What is Brain Health and
Why is it Important?
Although many people think they don't have to worry about brain health, or that it is only associated with memory and cognitive function or conditions like Alzheimer's and dementia, it's important to remember that your brain has an impact on every organ, system and function in your body. How you think, feel, and behave is controlled by your brain.
For example, it is your brain that controls your breathing, heart activity, hormones, emotions, circulation, muscles, attitude, vision, senses, perception, balance, coordination, speech, energy, motor function, body temperature, social skills, pain, digestion, metabolism, immune function, sleep cycle, appetite and much more; in addition to memory, focus, problem solving, reasoning, judgement, attention and cognitive skills.
Even things like intuition, creativity, inner peace, empathy, self-esteem, feelings of well-being, higher consciousness and connection with others are regulated by your brain.
It is very clear that you should be concerned about the health of your brain, because it is the captain of the ship. Without a captain, the ship isn't going anywhere, or it will run amuck. There cannot be optimal physical, emotional and spiritual health without a healthy brain.
Neurons & Neurotransmitters
Two major components in the brain that enable it to function are neurons and neurotransmitters.
Neurons - Neurons are highly specialized cells used to transmit information throughout the brain and the body. The human brain contains about 100 billion neurons, sometimes called brain cells.
Neurotransmitters - Neurotransmitters are electrical chemicals produced and released by neurons to communicate with other neurons. In other words, they carry the messages or transmit information from one neuron to another.
The spinal cord and the nervous system are used to convey messages back and forth between the brain and the body. These messages are also conveyed through neurons and neurotransmitters.
When neurons travel back and forth between one another repeatedly, a pathway is formed. For example, this is how you learn to walk, ride a bike, drive a car, type on your keyboard, etc. At first these tasks are difficult for you because the neurons were not connected, but as you perform this behavior more often, the neurons connect together over and over and eventually you can perform these activities with ease because a pathway is formed.
What Affects Brain Health?
The brain is an exceptionally complex, sensitive and vulnerable organ and can be affected by many factors. The following six factors have the most significant impact on how well your brain will function.
Your Diet - First and foremost is the food that you eat. The bottom line is that your brain needs a very specific amount of amino acids, b vitamins, minerals and fatty acids to form neurons, neurotransmitters and function properly and other nutrients like antioxidants are needed to protect the brain from oxidative stress. If you do not eat the foods that provide the brain with these nutrients on a daily basis, then it will not have what it needs to function adequately. It's like trying to run your vehicle without any gasoline.
Additionally, when you consume the wrong types of food like sugar, alcohol, caffeine, food additives, preservatives, artificial flavors colorings and sweeteners, pesticide residue, and over consumption of high starch foods like whole grains and potatoes, these foods disrupt and deplete neurotransmitters, impair blood sugar, and disrupt normal brain function.
Nutritional Deficiencies - Going hand in hand with the diet, is nutritional deficiencies. As we mentioned above, the brain needs to be supplied with a variety of nutrients each and every day to function properly. Much of the population is deficient in many of the nutrients needed for a healthy brain because they are not eating the right foods.
Environmental Toxins - Just as crucial as diet is the exposure to environmental toxins. Herbicides, pesticides, air pollution, car exhaust, perfume and colognes, air fresheners and many of the chemicals that are present in your dish soap, cleaning supplies, laundry soap, cosmetics, hand cream, shampoo, body soap, etc. can harm neurons and neurotransmitters and cause significant impairment to brain chemistry.
Furthermore, when you are exposed to a lot of toxins on a daily basis, this puts excessive demand on the detoxification system. The detoxification system needs an abundance of nutrients lie B vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, amino acids, etc. to function adequately. The higher your level of exposure to environmental toxins the quicker your nutrients will be used up and the higher your need will be, which means there will be less left over for the brain to use for neurotransmitters. Thus, the toxins can also lead to nutritional deficiencies, which then further perpetuate the problem of insufficient neurotransmitters and the inevitable decline in brain function.
Chronic Stress - Stress is toxic to the brain. When you are under stress, neurotransmitters are needed in large numbers, as they are what is used to modulate the stress response system. If there are high levels of stress on a consistent basis, then this drains neurotransmitter levels. This also drains your nutrient levels, as many nutrients will be needed to produce more and more neurotransmitters.
Your Gut - The gut has a profound impact on the brain. If there are insufficient levels of healthy bacteria, too much of a particular healthy bacteria or the presence of an unfriendly organism like yeast, parasites, or unfriendly bacteria in the gut, communication between the gut and the brain can be impaired and production of function of neurons and neurotransmitters may be disrupted. A wide range of disorders are associated with poor gut health like depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, OCD, attention deficit, hyperactivity, learning disorders, behavioral disorders, autism and many more.
