Just as you can improve your physical health, there are numerous ways you can boost your brain. Whether you want to sharpen your memory, concentration, and cognitive functioning now, or future-proof your intellect, brain health should be front of mind.
“The brain has been studied for many years, but it’s only in the last 20 years that we have found out that it's constantly changing and developing,” notes registered nutritionist Jo Sharp. “Our environment and lifestyle choices shape the health of our brain, with both trauma and nutrition playing a hugely important role.” She explains that the brain is highly complex, with more than 80 billion neurons—and each of those neurons has thousands of synaptic connections. “These are dynamic and ever-changing, and so we must ensure that from conception it has what it needs to thrive.”
Below, Sharp and other experts share tips to get the most from your brain this year, and way beyond.
Acquire new skills
We’ve all heard of the ‘use it or lose it’ principle, and researchers agree that mental activity helps to build your ‘cognitive reserve’.
“Like the body, your brain also needs to be exercised regularly to stay cognitively and mentally fit,” says Dr Christine Wong, neuroscientist and co-founder and chief science officer at Noon, who has a background in neuroscience. “Learning something new stimulates neurogenesis, and creates new connections in our brain, while practicing existing skills reinforces these connections.”
On Dr Rangan Chatterjee’s celebrated podcast, Feel Better Live More, Dr Tommy Wood—a neuroscience professor at the University of Washington—concurs and says that cognitive decline in later life is not inevitable. He explains that, as infants, we learn things which take a huge amount of neurological effort. Then, as we get older, we do the same things again and again, which requires lower cognitive input. This, in turn, tells our brain to become less complex. “People who retire earlier tend to die earlier,” he reveals, stating that “telling the brain that it’s required is incredibly powerful for brain health”. He recommends—if you’re capable and able—acquiring new skills, from learning a language, sport or dance, to singing, knitting or coding.
Eat more ‘brain foods’
“Diet is foundational to healthy brain development,” confirms Sharp. “We typically think of feeding our bodies and not our brain, but what we eat has a direct impact on the brain, our cognition, and thinking. Imagine the brain as the CEO of our bodies; for example, the food we ingest dictates which hormones are released and where they should go. Foods rich in minerals, vitamins and antioxidants will nourish our brain, while foods high in refined sugars can have a negative impact on inflammation and even reduce insulin resistance.” She adds that research shows that the brain thrives on food diversity and, consequently, needs a large amount of different nutrients, as many as 45. Though, naturally, the spotlight falls on a specific group of nutrients that are known to play a key role in brain development, which include essential fatty acids, antioxidants, phytonutrient and amino acids, she says.
Examples of these include oily fish, dark leafy greens, berries, ‘good fats’ like extra virgin olive oil, avocados, flaxseeds, hemp and chia seeds, as well as beans, lentils, chickpeas, and other legumes which are a brilliant source of fibre. “The gut and brain are connected through the gut-brain axis, a bidirectional communication between the central and enteric nervous system. Fibre feeds the gut bacteria to support diversity and good communication with the brain,” Sharp says.
Sharp adds that the above foods are of equal importance to hydration. “Staying well hydrated will have an acute impact on the brain. It is suggested that losing even one per cent of hydration can impact mood and concentration. My advice is to start each morning with a large glass of water, before anything else.”
Dr Wong adds that “our bodies are mostly made of water—it’s quite literally our lifeline—but is also absolutely necessary to transport nutrients to the brain and body from what we eat.” If you’re ever experiencing tiredness, headache, or brain fog, you might be dehydrated, she says. “You’ll notice an incredible difference in energy, focus, concentration and mood, just from drinking more water. You can also stay hydrated by consuming water-rich foods like watermelon or cucumber.”
Consume optimal omega-3
Omega-3, noted above, deserves a special mention given that the western diet is often low in oily fish.
“Over 60 per cent of the brain if made up of fat, and omega-3 fatty acids make up part of all cell membranes,” says Sharp. “In layman's terms, the brain is responsible for sending the right instructions to the rest of the body, and when neurons (brain cells) have adequate omega-3 they are able to communicate better with one another.” She says that supplementation may positively impact cognition, focused attention, and have a profoundly positive impact on neurotransmitters and mental health.
When it comes to oily fish, she recommends salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring and anchovies—all ideally wild-caught. “When supplementing, it’s vital to opt for a fish oil that has gone through vigorous third-party testing, checking for pollutants and contaminants, as not all omega-3 are created equal,” she reveals. “Minami omega-3 supplements are third-party tested, have high concentration and come in both liquid and softgel foods to suit all needs and ages.” For vegetarians, an algae-based omega-3 should be considered, she adds. “Vegetarian food sources such as flaxseed, walnuts and chia will provide some omega-3 but often not enough to reach optimal levels.”
