by Justin Ian Chia
To commemorate brain health awareness this month, HiDoc Pulse presents brain care you can share. Download our app to experience specialist healthcare with the ease of a phone call.
“Protect the head” is wisdom as old as time. Yet most of us take our brains for granted. We sleep very little. We succumb to stressors. Also, we’re better at paying attention to diets that promise slimmer waistlines than those which boost our brains.
Weighing in at no more than 2% of our total body weight, the brain’s complex nature nonetheless makes it the command centre of our bodies. It controls just about everything from physical and mental functions, to how we see the world.
And it comes down to one crucial pattern: eat wisely, exercise regularly, sleep properly, repeat.
A few critical changes in your lifestyle such as diet and exercise routines can add to your brain’s long-term wellness and keep it in top form. The benefits will show with age, as our brains need ever more tender loving care. Scientific research shows that dietary and lifestyle changes can even help those at risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease to safeguard their brains, and possibly slow down brain decline.
With that in mind, here are 3 simple ways to pamper your brain and keep it (and you) in the pink of health.
Fun fact: the brain uses about 20% of the body’s calorie intake. Because what we eat becomes part of how and what we think, food choices should not just be about taste or price, but also how meals nourish the brain. So avoid sweets, processed meat and fried food, because the more processed food and refined sugar you ingest, the more your brain is at risk of developing cognitive disorders. Instead, choose foods rich in brain-protective nutrients like fish, vegetables, nuts, wholegrains and fruit. Stock up on our favourite brain foods:
In addition to supplements that contain omega-3 fats, salmon, mackerel, anchovies and sardines are excellent sources of these essential fats which form key parts of the body’s cell membranes. They also contain choline (a B vitamin used to create memories), vitamins B6 and B12 (which support the nervous system), and minerals such as iron and magnesium (to maintain strong tissues). A seven-year study — testing for association between fish consumption and protection against Alzheimer’s Disease and involving 815 participants (ages 65 to 94 years) — has even demonstrated that having fish once a week is associated with a 60% reduction in the risk of developing the disease.
Dark leafy greens (spinach, kale and romaine lettuce) and cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower) are chock full of vitamins and nutrients. Research shows, one to two servings of these vegetables everyday helps stave off memory problems and cognitive decline. A salad a day might not keep the doctor away, but a 2017 study — testing for association between consumption of green leafy vegetables and slower cognitive decline and involving 960 participants (ages 58–99 years) — shows that greens keep your brain 11 years younger than those who do not eat them.
Walnuts, sunflower seeds and almonds are rich in vitamin E, an antioxidant that helps protect cells from damage caused by free radicals, compounds that form when our bodies convert what we eat into energy. A 2014 scientific review — which sifted through 4 different studies (1997–2014) that looked into the associations between vitamin E and brain health — suggests that vitamin E promotes healthy brain ageing and delays the decline of brain functions. Yet another study from 2014 — testing for association between long-term intake of nuts and cognition in older women (16,010 participants in total with a mean age 74 years) — found that sustained consumption of nuts was linked to moderate improvements in cognitive performance.
While refined sugars are to be avoided, dark chocolate in its raw form can be a thing of beauty. Incorporating dark chocolate (with as little sugar added as possible) as a cheat food works to motivate a healthier eating habit. Dark chocolate — at least 85% cocoa to ensure its rich in minerals and low in sugar — is an antioxidant and contains theobromine, which has similar anti-tumoral and anti-inflammatory effects on the body as caffeine does but without the unwanted side effects of drinking coffee (such as spikes in blood pressure).
2. Exercise for the Brain
Other than the promise of toned abs and better skin, exercise boosts brain function. Physical activity helps in the production of three crucial growth factors that also slow down cell decline and reduce inflammation: endothelial growth factor (VEGF), insulin-like growth factors (IGF-1), and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). With age, these essential components of our brains and nervous systems start to malfunction due to the body’s increasing inability to control and regulate genes. In severe cases, degeneration can lead to Parkinson’s Disease, a nervous system disorder that progressively compromises movement and Alzheimer’s Disease, a form of dementia.
While neurons die off naturally, or because of accidents and diseases, so too can they be formed through neurogenesis. The process was once thought to occur only in the very young, but adult neurogenesis has in the last two decades been accepted by the scientific community. Research demonstrates that adult neurogenesis not only occurs in the hippocampus — which plays a key role in the brain’s ability to remember and learn as it stores our long-term memory — but even appears limited to that region of the brain. As its brain cells are some of the first to degenerate due to Alzheimer’s Disease, this helps explain why loss of memory is frequently the earliest symptom of the disease.
Daily workouts can spur the growth of new brain cells, or neurons. The human brain has about 86 billion neurons, which serve to communicate with each other to carry out the brain’s orders. They also interpret the sensory input that your brain receives. Exercise increases your heart rate and therefore the blood flow to your brain. Besides increased heart rate, your breathing will get faster and harder. This sends more oxygen to your bloodstream, which translates to more oxygen being supplied to your brain.
In fact, studies suggest the enticing possibility that physical exercise can reverse age-related degeneration in the hippocampus. Taking a daily walk is especially recommended for older women as this activity was associated with larger hippocampal volume than with other participants in a 2015 study on the effects of exercise as a preventer of cognitive decline.
Promotes all-round wellness
Exercise also helps to ward off cardiovascular disease by strengthening the body’s capacity to utilise oxygen optimally. Healthy blood flow means the brain gets the oxygen it needs to not only thrive, but survive and reduce risks of stroke and vascular dementia that may develop when there are vessel blockages. For those aged between 45 and 65, it is important to also mitigate heart disease risk factors like high blood pressure, diabetes and smoking cigarettes, as they are also linked to the risk of dementia. Two types of exercise activities that can boost your brain are:
Aim for 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity a week, or a combination of both. Spread out the exercise during the course of a week so you can complete them in manageable time periods.
Aim to do strength training exercises for all major muscle groups at least twice a week. For each single set of the exercise, use a weight or resistance level that’s heavy enough to exhaust your muscles after 12 to 15 repetitions.
NB. If these activities seem too time-consuming, start by walking briskly for 30 to 60 minutes, three to five times a week.
3. Sleep Your Way To Better Health
Put that screen down and go to sleep — it will save your life. Time to restore that sleep deficit you’ve been racking up. Quality sleep — defined as feeling no tiredness on waking and throughout the day but rather feeling rested and restored on waking as well as minimal awakenings in the night — is as essential as food and water to our survival. Sleep rests the brain, allowing it to regulate itself by removing toxins, and store important information learnt during the day for long-term recall, while discarding unimportant ones. Neurons also function better with quality sleep.
Experiencing poor quality of sleep or a chronic lack of it increases the risk of disorders such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. A 2018 study even found that the loss of just one night’s sleep resulted in an immediate increase in beta-amyloid, a brain protein associated with Alzheimer’s Disease. Beta-amyloid proteins clump together to form amyloid plaques, obvious indicators of Alzheimer’s disease, which disrupt communication between neurons. There is an undeniable link then between sleep and health.
Just how much sleep a person needs varies with the individual, and changes with age. So while there’s no magic number, check out this useful guide for an indication of how much sleep you need to get:
- Newborns (0–3 months): 14–17 hours each day
- Infants (4–11 months): 12–15 hours each day
- Toddlers (1–2 years): 11–14 hours each day
- Preschoolers (3–5): 10–13 hours each day
- School age children (6–13): 9–11 hours each day
- Teenagers (14–17): 8–10 hours each day
- Younger adults (18–25): 7–9 hours each day
- Adults (26–64): 7–9 each day
- Older adults (65+): 7–8 hours each day
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