At the Indigo Life Center our philosophy is based on the understanding that human consciousness is a tri-part interrelated experience: we are mind-body-spirit. This newsletter focuses on “the mind” aspect of this experience. Within a body context the mind refers specifically to the human brain. New research on the health of the brain inspires us all: we can take charge of having a healthy brain. We can tailor our choices to maximize our brain’s health!
The human brain is able – at any age- to strengthen, deepen and change existing neural connections and to develop new neural cells. We can encourage these changes by adopting many of the same lifestyle habits that sustain healthy bodies: physical fitness, good nutrition, and reduce stress.
You’ve probably heard about how the mind affects the body, but do you know how much your body affects your mind? “Across the board, cardio exercise increases brain function, memory retention and other key area of cognition up to 20 percent,” says Arthur Kramer, PhD, a neuroscientist at the University of Illinois and one of the country’s top brain-and-exercise researchers.
Kramer and his colleagues don’t understand precisely how working out bolsters brain function, but they have a few theories. One theory involves the protein IGF1, released every time a muscle contracts and relaxes. As outlined by reporter Mary Carmichael in a Newsweek article (3/26/07), IGF1 flows to the brain and prompts it to produce brain-derived neuron-trophic factor, or BDNF, the biochemical that fuels learning. It’s what helps our synapses store new facts and information as we gather them. The more BDNF we have coursing through our brain tissues, the more information we can hold.
How does this all add up? In a study published in the Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences, Kramer and his team measured the brain volume of volunteers. Then the participants exercises 1 hour a day, 3 days a week for 6 months. At the end of the study, when they repeated the brain scan to measure the volume, the exercisers’ brains were bigger than before.
Roughly 50-60% of the brain’s overall weight is pure fat (the rest is a mixture of protein and carbohydrates). The brain uses fat as insulation for its billions of nerve cells. But you need to supply your brain with high-quality fat – feed it junk and it spurts and sputters. Good fats are omega-3 fats, such as walnuts, dark, leafy greens, and fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines). A study shows that people who ate an average of 3 servings of fish a week reduced their risk of suffering from Alzheimer’s and other dementias. (Am. Journal of Clinical Nutrition, June 2006)
Per gram of tissue, the brain produces more free radicals (highly reactive molecules that can contribute to cell damage) than any other organ. Antioxidants are the brain’s cleanup crew, scrubbing the body clean of free radicals. They are most abundant in fruits and vegetables, like blueberries, blackberries, strawberries and also in black and green teas.
Stress, especially chronic stress, takes a heavy toll on the brain. That’s because stress hormones, such as corticosteroids, contribute to a general environment of inflammation and they attack the hippocampus (the brain’s memory center) causing atrophy, or shrinkage, in this important area.
Fortunately, how you deal with stress is the issue, not how much there is. Some people thrive on stress – the key to staying healthy is to not internalize it. “Stress is most damaging if you let it eat away at you,” says neurologist Thomas Perls, MD and co-author of Living to 100. “Find a way to do something about it, even if it’s just taking a deep breath.”
The Eastern approach to relaxation and enlightenment has long been known to alter brain waves, but recent research published in the journal NeuroReport shows it can change the physical structure of the brain as well. Researchers did a side-by-side comparison of brain scans – half the scans were from experienced with meditation and the other half from people who’d never tried it. The team found that the meditators’ brains were thicker in areas of the brain charged with interpreting emotions, sights, sound, and touch. The thickest brains belonged to the most experienced with the practice.
The bottom line on brain health? “We have more control than we think,” says Gary Small, MD, Director of the Memory and Aging Research Center at the University of California. Small estimates that only about 1/3 of what determines brain health comes from genetics. That means the lifestyle choices you make have a major impact: exercise, diet, and stress management. So now you have even more incentive to invest ample time in your self-care. It’s not just your body that’s at stake; it’s your mind too.