How to help keep your brain cells healthy while most of those around you are loosing theirs.
We all loose thousand of brain cells a day during adulthood. Fortunately we start with a 100 billion – so we should all still have a few left by the end of the day.
Whilst the volume of our grey matter peaks about 7 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.
Good 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 obviously mentally and emotionally. The nervous system also has an important influence over our immune system and cardiovascular system.
These brain cells are called neurones. They are your grey matter. To be healthy these cells need stimulation, food and oxygen.
Neurones 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 neurone is stimulated, it increases it’s 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 neurone on average is connected to thousands of others. Neurones that fire at the same time, become wired together. Neurones working together, form electrical networks, which perform different duties. With every thought you have, or sensation you perceive, networks of neurones, are switching on and off.
The intensity, duration and repetition that a neurone is stimulated, will alter how healthy a neurone is. In other words the brain cells we use (without under or over using 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 start to malfunction. That’s why we say “use it or loose it, but don’t abuse it.”
A graph of level of performance on the vertical axis, and level of arousal on the horizontal axis for a neurone, fits a typical normal 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 on. 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 neurones, are starting 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 neurones to recover and helps us to optimise 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 loose 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 different 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 neurones 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 poor and neurones are more likely to die off. 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 important role. This is how chiropractic is also like to benefit by helping maintain good joint, muscle and nervous system function.
I mentioned initially, the nervous system generally looses cells over the time. However in response to exercise, we now know, the brain can grow new neurones 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 organise 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 the cardiovascular function. Modest daily aerobic exercise seems best. People, who exercise aerobically, have improved mental function, compared to a group who only stretched and tone. 30 minutes 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 mental exercise. The different parts of the brain are engaged in different mental tasks. Depending on what you are doing or not doing – the brain is constantly re-wiring the connections between neurones, strengthening the ones you use and weakening the one’s 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:, particularly, on the memory areas of the brain Chronic psychological distress resulting from depression, anxiety and negative emotions, are associated with serious 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 some of the time 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 practise 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. 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 deeper, 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 remain active socially are more likely to live longer and stay healthier. A particularly effective activity is learning to dance, because it embraces physical, social and mental components, so it stimulates many parts of the brain.
The brain has a profound ability to re-organise it self 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 loose 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 function of the arm can be restored. An analogy is cutting a pathway through a jungle. Initially navigating the pathway is difficult, but it becomes easier on repetition.
So we’ve talked about helping neurones 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 main 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 energised after eating you may have a problem. A diet high in complex carbohydrates helps keep the blood sugar more balanced. Examples of good 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 co-ordination. An empty stomach releases a hormone, which keeps us sharp and alert, and ready to forage for our next meal.
Protein can also help stabilise 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 neurotransmitter made. More protein helps create dopamine which affects motor activity, reward and motivation, satiety, stress resilience, attention and cognition. More carbohydrates help increase serotonin levels which can increase alertness, focus, general arousal level and pain inhibition.
The quality of the fats we eat are also important. A diet high in saturated fat increases the risk of dementia. Trans saturated fats used to give foods a long shelf life are very likely to create weaker neurones 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 the risk of stroke, Alzheimer’s and depression. Fats (especially some of those in eggs) are used to help make the brain chemical acetylcholine important 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 important 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 Loose It But Don’t Abuse It – generally all common sense? We’ve talked about the neurones 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. Hope you enjoyed this report.
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Louis Westerbeek BSc (Psych), MSc, BSc (Chiro), DC, CCEP, CAPN, Doctor of Chiropractic