Maybe you’ve heard about neuroplasticity from the news, health magazines, science journals or radio discussions. If the term Neuroplasticity sounds a little technical to you, you are not alone. For the uninitiated, neuroplasticity refers to the ability of your brain to adapt to the environment. Neuroplasticity comes from 2 words: neuron (a nerve cell) and plastic (moldable). Your brain has the ability to grow and change throughout your life. The process is a long, lifetime process where the brain reorganizes itself by forming new neural connections in response to interactions with our environment. Your brain continually changes its function, structure, chemistry and circuitry.
Your brain is more adaptive than you know. Recent research shows that some areas of our brains have the ability to regenerate through adult life. In a young brain, brain plasticity allows for quick learning and potentially faster repair. While your brain is capable of change throughout life, once you reach adulthood, the rapid brain development of childhood decelerates.
Your brain is capable of repairing and rewiring itself. This is great news for everyone. Neurogenesis plays a significant role in the recovery from a stroke or traumatic brain injury. When a disease or injury damages the brain, its functionality is interrupted. In order to get back to its previous condition, the brain has to reorganize its physical structure and how it functions according to your environment through plasticity. In addition, the brain is able to adopt new habits which contribute to success, good health and well-being.
While your brain goes through changes with or without your consent, you have the upper hand in controlling and setting the direction for these changes. It is within our ability, therefore, to harness the power of neuroplasticity by improving and maintaining our brain health through targeted lifestyle interventions. This is what this article is all about. June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month, so let’s look at the various ways to harness neuroplasticity and improve the brain health.
Sitting is the new smoking. Exercise is a form of medication. Exercise not only regulates your weight and increase your energy levels, but also helps in improving the cognitive function. Cardiovascular exercises that get the heart beating – from basketball to tennis to jogging and skiing- boost oxygen supply to your brain and increase brain volume. A study was carried out in 2013 by the Journal of the American Medical Association and showed that exercises have an impact at the genetic level. They activate gene profiles which are responsible for creating BDNF. Why is BDNF important? BDNF is used to stimulate the growth of the brain cell and lowers the risk of getting neurological diseases such as Dementia and Alzheimer.
Some may think that it isn’t healthy to exercise while the brain is still recovering. On the contrary, exercise is associated with positive outcomes and increases the brain’s functionality. Sweating has been found to be good for the body and brain as well. The Department of Health and Human Services recommend that one should either spend 150 minutes doing moderate aerobic activities or at least 75 minutes of vigorous exercises per week. It’s up to you. It is recommended, however, that you consult with your physician prior to beginning any new exercises.
The next method of improving your brains health is by eating healthy. The brain might only account for 2 percent of your body mass but it utilizes 20 percent of your oxygen and nutrient content. This is proof enough that your diet plays a major role in determining your brain’s health. So, you should be cautious about what you feed your body. You can achieve this by increasing your daily intake of brain super foods – healthy fats, antioxidants and foods that reduce inflammation.
To fight inflammation, you should consider limiting your intake of sugar and carbohydrates but instead turn to healthy fats and fiber. On top of that, take more foods which are rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. These will help maximize your brain’s potential. Nutritionists also emphasize on the intake of foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids.
Some of the foods that will help you achieve the desired results include olive and coconut oils, vegetables, blueberries, avocados and apples and not to forget dark chocolate. Caffeine is also important as it reduces depression and improves mental performance.
Stress is a silent killer, and it affects neuroplasticity. Chronic stress on the brain causes shrinking of vital brain components like the amygdala, hippocampus and prefrontal cortex; the 3 regions responsible for learning, memory and feedback. Think positively. Avoid unnecessary stress. If you cannot eliminate what’s stressing you, change how you respond to it. Negativity kills neurons and prevents the creation of new ones. Meditation helps a lot. Scientists claim that thinking about something is as good as doing the thing itself. So, if you cannot do it, why not think about it?
The old saying, ‘use it or lose it’ is very much applicable to brain fitness. Your brain benefits from learning the way your body benefits from exercise. Arming yourself with adequate knowledge and experience enhances your brain fitness. But how do you engage your brain? This is through novelty exercises such as learning, playing and trying out new things. You will be surprised by how much your brain benefits from these activities. Routine activities do not challenge the brain. Numerous studies have shown that challenging yourself mentally is healthy. This is achieved by trying out memory games, puzzles and crosswords, and learning a new language, playing a musical instrument or type of dance. Read more and gather as much knowledge as you can.
Don’t be afraid to take risks. We learn from mistakes. Instead of worrying about what could go wrong, focus on what could go right. Sometimes, having the learning experience is better than success itself. There is a powerful impact on our brain’s adaptive neural networking from the negative feedback we receive. It’s better to try and fail than not to try at all. Wayne Gretzky wasn’t wrong when he said that you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take. Think about that.
Spending time with your peers isn’t only a good way of spending your leisure and having fun, but it is also good for your brain. The connection and sense of community created by our friends help our brains to thrive. Studies by the American Journal of Public Health shows that people linked with larger social networks have a lower risk of developing dementia. Enjoy the benefits and fun of hanging out with friends to maintain your brain sharpness as you age. Having personal and positive relationships is good for your health. You also get to exchange knowledge and learn more. If you are an introvert, it is time that you started making new friends, at least for your brain’s health if not for you.
To reset brain connections vital for learning and memory, your brain needs enough quality sleep. During sleep, your brain carries out vital tasks such as cementing new learning and memories and flushing out accumulated toxins. Most folks underestimate the power of a good night’s sleep. Just 1 night of sleep deprivation affects your brain’s ability to reset itself. It blocks neurogenesis involved in regenerative changes required to repair from daily wear and tear and memory formation. The result is impaired memory. According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults aged 26-64 should have 7-9 hours of sleep per day.
What counts in terms of neuroplasticity and brain health is practicing healthy behaviors every day. The choices we make help a lot in determining our brain’s health. It is time you make yours. How you spend your time, who you spend it with, what you eat and what you think about will go a long way in boosting your brain health. Eat healthily, think positive, exercise, make new friends and sleep adequately. Most importantly, avoid stress. These little things that have the biggest impacts. Your brain’s health is as important as you!