Consider nootropics and adaptogens
Botanical supplements are also said to have a powerful impact on the brain and have been used in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for centuries. Adaptogens—often found in herbs—help our bodies adapt to external stressors. Ashwagandha, an adaptogen belonging to the nightshade family, is currently being studied for its ability to enhance memory, fight cognitive impairment, and improve information-processing speed.
Natural nootropics—found in plants and mushrooms like lion’s mane—can also have an effect on the brain and, according to research, sharpen memory and focus, enhance mood, and boost creativity.
“Nootropic herbs are a great way to improve your clarity, focus, sleep, memory and mood, or overcome mental blocks or nerves,” says Dr Wong. “There are a wide range of nootropic herbs with varying mechanisms of action, which is why they can have such diverse benefits. Some nootropic herbs impact the brain by influencing the activity of neurotransmitters (molecular signals used by brain cells to communicate), while other nootropic herbs increase blood flow to the brain, providing more nutrients, oxygen, and energy to support alertness and focus. There are some that even have a protective effect by combating harmful inflammation and free radicals in the brain that can lead to cognitive decline.”
Her brand Noon combines the power of nootropics and adaptogens into drops designed to amplify the mind. Positioned as ritualistic, Rise is like a morning coffee kick, Renew calms overwhelm but with rebalancing focus, while Relax helps you wind-down for the evening.
Be active every day
As Public Health England confirms, regular physical activity reduces your risk of dementia by up to 30 per cent.
Alzheimer’s Research UK also says that what’s good for your heart is good for your brain, meaning physical activity is key. As per its website, the important HUNT Study published in 2018, linked more exercise in midlife with a lower risk of dementia. And, more recently, US scientists “published findings showing those who exercised more had less damage to the small blood vessels that spread through the brain”.
They recommend being active every day, whether that’s with workouts, walking, dancing, or even gardening.
Respect your circadian rhythm
As Dr Wood notes when speaking on Feel Better Live More, one easy way to boost brain health is by working with your circadian rhythm. Think “light when it’s light, dark when it’s dark”.
Dr Wong suggests starting your day with a morning walk to get daylight exposure and your endorphins flowing. “For your brain to function best, your internal clock needs to be in sync with the natural day and night cycle. Exposure to sunlight boosts alertness and exercise will bump up your endorphins (your brain’s feel-good chemical) so try to spend time outdoors getting some morning or mid-day steps in.”
In line with the above, getting enough time in bed is equally important. “There’s a reason we spend about a third of our lives sleeping,” says Dr Wong. “Sleep is just as essential to our health, affecting our ability to learn and form long-term memories. When we sleep, the body undergoes a natural detox process to remove toxins in our brain that build up when we are awake. Great sleep sets the tone for your next day.”
As a self-care habit, she recommends making your bed a sacred space so your body can really relax and sleep. “Put down that phone in the evening as blue light can actually fool your brain into thinking it’s daytime and disrupt the natural production of melatonin—the hormone that regulates our sleep.”
Make time to socialise
Dr Wood says that our brains benefit from being part of a social group. “When you really boil it down, social connection is really the foundational aspect of us as a species; without social connection you’re not giving that input which is that ‘you have purpose, you have meaning, you belong’—and that is one of the critical inputs for the brain to keep working.”
Dr Wong agrees that spending time with others boosts your brain. “Socialising activates your ‘social brain’, a collection of brain areas that don’t normally light up when you’re alone. A night out with friends may seem like just friendly chatter and laughter, but these interactions actually help strengthen and build new neural connections.”
Claire Aristides, clinical hypnotherapist and founder of the Mindology app, tells Bazaar that: “Mindfulness involves paying attention to something in a particular way and being in the present moment, which calms our busy minds and nervous system.”
Dr Wong says that being aware of your mind-body state can prompt positive actions and changes needed to support a healthy brain. “This could be anything from taking a moment of pause to be hyper-present or checking in with yourself by doing a body scan. Try asking yourself: ‘How am I doing physically, cognitively, and emotionally? Am I tired or energised? Where do I have tension? Am I feeling content or sad?’ Being consistent with reflection allows you to better tune into your own daily biorhythm.”
This piece originally appeared in Harper's Bazaar UK