If I asked you to name one organ you hoped would stay healthy into your old age, I bet you’d say your heart or brain. That’s really no surprise since those two organs are essential to keep you alive.
We rely on our hearts to pump oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood to the rest of the body. And we rely on our brains to maintain order within the body, direct our decisions, regulate daily or monthly rhythms and metabolic processes, prevent overheating, keep our mood stable, and our memory sharp. Often, the word “brain” is used when we really mean “nervous system” (of which the brain is one very important piece). The nervous system is an intricate network that runs throughout the entire body, sending and receiving important messages to keep everything in working order. The bottom line remains the same - that 3lb walnut-looking blob between your ears is exceptionally important and it’s worth taking care of it early!
I recently attended this year’s British Columbia Naturopathic Association (BCNA) yearly conference. This year’s topic was Brain and Nervous System Health. Myself and a few hundred other naturopathic doctors had the pleasure of learning from many fantastic speakers with a variety of professional degrees - medical doctors, naturopathic doctors, chiropractors, doctors of osteopathic medicine, and anesthesiologists.
We learned about specific guidelines for the diagnosis and management of many nervous system conditions including:
Post-Concussion Syndrome and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
Parkinson Disease (PD)
Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
Alzheimer Disease (AD) and Dementia
But, true to the roots of naturopathic medicine, we were frequently reminded of the importance of prevention - boosting and preserving brain health before disease states arise. This is something patients frequently inquire about as well, particularly if they have a relative with a brain or nervous system issue.
Many of the recommendations sound too simple or too general, but that’s just the point! There’s no single herb, specific diet, or magic pill that will keep you sharp into your nineties. A healthy lifestyle that supports physical and mental health won’t guarantee it either, but it will definitely help and you’ll feel better along the way too!
Here are the big takeaways for supporting brain health:
Exercise does far more than build muscle and promote weight loss. It's extremely important to overall health! Regular exercise boosts energy and mood, promotes flushing of toxins from the body, regulates weight and blood sugar, and improves cardiovascular health. It also supports brain health, largely through the production of a protein called Brain-derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) which promotes the growth and survival of healthy brain and nerve cells (1,2).
The best kind of exercise for your brain is aerobic exercise in the heart zone (at 70-80% of your max heart rate) for 30-40min 4-5 times per week. Of course, you need to have a certain fitness level to train at this level, so work with your healthcare provider to develop a plan.
Stress primes the brain and nervous system for inflammation. This means that stress lowers the brain’s tolerance so it takes a smaller stress stimuli to cause problems later on (3).
Adequate Restful Sleep
Sleep shows up over and over when discussing ways to improve overall health. Disrupted sleep can have many negative health consequences, and is a common frustration among patients. Your body requires adequate sleep (8 hours/night for most adults) to reset and prepare for the day ahead. During sleep, your brain cells actually shrink so the cerebrospinal fluid can flow more freely, cleansing the nervous system and limiting the amount of plaques that form (4). In addition, certain hormones associated with sleep (eg. melatonin) support nerve cell growth and strengthen the brain’s barrier to harmful substances (5).
Much like the saying “use it or lose it,” your brain requires exercises (just like your muscles) to stay healthy. Problem solving, brain games (like sudoku or crosswords), or practicing a different language can all be helpful tools (6).
Physical activity and brain games are even more beneficial when they’re new-to-you. New activities force your brain to be more active, and to build and reinforce new pathways (7).
Nutrient-Rich Diet with Variety
Diets can quickly become overwhelming or boring. Thinking about the foods you can eat rather than the foods you cannot eat can set a positive outlook and help you stick to your plan.
The basics of a nutrient-rich diet are fairly simple, although it’s a big departure from the standard North American diet (8).
Lots of colourful vegetables (especially less-starchy ones like: greens, squash, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.)
Fruits - local and in-season will be the most nutrient rich since they haven’t had to travel far to land in your basket
Whole-food proteins (preferably fresh rather than processed) such as: eggs, poultry, beef, game meats, wild deep water fish, and vegetable proteins (lentils, chickpeas, peas, nuts and seeds, quinoa, and tempeh/tofu/edemame in moderation)
Healthy fats such as avocado, cold-pressed olive oil, coconut oil, nuts and seeds, etc.
Whole grains (freshly-made small-batch bread, wild-rice, quinoa, etc.)
Limited sugar and processed foods
This diet ensures adequate stores of essential vitamins and supports gentle detoxification on a daily basis.
Specific diets, such as the Mediterranean or Ketogenic Diets can be particularly helpful for brain health in certain situations. If you think you may benefit from these diets, ask your naturopathic doctor about whether they are right for you.
Limited EMF Exposure
This is a big one, and one I’m still working on reducing in my own life. This is likely the change most people will be reluctant to implement as we become increasingly dependent on technology. I’ve never been one to be terribly concerned about electromagnetic frequencies from technology, but nearly every conference speaker with a specialty in brain health mentioned this as one of their must-follow recommendations for patients with brain injuries or neurological conditions.
Way you can limit your EMF exposure include:
Setting a timer on your wifi modem so it shuts off at night when it’s not required
Sleeping with your phone in another room (this will probably help your sleep in other ways too!)
Turning off wifi-dependent devices when not in use (eg. media players like Apple TV)
Certain supplements, herbs, or treatments can be beneficial as well. If you need help implementing some of the above tips or you’re looking for additional supports for maintaining a healthy brain, come see me!