Brain Gains: Boosting your gray matter, because it matters

Because we can’t see our brains, many of us take them for granted.  While we may fret about our abs or buy countless potions to firm and smooth our skin, many people assume that brain health isn’t really that important, or that it’s limited to concerns about Alzheimer’s.

SPOILER: It’s not.  Brain health matters.  A lot.  And small choices that we make every day make a world of difference in the function and health of our brains.

MYTH: Whether a person gets Alzheimer’s depends on whether the person carries the genetic markers for it.

Not true.

Think of it like this:  Having genes for something is like having a gun in your hand.  It’s unnerving, yes – you know it’s there, and you know the potential for harm.  But how you live your life determines whether the trigger is pulled.

That is, you can have “bad genes,” but having them doesn’t doom you.  In order for those genes to be turned on, you have to flip a number of switches.  Those switches are how you live: what you eat, the quality of your relationships, your physical movement (or lack thereof), your exposure to a clean (or toxic) environment, your sense of purpose or self-worth.

So, for today, let’s focus on five simple “switches” you can employ to help improve your brain (and overall) health.

  1.  EAT WHOLE FOODS.  Not the grocery store, because it would be super awkward to walk up to the building and start gnawing on bricks and mortar.  I mean actual food.  Mostly plants.  Especially leaves.  A bowl of spinach.  Some blueberries.  A carrot.  A bunch of grapes.  A chicken thigh (from a bird that lived a good life).  A handful of walnuts.  Hint:  If you’re not sure if something is actual food, it’s probably not real food.  A useful guideline that Michael Pollan gives for determining whether something is real food is to ask yourself:  “Would my great grandmother recognize this as food?”  (If you’re holding a plastic tube of artificially-colored, sugar-added “yogurt” in your hand when you ask this question, the answer is “NO.”)  Sugar is a known culprit in diminished brain health, and for many people, gluten and dairy have negative consequences, even if they’re not technically gluten or dairy intolerant.  Reducing sugar intake is a no-brainer (har, har) for everyone; and if you struggle with any sort of brain issues (brain fog, forgetfulness, depression, anxiety), it’s worth experimenting with cutting out gluten and dairy to see what happens.  (It doesn’t mean you have to give them up forever – but it’s worth knowing if they cause problems for you.)
  2. MOVE YOUR BODY.  I don’t mean exercise, at least not in the way most people think of exercise.  While I understand that some people actually enjoy going to the gym (this blows my mind), I don’t.  I’d rather get my “exercise” doing real things – gardening, hiking in the woods, picking up a toddler 400 times a day (TWO TICKETS TO THE GUN SHOW, BABY!), and grinding coffee beans using a hand-crank grinder (seriously!  I love this part of my morning!).  If you work at a desk for 40+ hours a week, you may object, claiming this is not possible for you to do.  Some people try to make up for all the sitting by working out at a gym for an hour after work, but… let’s be honest.  That’s not what our bodies were designed for.  So, desk workers, try this:  A few times an hour, stand up.  Sit down.  Stand up.  Sit down.  That’s it.  If you like, stretch your arms over your head, lean them from side to side.  Incorporate some stretches, or don’t.  But don’t stay seated (or standing, idle) for hours at a time.  Your body will thank you.
  3. AVOID TOXINS.  This one is difficult because there are toxins pretty much everywhere.  Did you know that there are tens of thousands of chemicals in household cleaning products that have not been tested for safety?  Or that a company can put a new chemical in a product and on the market without performing ANY safety testing whatsoever?  The only way a product or chemical gets pulled from the market is after it has caused serious harm to lots of people.  Don’t be a guinea pig:  Instead, surround yourself with things that are known to be non-toxic.  For starters:  ditch the smelly, harsh cleaners, and stick to castile soap, vinegar, and baking soda for your cleaning needs.  Or engage in scrupulous label-reading to make sure that your product choices are healthy.  Don’t trust claims on labels that say products are “healthy” or “natural” or that it “helps save wildlife.”  (Dawn dish soap, I’m looking at YOU!)  If you’re not sure what certain ingredients are, there are organizations like the Environmental Working Group that do a lot of the work for you – just scan a label using their app, and it will tell you about the product.  With regard to food, opt for organic when possible, and mind the “Dirty Dozen” recommendations published annually by EWG.  And regarding yard care, learn to love dandelions and nix the chemicals, many of which are known to be neurotoxic.  (Dandelions, on the other hand, are good for you!)  When you come inside, always take your shoes off and leave them at the door.
  4. GET MORE SLEEP.  Lack of restful sleep is a known risk factor for all brain issues.  In short:  our brains have an off switch, and we need to remember to use it.  If you’re one of the many people who think you’re “just fine” on 4-6 hours of sleep, you’re delusional from lack of sleep.  There are a lot of little changes you can try incorporating to get more restful sleep.  Plan for an earlier bedtime.  Even if you wake early, the rest you get in the hours before midnight tends to be the deepest and most rejuvenating sleep.  And the hardest (but most effective) trick for better sleep:  turn the screens off.  Give yourself an 8 p.m. technology bedtime, and put all the devices (including the television) to bed – tuck them in as far from the bedroom as you can.  If you insist you need your phone next to the bed because it’s your alarm clock, quit making excuses and get a real alarm clock.  If possible, put your WiFi router on a timer so that it automatically turns off at 8 p.m. and back on at 8 a.m.  So what to do between 8 and bedtime?  Read a book (not an e-book), play a game, have a conversation, meditate, paint, call someone you love, make love, practice yoga, take a bath, pack a nice lunch for tomorrow, sip chamomile tea.  Do anything… so long as it doesn’t involve staring at a screen!
  5. BE GRATEFUL.  This one is easy, but also easy to forget.  Try making it a part of your morning or bedtime ritual.  Write “What are you grateful for?” on a sticky note and put it on the bathroom mirror.  Then, while you’re brushing your teeth, think of three things.  To make it more of a challenge, think of three things you’re grateful for that you hadn’t thought of before.  And to make this practice even more powerful, write down the things you’re grateful for, or even post them to a social networking profile to share with others.

The encouraging news is that even as you age, your brain function can actually improve if you do the things that help your brain and avoid the things that harm your brain.

Have you tried any changes to help nurture your gray matter?  If so, how’d it go?

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