Your brain is the most complex, mind-blowing organ in the universe. It is only about 3 pounds, or about 2 percent of your body’s weight. Yet, a piece of brain tissue the size of a grain of sand contains 100,000 neurons and 1 billion synapses, all “talking” to one another.
Knowing how to care for your brain and the brains in your family or organization is the first and most important step to success, in any thing you do. Because of this, I offer 12 prescriptions to optimize your brain for a better life in all you do.
1. Love Your Brain
All of my life I have been someone who rarely drank alcohol, never smoked and never used an illegal drug. But my earliest SPECT brain scan, when I was 37, showed a toxic, bumpy appearance that was definitely not consistent with great brain function. Why did my brain look so bad? Before I understood brain health, I had many bad brain habits. I ate lots of fast food, lived on diet sodas, would often get by on 4-5 hours of sleep at night, I worked like a nut and didn’t exercise much.
My last scan, at age 52, looks healthier and much younger than my first scan, even though brains typically become less active with age. Why? Seeing other people’s scans, I developed “brain envy” and wanted mine to be better. Loving your brain is the first step toward creating a brain healthy life.
2. Increase the Brain’s Reserve
Have you ever wondered why certain stresses or injuries affect some people and not others? I have wondered why some people get depressed after losing a parent while others, although sad, keep on going; or why some people can roll with being fired or getting divorced and others nearly lose their minds.
Several years ago, after looking at tens of thousands of scans, I started to think about a concept I call “brain reserve.” Brain reserve is the cushion of healthy brain tissue we have to deal with the unexpected stresses that come our way. The more reserve we have, the more resilient we are in times of trouble. The less reserve, the more vulnerable we are. The exciting news is that it is never too late to work on increasing your brain’s reserve.
Anything you do that harms how your brain decreases its reserve. For example, we know that:
- -Chronic stress kills cells in the memory centers of the brain.
- -Brain injuries obviously can cause trouble – your brain is soft and your skull is hard, you need to protect it.
- -Too much alcohol or drug abuse damages the brain.
- -Negative thinking, as we will see, disrupts healthy brain function.
Likewise, living a brain healthy life will increase your brain’s reserve and your ability to deal with the inevitable stresses that come your way. The rest of these prescriptions will be geared toward increasing your brain’s reserve.
3. Protect Your Brain
You brain is soft and your skull is hard. Brain injuries can ruin your life, so wear your seat belt, drive in safe vehicles, don’t hit soccer balls with your head, and stay off the roof. One of the most common brain injuries in men over 40 is falling off the roof.
4. Stop Poisoning Your Brain
Do not put toxic substances in your body. If you poison your brain you poison your mind, so not much alcohol, no illegal drugs, including marijuana, stop smoking, limit your caffeine intake, and stop using cleaning products without good ventilation.
5. Protect Your Memory
It is critical to take early memory problems seriously and not just dismiss them as normal aging. According to a study from UCLA 95% of people with Alzheimer’s disease are not diagnosed until they are in the moderate to severe stages of the disorder, when not much can be done.
One of the MOST important things you can do to keep your memory strong is exercise because cognitive abilities are best in people who are physically active. There are also a number of supplements that have good supporting research for memory including fish oil, gingko biloba, sage and a Chinese moss extract called huperazine.
6. Good Sleep Is Essential to the Health of Your Brain
Unfortunately, 60 million Americans have trouble sleeping, which affects their moods, memory and ability to concentrate. It is estimated that sleep deprived people cause more accidents than drunk drivers. Eliminate anything that might interfere with sleep, such as caffeine, alcohol or reading Stephen King before bedtime. Also try natural supplements first, such as melatonin, valerian, kava kava or 5-HTP.
7. Learn Brain Healthy Ways to Deal with Pain
Chronic pain affects everything in a negative way, such as sleep, mood, memory and concentration. Our scans have taught me that the use of chronic pain medications, such as Vicodin or Oxycontin, may be harmful to brain function. Long-term use of these medications makes the brain look like people who drink too much.
I am NOT suggesting that you throw out your pain medications. I am a baby when it comes to pain and I know some people would rather die than live with pain. But because of what I have seen on scans I developed an interest in alternative treatments for pain. Fish oil, acupuncture, and music therapy all have scientific evidence that they may be helpful. Of course, you should talk to your doctor. If he or she does not know much about natural supplements, as many of us were never taught about them in school, sometimes a naturopath can be helpful.
