You know your brain is important, but do you know how to take care of it?
There are some simple steps you can take to ensure your brain stays healthy and to make sure your brain plasticity isn’t compromised.
WHAT IS BRAIN PLASTICITY?
Plasticity is defined as changes in neural (brain) pathways and synapses due to changes in the environment, which allows for changes in mental and motor function to occur. A simple definition of plasticity is that it is the brain's ability to change itself. Whether you know it or not, you want good plasticity, and there is a lot you can do to support it.
WHY YOUR BRAIN MATTERS?
If you want to develop a new skill, prevent mental decline as you age, or keep learning throughout your life, then you want a plastic brain. Learning requires brain plasticity.
Brain plasticity has far reaching implications. There are a growing number of fascinating therapies that utilize brain plasticity. These therapies challenge the brain in areas where there are weaknesses, such as with learning disorders, or developmental delays. There are therapies to help stroke victims regain the function lost in the damaged area of the brain such as movement, vision or speech. People with Alzheimer’s can gain lost cognitive function using specialized computer games. Plasticity is being utilized increasingly in neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s or Multiple Sclerosis where movement may be compromised, and there are even applications for regaining movement after a spinal cord injury.
If you want to find out more about some of the therapies that can help your brain regain lost or missing skills, then I would highly recommend Norman Doidge’s books The Brain That Changes Itself and The Brain’s Way of Healing.
WHAT YOU CAN DO RIGHT NOW!
Here’s a 9 point checklist you can use to make sure your brain has everything it needs to be primed for learning or to get the most out of rehab therapies.
1. Vitamin D: Make sure your vitamin D levels are good. Ask your doctor to do a blood test to check your levels. Supplement if your levels are low. Get plenty of sunshine too – when the sunshine hits your skin, your body makes vitamin D.
2. Omega 3: Like vitamin D, omega 3 fatty acids are an important nutrient for brain plasticity. Eat wild, cold-water fish such as salmon, trout, mackerel and sardines regularly, or supplement with a fish oil. My favorite is cod liver oil, because it contains vitamin D as well.
3. Biomarkers: Go to your doctor and request blood tests for homocysteine, fasting insulin and CRP (c-reactive protein). If these aren’t in the normal range it could be affecting your brain. Diet, exercise and supplementation can help improve these biomarkers.
4. Hormones: Hormonal balance is important to brain health, so while you are getting other biomarkers tested, you might as well ask your doc for a full hormone panel that includes estradiol and testosterone. There are different ways to bring your hormones back into balance. If you have eliminated toxins, are eating organic food, managing your stress and exercising (see below) and your hormones are still out of balance you can talk to your doctor or naturopathic doctor about options.
5. Exercise: Do whatever you enjoy to get yourself moving. Exercise promotes BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor), which is a necessary protein in the body that stimulates brain growth, and is necessary to support plasticity.
6. Sleep: Most people don’t get adequate sleep. If you don’t wake up feeling refreshed then it could be a sign that you are getting too little sleep or your sleep is interrupted. Your brain takes a “bath” when you are asleep to clear out metabolic debris and detox itself.
7. Stress: Finding ways to reduce or manage stress can be challenging for many people, but it is extremely important. Ask yourself if you have enough time to do the things you love, spend time with the people who make you happy or to just be lazy. If not, then it’s time to simplify life or start implementing some strategies to manage stress such as restorative exercise such as yoga, deep breathing or whatever works to calm you. Sometimes counseling or additional support may be needed.
8. Toxins: Your brain is very susceptible to toxins, so take a look at some of the toxins you expose yourself to daily and try to reduce them. Start with your body care products (shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant etc) and look for a natural ingredient list free of chemicals. Do the same thing for your household cleaners and laundry products. Health food stores are great places to find natural body care and cleaning products. Is the air you are breathing clean? If not get an air filter. Is the food you eat clean or is it sprayed with chemical pesticides and herbicides? Start eating more organically grown foods.
9. Good nutrition: Eating to support your brain goes a little deeper than just healthy eating. If your biomarkers showed problems with homocysteine, blood sugar levels or inflammation, then diet can be customized to help bring test results back into a healthy range. Eating to support plasticity also involves getting the nutrients the brain needs, as well as providing the building blocks for nerves and neurotransmitter production. Eating to feed your gut microbiome is also important. The organisms that live in your gut communicate a lot of information to your brain via the microbiota-gut-brain axis.
Wondering how your brain is doing? Visit Food For the Brain and do their Cognitive Function Test. Whether your score isn't as high as you'd like, or you just want to do everything you can to keep your brain at its best, then follow these 9 points.
Start by scheduling a doctor's appointment to get biomarkers tested, including vitamin D and hormones. Then decide what your next step will be.
Happy, Healthy Eating!