Believe it or not the brain is an ultra-dynamic organ. Once thought to be static and unable to repair itself it is now known that our brain is a wonder to behold in terms of what it can do and how it can heal itself. The purpose of this paper is to inform my patients on how to nourish and care for the brain. Most of the information is extrapolated from a 2015 book, “Neurogenesis Diet & Lifestyle” by Brian Cortright, Ph.D and from my training in traumatic brain injury.
As we live our lives and gently age we want the brain to live as healthy a life as our body. There are many things we can do to make sure our brain “goes the distance” with our body. It is never too late to enhance the health of the brain. Upgrading the brain is indeed upgrading life.
Neurons are brain cells and neurogenesis is the formation of neurons. The goal is to enhance neurogenesis and diminish neuron death. This process is accomplished by diet and lifestyle choices. Healthy diet and life style choices will improve neural plasticity which will allow the brain to make new connections and heal itself.
The three structures of the brain are, 1. the reptilian brainstem which manages most of the body’s systems, i.e. breathing, heart rate, etc, 2) the limbic system which controls emotional learning, and 3) the neocortex which is responsible for language, abstract thinking, creativity, self-awareness, and empathy. The cortex is not fully formed until the early to mid-twenties. I guess this is a clue to the understanding of the emotionally charged behavior and irrational thinking of our children prior to the maturation of their cortex.
You may have heard that people are right-brained, left-brained, or a combination of the two. These two hemispheres in the brain process information differently. In essence the right brain is more visuospatial, musical, artistic, intuitive, and empathetic. The left brain is more verbal, stress responsive, analytic, logical, and linear. Most of us are more left-brained. Both sides are needed to produce a complete picture of the world and our experiences in that world.
An important part of the limbic brain structure is the hippocampus which regulates feelings, creates new memories, and grows new neurons. It is the structure most impacted by dementia. Healthy neuron production in the hippocampus prevents depression and dementia. High levels of stress produce cortisol, the stress hormone. Cortisol kills neurons. Stress management is obviously important for a healthy brain. Meditation, prayer, and devotional/spiritual practices are known to increase the size of the hippocampus. This structure is central to all aspects of our consciousness including the body, heart, mind, and spirit. It is the most essential part of the brain. Take care of your hippocampus and it will take care of you. Consider the following recommendations for brain health.
Diet and Food Preparation
- Foods can cause inflammation in the body; inflammation kills neurons. Inflammatory foods include prepared foods, trans fats, fried food, sugar, high carbohydrate foods, unhealthy fat in dairy and meats that are not grass fed. Most farm-raised fish is in this category. Farm-raised fish are fed food that changes their meat to contain more omega-6 fat which causes inflammation and diminishes neuron growth. Wild and well-fed, farm-raised fish produce omega-3 fats which are brain-friendly and anti-inflammatory.
- Avoid frying and grilling which oxidize the food making it inflammatory; consider poaching, steaming, and baking at low temperature.
- Avoid cooking with vegetable oils particularly at high temperature; coconut oil and butter are better for cooking. Olive oil should be used cool.
- Eat an anti-inflammatory diet consisting of fresh fruits, vegetables, low mercury fish, nuts, and grass-fed beef and dairy.
- Use anti-inflammatory herbs such as ginger, garlic, basil, peppermint, rosemary, oregano, and black cumin seed.
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine; they are neurotoxic (unfortunately).
- Chewing stimulates neurogenesis so eat food that is chewable and avoid getting nutrients from soft or liquid food.
- Consider getting blood tests that measure inflammation in the body. Ask your physician.
The plethora of information about brain health can be daunting. Take one step at a time and you will enjoy the benefits of a full, healthy life. It takes time to shift our habits and proceed in a neuron healthy direction. When we travel this path neurogenesis accelerates and our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual lives flourish. Here is more of what you need to consider.
- Start moving and don’t stop. Your brain will enthusiastically respond.
- Aerobic exercise is the best form of exercise for neuron growth.
- Sleep 7-8 hours a night; neurogenesis and brain detoxification happen at night.
- Touch and be touched by your people and your pets.
- Do new things, learn new things, and travel.
- Listen to music.
- Be one with nature.
- Avoid chronic negative emotional states and negative relationships.
- Avoid situations that engender stress, despair, depression, and lack of engagement. They decrease neuron replacement.
- Engage positively with your life, your work, and your relationships. The immune system will flourish. We are hardwired for relationships. We need someone to love, friends who understand, and supportive co-workers, family members, mentors and teachers. Good relationships are brain protective. They give us the emotional stimulation that make us feel joy, love, reassurance, and interest in life.
- Avoid pessimism, anger, and isolation.
- Do new things but find the sweet spot between monotony and overstimulation.
- Create a good sex life; the act of sex releases oxytocin which improves neurogenesis. The sex hormones estrogen and testosterone do the same.
- Engage in a wide variety of mentally stimulating activities that challenge a broad range of mental functions.
- Read and write; become a lifelong learner.
- Initiate and complete new tasks.
- Learn mindfulness and meditation techniques; they will diminish cortisol, improve neuron growth and actually increase the size of the hippocampus. Meditation teaches the mind to stop its usual pre-occupation and wake up and fully attend to the present moment. It can also stimulate love and compassion.
Supplements That Support Neuron Growth
The first five listed are the best. You certainly do not need all of them. Let Dr. Ingalls help you choose a few that are best suited to your needs.
- Fish oils (omega-3’s)
- Blueberry extract (or fresh fruit)
- Green tea extract
- Curcumin (active ingredient in turmeric; a strong anti-inflammatory)
- Vitamin D3
- Ginko biloba
- Vitamin E (alpha tocotrienal is best)
- Tryptophan or 5-htp (serotonin precursor)
- Rhodiola/ashwaganda (cortisol regulators that also reduce depression)
- Gogi berries
- Magnesium threonate
- Beta alanine
- Alpha Lipoic Acid
- Milk thistle
- Pantathene (B5)
- Huperzine A (memoru)
- Phosphatidyl serine (memory)
- Cinnamon extract
There is so much to think about when it comes to the health of your brain. It takes a while to initiate new habits. Take small steps in your path to success. The brain is always under construction and you are the foreman of this special project. The tools you will need are a healthy diet, exercise, stress reduction, engagement with life, and active learning.
Good luck. You can do it.
Judith A Ingalls MD