8. You Need a Brain Healthy Diet
What does that mean? Lean protein, such as turkey or chicken; low glycemic, high fiber carbohydrates, which means carbohydrates high in fiber that do not raise your blood sugar, such as whole grains and green leafy vegetables; and healthy fats that contain omega three fatty acids, found in foods such as tuna, salmon, avocados and walnuts. Since the brain is 85% water, anything that dehydrates you is bad for the brain, such as alcohol, caffeine, excess salt or not drinking enough fluids. Also, drink plenty of water to keep yourself well hydrated.
Along the same lines, teach your children to eat right. Exposure equals preference, what you feed your children is eventually what they will want. Our 5-year-old, Chloe, believes that blueberries are God’s candy and that raw red bell peppers are to die for. Why? She knows about her brain and wants to do everything she can to make it better. She frequently asks me if this is good for my brain or bad for it. You should ask yourself the same question.
9. Physical Exercise
It is literally the fountain of youth because it boosts blood flow to the brain, plus it increases chemicals that are important for learning and memory and stimulating the growth of new brain cells. Thirty minutes 3 or 4 times a week is all you need. If you don’t know what to do, walk fast, like you’re late.
10. Mental Exercise
OK, once you exercise and boost blood flow to your brain, you then need mental exercise. In one study of lab rats, exercise was found to generate new cells in the learning and memory centers of the brain. These new cells lasted for about four weeks. If they were not stimulated by new learning they died off. If you stimulate new brain cells by using them, by learning something new, they connect to other cells and become part of the fabric of your brain. This is why people who only work out at the gym are not nearly as smart as people who work out and then go to the library.
Learning new dance steps is a great mental exercise, because it involves learning, coordination, music AND physical exercise. All of those things are great for your brain. Crossword puzzles, learning a musical instrument or exploring a new country or a new language with enthusiasm can also help.
11. Notice What You Love about Your Life, a Lot More Than What You Don’t.
I once did a study with psychologist Noelle Nelson on the power of appreciation. I scanned her twice: once when she was focused on what she loved about her life, and then again while she focused on what she hated about her life. The scans were radically different. The loving scan looked healthy, while the hateful scan showed decreased activity in several important areas of her brain, involving emotions and memory.
Here is a simple exercise: write down 5 things you are grateful for EVERYDAY and then meditate on these things throughout the day. This exercise has been shown in scientific studies to increase your overall level of happiness in just three weeks.
12. Notice What You Love about Other People, a Lot More Than What You Don’t.
When my son was 7 years old I took him to a place called Sea Life Park in Hawaii. It is a sea animal park. At the end of the day I took Antony to see the Fat Freddy show.
Freddy was an amazing short, fat penguin. On cue, he dove from a high diving board, bowled with his nose, counted with his flippers and jumped through a hoop of fire. Toward the end of the show the trainer asked Freddy to go get something. Freddy went and got it and brought it right back. I though to myself, “I ask this kid to get me something and he wants to have a discussion with me for 20 minutes and then he doesn’t want to do it. I knew my son was smarter than the penguin.”
So, after the show I went up to the trainer and asked her how she got Freddy to do all of those really cool things. The trainer looked at my son and then she looked at me and said “Unlike parents, whenever Freddy does anything like what I want him to do, I notice him. I give him a hug and I give him a fish.” Even though my son didn’t like raw fish the light turned on in my head that whenever he did things that I liked, I paid no attention to him at all because I was a busy guy. But when he didn’t do what I wanted him to do, I gave him a ton of attention because I didn’t want to raise bad children. I was inadvertently teaching him to be a little monster in order to get my attention. So I now collect anything penguin as a way to remind myself to notice the good things about the people in my life a lot more than the bad things. Penguins might also help you.
There are many ways to optimize your brain and your mind. You CAN create a brain healthy life by learning how to love and care for your brain, and by focusing on what you love about your life a lot more than what you don’t. PASS IT ON. One of the most important things I have learned in my life is that best way to help ourselves is to help others. Take what you have learned here to develop your brain healthy life and teach it to others. By creating brain healthy families, businesses and communities ALL of us benefit.