At the seat of consciousness, the brain is a wondrous organ. With all the advances in medical technology and research, many aspects of it remain impenetrable enigmas, even to most brilliant scientists and doctors. From regulating breathing to coordinating motor functions, and controlling emotions, its functions are truly endless. In order to obtain optimal wellness and a high-quality of life, we must nurture this precious organ, so we can achieve our full potential in every aspect of life. To unlock our brain's fullest potential, here are 8 simple but highly effective ways to improve brain function.
Meditation and neurological research have been becoming more closely linked as meditation has been shown to increase the brain’s neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to make physiological changes for the better, and, can help strengthen the prefrontal cortex and the cerebral cortex, which has to do with focus, perceptual awareness and memory. A recent study from UCLA found that individuals who have been meditating for over 20 years possessed more grey matter which is critical for learning memory and mood, compared to novice meditators and non-meditators.
Another wonderful side effect of meditation is the increase in feel-good endorphins your brain releases. Endorphins are an incredibly beneficial type of neurotransmitters, which can help fight both depression and pain. In fact, one of the most illuminating findings was a review study last year at Johns Hopkins looking at the relationship between mindfulness meditation and its ability to reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and pain.
Finally, meditation can also help with the next best-recommended strategy to improve brain health, sleep, which has been shown to improve with mindful meditation, as it helps to increase melatonin.
A good night's sleep is key to a sound mind. A solid night's sleep has many important benefits when it comes to brain function. One of sleep's main purposes is to solidify long-term memory by strengthening specific neural connections and weakening unwanted ones. However, the most important function of sleep is to regulate cognitive function, such as the ability to concentrate and maintain a healthy mood and disposition.
Dr. Maiken Nedergaard and her colleagues at the University of Rochester Medical Centre recently discovered that one of the mechanisms that optimise the health of our brains has to do with our lymphatic system. This cleansing system drains waste products from the brain. In particular, it helps to remove a toxic protein called beta-amyloid from brain tissue. Beta-amyloid is renowned for accumulating in the brains of patients with Alzheimer's disease. Therefore the more waste lying around in the brain, the greater the chances for those diseases to take root, so make sleep a priority.
Intermittent fasting, which is a lifestyle strategy that we highly recommend at Ancient + Brave, is well worth considering if you want to think faster, remember better and improve cognitive function.
According to Dr Mark Mattson, a professor at John Hopkins University, fasting has been shown to increase the rate of neurogenesis in the brain. Neurogenesis involves the growth of new brain cells and has been correlated with increased performance in memorisation, mood, and focus. Interestingly, Professor Mattson outlined the brain’s reaction to intermittent fasting, is the same reaction it has to regular exercise. Both activities increase a specific protein called BDNF, which is often referred to as a ‘natural antidepressant’, and promotes the growth and connection of neurons and strengthens synapses. Interestingly the brain reacts to the stress of fasting by adapting response pathways to help it cope with stress, this is why we know we are designed to fast.
When it comes to optimising brain function, exercise is a no-brainer, no pun intended. Besides releasing feel-good endorphins in the brain, keeping physically active has been indirectly linked to improved mood, sleep patterns, and reduced stress and anxiety.
Studies suggest that the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory (the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex) have greater volume in people who exercise versus people who don’t. “Even more exciting is the finding that engaging in a program of regular exercise of moderate intensity over six months or a year is associated with an increase in the volume of selected brain regions,” says Dr. Scott McGinnis, a neurologist at Brigham Women’s Hospital, and an instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School.
Consume Healthy Fats
Saturated fat is one of the main components of brain cells, and is therefore key in assuring healthy brain and preventing cognitive decline. In one study, it was found that people who ate more saturated fat reduced their risk of developing dementia by 36 per cent.
We recommend consuming different types of saturated fats including butter, nuts and seeds, eggs, avocados, MCT oil, fish oils, and avoiding all types of denatured fats, such as hydrogenated fats and canola and sunflowers oil. Instead, opt for avocado oil, cold pressed hemp and flax oil and of course, cold pressed olive oil, and, MCT oil.
Also, on another note, fats are great but only on their own or in the presence of protein. Fats combined with starchy carbohydrates or sugary food are a metabolic disaster and cause oxidative damage. This is possibly the worst food combination for both cognitive and metabolic health.
We have thousands of nerve endings on the bottom our feet which are designed to be plugged into the harmonising effect of the earth. By walking barefoot studies have shown an immediate reduction in skin conductance when grounded, indicating a rapid activation of the calming-mode of the parasympathetic nervous system. Therefore grounding our body’s electricity essentially restores our natural state by synchronising our biological clocks, hormonal cycles and physiological rhythms and calming the central nervous system.
We also must not forget that the body and the earth run at the same frequency of 7.83 Hertz, also known as the Schumann resonance. This portion of the Earth’s electromagnetic field spectrum works as a timing signal for the human body, helping to coordinate complex internal functions with our circadian rhythm and bringing us back to a place of calm.
Ultraviolet light, typically in the form of sunlight is the primary source of Vitamin D for most people. Although research concerning sunlight and cognition is in its early stages, studies have shown that people residing in regions with lower levels of sun exposure are at a higher risk for cognitive impairment.
Robert J. Przybelski, a doctor and research scientist at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, explains that there are receptors for vitamin D throughout the central nervous system and in the hippocampus (where we store our short term memories) He also states: “We know vitamin D activates and deactivates enzymes in the brain and the cerebrospinal fluid that are involved in neurotransmitter synthesis and nerve growth.”
However, another reason Vitamin D could be preventative against mental decline and other age-related diseases could be that this mighty fat-soluble hormone-like substance, affects nearly 3,000 of the 30,000 genes in our body, as well as vitamin D receptors being located throughout your body.
There are actually five different forms of vitamin D, but it's D3 (cholecalciferol) which you want to be supplementing with if you are not exposed to good amounts of daily sunshine. If you do opt for a vitamin D supplement, please remember that you also need to boost your intake of vitamin K, through food and/or a supplement, as well as get your levels tested to be sure you're safely within the therapeutic range. Ask your primary carer or GP for a serum 25 hydroxy test. A good rule of thumb as regards to dosage would be between 2000iu - 5000iu x day for adults and 1000iu - 3000iu for children.
While recent trends indicate that people seem to favour material goods over interpersonal connections, recent research is pointing in the opposite direction. Matthew Lieberman, an esteemed social psychologist has made the assertion that: "The strongest predictor of a species’ brain size is the size of its social group. We have big brains in order to socialize." It is only natural to conclude that being interconnected with our fellow human beings is not only healthy for our cognitive function but essential.
This of course ties into why the ‘Blue Zone’s’, (places in the world where people have profound longevity and no chronic disease) rate community as the most important factor in keeping people happy, and, with little or no neurological issues.
To improve brain function to its fullest potential seems to consist of many varying components. So, make it your goal to try to implement at least three of the above recommendations. Remember to take care of your whole self - mind and body, as the research shows this is the best way long term, to prevent mental health problems, and to optimise our cognitive abilities.