Six Pillars of Brain Health: Strengthening your body, spirit, and mind

SYDNEY SCHAEFER / NNY LIVING
Jeff Rule, owner of Satyana Yoga, does a twist pose inside the yoga studio in Watertown.

BY: Olivia Belanger
Living an active, vibrant life is the goal for most people. However, that goal is heavily dependent on the health of your brain.

The lifestyle choices people make either help or hinder the brain, with each habit having a larger effect the longer you practice it.  The six pillars of brain health – physical exercise, food and nutrition, medical health, sleep and relaxation, mental fitness and social interaction – all play a role.

PHYSICAL EXERCISE

    One of the best ways to protect your thinking skills is to exercise. The benefits of physical exercise come directly from its ability to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation and stimulate the release of growth factors – chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain and the abundance and survival of new brain cells.

    According to the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation, physical exercise reduces your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by 50 percent. Regular exercise can also slow further deterioration in those who have already started to develop cognitive problems.

    In addition, those who participate in regular exercise are more likely to have a boosted mood, reduced stress and increased energy.

    To get started and stick with an exercise plan, there are some pro tips you can follow:

–   Aim for at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise five times per week, such as walking or swimming, to get the heart rate up.

–   Build muscles to pump up your brain with weight and resistance training.

–   Include balance and coordination exercises to lower the risk of head injuries from falling as you grow older.

–   Stick with the routine for a month, for it takes approximately 28 days for a routine to become a habit.

–   Protect your head from rougher sports activities by wearing properly fitted helmets.

FOOD AND NUTRITION

    Just like the rest of your body, your brain needs a nutritious diet to operate at its best. Focus on eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein and healthy fats. Eating habits that reduce inflammation and provide a steady supply of fuel are best.

    Etosha L. Farmer, owner of Dietitians of Northern New York, said while there is no concrete diet, certain foods can certainly help.

    Researchers believe that glial cells may help remove debris and toxins from the brain that contributes to Alzheimer’s disease. Consuming foods such as ginger, green tea, fatty fish, soy products and dark berries may protect these important cells from damage.

    Other food habits include following a Mediterranean diet, avoiding trans fats and saturated fats and eating across the rainbow.

    Since it can be challenging to shop without a specific diet in mind, the Mediterranean diet is a great choice.

    The diet’s meal – based on the diets of 22 countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea – focuses on colorful foods found in nature. Based on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, the diet allows participants to become more mindful eaters.

    Foods such as lean meat, seafood and dairy – typically the star of American dishes – are treated more as side dishes on the diet. Also, there is a “nothing-is-banned” rule, which allows people to incorporate all foods in healthful amounts.

    The diet also encourages slow eating, stopping when you’re full regardless of what’s left on the plate and taking a walk afterward – all beneficial to both brain and overall health.

MEDICAL HEALTH

    Though it may seem obvious, the state of your medical health drastically impacts the functionality of your brain.

    Dr. Dale S. Porter, owner of Porter Chiropractic Health Care in Watertown, said generally, the underlying problem for his patients is directly related to the brain.

    “Your brain is the main computer of your body, so no matter what your problem is, your brain health is going to be involved,” Dr. Porter said.

    With the Neurological Integration System, which bases treatment methods on neurological circuitry, Dr. Porter said he is able to find the source of pain or complications in his patience.

    “It’s usually a signal error, so we have to go in and find out what the brain is telling your muscles to do wrong that causes pain,” Dr. Porter said. “It helps us test all these pathways that go from your brain down to your body.”

    Aside from testing, there are simple, every day habits that can support a healthier brain:

    -Manage stress so the brain doesn’t overload on the hormone cortisol, leading to excess plaque in blood vessels, decreased oxygen to the brain and brain damage.

    -Stop smoking to decrease the risk of blood vessel disease and brain damage

    -Treat underlying conditions such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol that can impair blood flow to the brain.

SLEEP AND RELAXATION

    Your brain needs regular, restful sleep in order to function at optimum capacity. Sleep deprivation not only leaves you cranky and tired, but impairs your ability to think, problem-solve and process, store and recall information.

    By establishing a regular sleep schedule, creating a relaxing bedtime ritual and quieting your inner chatter before bed can all be helpful ways to combat insomnia. By having a relaxed space to enter, sleep should follow naturally.

    Jeff Rule, owner of Satyana Yoga in Watertown, said simple breathing techniques can help take the negativity out of your mindset.

    Stress alters your breathing rate and impacts oxygen levels in the brain. Quieting your stress response with deep, abdominal breathing, is restorative for the body.

    “One thing you learn in yoga is how to breathe,” Mr. Rule said. “You can control your body or mind by focusing on your breathing…it automatically calms you down.”

    Additionally, Mr. Rule said learning yoga postures or just stretching are also ways to relax. Most scientists acknowledge a strong mind-body connection and various studies associate spirituality with better brain health. With the help of regular meditation, prayer, reflection or religious practice, the damaging effects of stress can be diminished.

MENTAL FITNESS

    Continuing to learn new things throughout your life and challenging the brain are great ways to keep the brain in shape. Activities involving multiple tasks or requiring communication, interaction and organization offer the greatest protection.

    Try out these brain-boosting activities to keep you mentally sharp:

    -Learn something new, like a foreign language or taking up a new hobby.

    -Practice memorization by creating rhymes or patterns to strengthen your memory connections.

    -Enjoy strategy games, puzzles and riddles to give yourself a mental workout.

    -Take a new route, eat with your non-dominant hand or try to break other routine habits to create new brain pathways.

SOCIAL INTERACTION

    As we get older, we can become isolated. However, humans are highly-social creatures and can’t thrive in isolation. The more connected we are with other, the better we fare on tests of memory and cognition, scientists suggest.

    Ways to stay involved in the community include volunteer work, social groups, local community centers, group fitness classes, connecting with neighbors or making a weekly date with friends.