Sleep - Sufficient levels of sleep each night are vital for healthy brain function. Without adequate sleep, then neurons lose responsiveness to neurotransmitters, which disrupts communication. Sleep deprivation is also a form of stress, which sets off the stress response system, thus draining neurotransmitter levels. Additionally, new research suggests that the brain flushes itself of toxins and debris while we sleep.
Your Thoughts - Although a brain that isn't functioning properly due to poor diet, environmental toxins, chronic stress and nutritional deficiencies may result in disturbance of thought, it is also true that the thoughts you consciously choose to focus on can effect your brain chemistry. If you consistently focus on negative things, this will reinforce those pathways.
We actually have an old brain, also known as the subconscious or primitive survival brain, and a new brain, also called the conscious mind. The old brain focuses on all things associated with survival and takes direction from and is modulated by the new brain. So, for example, if you have chronic fatigue and the conscious mind is continually focusing on thoughts or statements like the following, "I am so tired." "I'm so exhausted." "I'm so weak I can't stand up.", this will reinforce the "chronic fatigue" pathway and make the fatigue worse. If on the other hand, you focus on thoughts or statements that counteract the negative ones like, "I am strong and healthy", then you can reinforce a new "I am strong" pathway.
However, I don't want to imply that overcoming chronic fatigue or any other chronic health condition is as simple as changing your thoughts. It is not. Chronic fatigue and all other health conditions would have many other contributing factors like food sensitivities, environmental toxins, nutritional deficiencies, parasites, Candida overgrowth etc., that must be addressed as well. But, how you think and your internal and external dialogue are an important piece of the puzzle that can help improve your health physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Keeping Your Brain Healthy
Eat a diet that is rich in animal protein, fat and other nutrients that are needed for adequate production and function of neurons and neurotransmitters. It is my opinion that the diet that best fulfills this criteria is known as the Paleolithic diet or the caveman diet. The Paleolithic diet is naturally rich in the nutrients needed to support a healthy brain and void of the substances that disrupt brain function.
Avoid alcohol, nicotine, caffeine and all mind-altering drugs. Each of these kills brain cells and depletes neurotransmitters.
Use it or lose it - Keep your brain active with new activities and challenges on a regular basis.
Exercise regularly - Exercise boosts your stress relieving neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin and endorphins and helps you make new brain cells. However, don't exercise too much or too hard, as this will harm the brain.
Live green - Reduce your exposure to mind-altering environmental toxins by using green, non-toxic and natural personal care and household products.
Manage stress - Use a variety of stress management techniques like, deep breathing exercises, mindfulness, meditation, yoga, Qigong, etc., on a daily basis to reduce your stress load.
Get adequate sleep - Make sleep a priority in your life and ensure that you get that eight or nine hours each night. Take brief naps during the day if you come up short some nights.
Focus on the positive - Eliminate negative self-talk and focus on the things you have to be grateful for, even the little things. Smile more frequently. When we smile, it tricks the brain into thinking we are happy, and it releases our feel good hormones, serotonin and dopamine, which decreases stress and creates a happier mood.
Brain Health Foods
As I mentioned above, I have found that following the Paleolithic diet is the best way to provide the brain with the foods that it needs to function most optimally. However, there are a variety of foods within that diet, that you want to make sure are on your menu on a regular basis to keep your brain functioning tip top, and if you are experiencing symptoms that indicate the health of your brain may not be up to par, then increasing these foods may be helpful. Of course, all food should be organic.
- Wild Alaskan Salmon
- Grass-fed Beef
- Free-range Buffalo
- Olives and avocados.
- Walnuts, Almonds and Macadamias
- Walnut, Olive and Avocado Oils
- Sunflower Seeds (But in moderation because they are high in omega-6)
- Greens (lettuce, kale, broccoli, cabbage, green beans, spinach)
- Blueberries, strawberries and other berries.
- Full-Fat Yogurt and Butter (Not truly Paleo, but for those that include dairy now and then and don't have a dairy sensitivity or intolerance, immune or neurological issues, these foods can provide a variety of benefits for the brain. However, for some people, dairy can cause significant brain impairment, so please read the following page to see how dairy affects you.)
Brain cells also need an adequate supply of water on a daily basis to function optimally and water is also needed for flushing out toxins. Be sure you are drinking plenty of water, preferably from a filtered source, as chlorine, fluoride and other contaminants found in tap water have a negative impact on the brain.
Regardless of what condition you are addressing, or if you are just practicing preventative medicine, keeping your brain healthy is crucial for your physical, mental and spiritual health. Although the brain is very sensitive and vulnerable, you can nourish and protect it with these simple changes in diet and lifestyle.