation is associated with more density in brain areas linked with attention, sensation, breathing, and positive thinking. There are not necessarily more neurons, but there are more connections, blood vessels, and support cells. Other benefits of meditation include improved ability to focus, and older meditators have been found to have similar brain activity to that of young non-meditators
Meditation has been found to help many health conditions, such as reducing anxiety and depression, reducing pain, lowering blood pressure, helping diabetes, and improving the immune system.
Conversely, when the nervous system is under aroused, performance is low, and neurons are more likely to die. So what can we do? It’s been estimated that around 90% of brain stimulation comes from the joints and muscles. So it would seem obvious that exercise and movement have an essential role. This is how chiropractic is also like to benefit by helping maintain good joint, muscle, and nervous system functions.
I mentioned initially; the nervous system generally loses cells over time. However, in response to exercise, we now know, the brain can grow new neurons in areas important for memory. The benefits of regular exercise on brain function have been shown for both the middle-aged and elderly. Those who exercise regularly reduce their risk of cognitive decline by up to 50%, have an improved ability to plan and organize, and increased mood and verbal ability.
As well as by directly stimulating the brain, exercise may help the nervous system by helping to balance out glucose levels and improve cardiovascular function. Modest daily aerobic exercise seems best. People who exercise aerobically have enhanced mental function, compared to a group who only stretched and tone. Thirty minutes of aerobic exercise a day has been shown to reduce the risk of more serious medical conditions. But 2 hrs a day is probably closer to the optimum.
Another way to stimulate the brain, if it is under aroused, is a mental exercise. The different parts of the brain are engaged in various cognitive tasks. Depending on what you are doing or not doing – the brain is continually re-wiring the connections between neurons, strengthening the ones you use, and weakening the ones you don’t. Your experiences produce enduring changes in the physical structure of your brain.
If you spend your day worrying about what might happen, you’re also training your brain to be a better worrier. Worrying releases stress hormones, which have a very damaging effect on the nervous system, significantly on the memory areas of the brain; chronic psychological distress resulting from depression, anxiety, and negative emotions, are associated with severe cognitive decline. So what can be done? Having a positive attitude seems to help. The nervous system is wired to remember negative experiences, so concentrating on the positive sometimes has benefits.
Many studies suggest that suddenly giving your brain more to do, even late in life, can overcome recent brain decline and foster broad, long term improvements. The best strategy is to practice lifelong learning: but what works best? Variety and novelty is the key. The outer part of the brain is engaged when learning something new – it’s conscious but slow. Do you remember what it was like the first time you tried to drive a car? But after something’s been repeated many times, the brain adapts to the strategies required, and it is stored in more in-depth, automatic parts of the brain.
Activities and interests that stimulate many different parts of the brain are the most effective: for example – studying a new language, learning to play a musical instrument, or picking up a new hobby. Remaining socially engaged is also important – those who stay active socially are more likely to live longer and stay healthier. A particularly useful activity is learning to dance because it embraces physical, social, and mental components, stimulating many parts of the brain.
The brain has a profound ability to re-organize itself even after it’s been severely damaged – I think this gives us all hope that we can overcome our bad habits and learn new ones. Someone who has a stroke might lose the brain cells that control the function of the arm. With a great deal of effort, the brain can be forced to re-wire, recruiting different parts of the brain, and the role of the arm can be restored. An analogy is cutting a pathway through a jungle. Initially, navigating the path is difficult, but it becomes easier on repetition.
So we’ve talked about helping neurons perform properly. They also need maintenance and fuel. So what kinds of foods help the brain?
The brain uses up a lot of our energy. It weighs 2% of overall body mass and uses 20% of calories. The primary fuel for the brain is glucose. Fluctuations in blood sugar levels, however, can have a severe impact on brain function – if you feel sleepy after eating or energized after eating, you may have a problem. A diet high in complex carbohydrates helps keep the blood sugar more balanced. Examples of the right foods would be sweet potato, broccoli, artichokes, and asparagus.
Calorie restricted diets also appear likely to help the brain: Animals fed 25-50% fewer calories live longer and have improved memory and coordination. An empty stomach releases a hormone that keeps us sharp and alert and ready to forage our next meal.
Protein can also help stabilize blood sugar levels, boost attention, decision making, and STM. But too much protein: can lead to deficits in LTM and information processing. The balance of proteins to carbohydrates in the diet alters the types of neurotransmitters made. More protein helps create dopamine, affecting motor activity, reward, motivation, satiety, stress resilience, attention, and cognition. More carbohydrates help increase serotonin levels, increasing alertness, focus, general arousal level, and pain inhibition.
The quality of the fats we eat is also essential. A diet high in saturated fat increases the risk of dementia. Trans saturated fats used to give foods a longer shelf life are likely to create weaker neurons that don’t communicate well. Healthy fats are the Omega 3 fatty acids found in fish, nuts, and seeds. They help produce healthy cell membranes, improve memory, and reduce stroke, Alzheimer’s, and depression. Fats (especially some of those in eggs) are used to help make the brain chemical acetylcholine necessary for selecting objects for attention, learning, memory, and regulating the autonomic nervous system.
Brain cells are vulnerable to damage by chemicals known as free radicals, which are mopped up by the anti-oxidants in fresh fruit and vegetables. The vitamin folic acid is linked to reduced Alzheimer’s risk, and iron levels are essential for staying mentally sharp – as it is vital in oxygenation. Too much iron can be damaging.
A recent summary in a popular science journal suggested the most important foods for the brain were walnuts, blueberries, and spinach.
So that concludes Use It or Lose It But Don’t Abuse It – generally all common sense? We’ve talked about the neurons and what science suggests they need to be healthy. The key points are balance – the importance of mental and physical exercise but not so much as to get stressed, to remain stimulated socially, and to eat a good diet. I hope you enjoyed this report.