Most of us go through our lives — working, playing, eating, socializing — without giving much thought to how our actions affect our bodies. We might notice that we develop a headache after a rough day at the office, or that we put on weight after too many heavy meals, or that we tend to catch colds more often if we don’t get enough rest. But while it’s easy to make the connection between our daily habits and physical symptoms, what we often don’t realize is how our lifestyles affect our brains.
The brain is an amazing organ composed of billions of cells that send signals from head to toe. It controls everything from basic functions like breathing and heartbeat to the way we react to pleasure and pain to our ability to remember both complex mathematical equations and a simple grocery list.
To learn more about how our life habits affect the brain, The Mind Health Report consulted Larry Momaya, M.D., a board-certified psychiatrist specializing in holistic psychiatry. For the last eight years, he has been practicing at the Amen Clinics, Inc., a group of centers in three states that is dedicated to “optimizing the brain-life connection.” According to Dr. Momaya, some loss of brain size and function is normal as we age. However, many of us speed the process through self-destructive habits that affect not only our mood and health, but also the very way the brain functions.
Following is a list of some of the most common everyday habits people engage in that can cause harm to their brains:
Bad Brain Habit 1: Eating Bad Foods
A healthy diet can do more than just keep a person’s weight under control. The nutrients in foods have a direct effect on the brain, and eating a diet low in those nutrients — or high in harmful substances — can have a long-term effect on the way your brain functions. With age, doctors believe the brain becomes more vulnerable to the effects of cellular inflammation and free radicals, the oxygen molecules with unpaired electrons that damage cells and play a part in the development of brain conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. The longer the brain is exposed to inflammation and free radicals, the more likely it is that the brain will experience age-related deterioration.
Saturated fat and sugar can also have a negative effect on the brain. For instance, if you eat hamburgers, fries, and cake more often than you eat fish and vegetables, you could be putting yourself at risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
A study conducted in 2011 tested the effects of diet on both healthy older adults and those with symptoms of early dementia. Half of the group ate diets high in saturated fat and high-glycemic carbohydrates, such as burgers and sweetened sodas; the other half ate meals rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. The group with the unhealthy diet showed an increase in beta-amyloid, a protein associated with Alzheimer’s development; the healthy diet was associated with lower beta-amyloid in both groups.
On the other hand, eating foods high in certain antioxidants helps the body fight the effects of free radicals and inflammation. These include colorful fruits and vegetables such as:
“People live longer with omega-3s in their diets,” explains Dr. Momaya. “But the typical Western diet is rich in omega-6 fatty acids, which are found in highly processed foods and vegetable oil.” Flaxseed oil, on the other hand, is a good source of omega-3s.
Because it’s difficult to get all the recommended daily amount of omega-3 fatty acids through diet alone, Dr. Momaya recommends taking a 1,000 mg supplement of fish oil containing both EPA and DHA, long-chain fatty acids that are essential to brain health.
But if you take blood thinners, you should consult your doctor, as these supplements may cause problems in people with bleeding disorders.
Bad Brain Habit 2: Too Much Stress
We all have a certain amount of stress in our lives: work responsibilities, family issues, financial difficulties, even everyday inconveniences like traffic jams and broken appliances. Some stress can be beneficial. For instance, the pressure of a work deadline can spur us to excellence. And some stress can actually be fun, such as competitions, new experiences, and even falling in love.
Omega-3 fatty acids, found in walnuts, salmon, and certain other types of fish, help boost the brain’s thinking power while also protecting against debilitating mental disorders. They work by promoting the healthy functioning of the brain synapses, which connect neurons to one another and directly affect memory and learning.
At least one study has found that children who consume high levels of omega-3 fatty acids perform better in school and exhibit better behavior. Other studies have linked diets low in these fatty acids to increased risk of depression, ADHD, bipolar disorder, and dementia. A stressful experience triggers two separate responses within the brain. First, your sympathetic nervous system kicks into high gear; heart rate and breathing speed up and additional blood flows to your muscles. The brain also releases a specific stress hormone called cortisol.
Then, when the cause of the stress passes, your parasympathetic nervous system begins the relaxation response. Calming chemicals are released to counteract the cortisol. A normal amount of stress is healthy for both body and brain. Stress causes the release of a neurotransmitter called norepinephrine, which improves mood and memory. However, when the stress is unrelenting the cortisol level remains high and your brain can suffer as a result.
“The amount of stress in our lives today is greater than at any time in history,” says Dr. Momaya. “Financial, career, relationship, and health stress all take a huge toll on the brain.” In the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, researchers reported on the effects of long-term exposure to cortisol and other stress hormones in older and younger adults, as well as children.
Older adults with high levels of cortisol in their brains performed worse on memory tests than ones with lower levels of the hormone. Younger adults with high cortisol levels also experienced temporary negative effects on their memory and mental acuity. Over time, chronic stress can also wear away the neurons of a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is a memory center. That explains why it’s easy to forget things when you’re anxious or overworked.
While it’s impossible to rid yourself completely of stress, there are ways to minimize the toll it takes on your brain. “I teach my patients first to be aware of stress-enhancing behavior,” says Dr. Momaya.
For instance, if you become anxious and tense when you volunteer for a new project or committee, cut back on your commitments. If you enjoy shopping, but feel your stomach knot up when the bills come in, put your credit cards away and buy only what you absolutely need. Explore activities that can help you de-stress when daily activities become overwhelming. Popular choices include yoga, meditation, and creative visualization. Making time for hobbies is also important; it can give a sense of self-nurturing and pleasure that releases endorphins, the “feel- good” hormones in your brain. Reducing stress not only protects your brain against long-term damage and memory loss, it also enhances your ability to enjoy life more fully.
Bad Brain Habit 3: Not Enough Exercise
Everyone has heard the arguments for living an active lifestyle. Studies have consistently shown that regular exercise is necessary to stay physically fit, keep the heart and lungs functioning, and maintain a healthy weight. Exercise can help older adults maintain their mobility, prevent falls, and can even protect against cancer.
But staying active can also help you stay mentally sharp. Medical research consistently shows that physical activity is linked to cognitive health. In one recent study, Harvard Medical School researchers gave a series of cognitive tests to 2,800 women over age 65 who had cardiovascular disease or its risk factors, which put them at greater risk of mental decline. Those who were most physically active showed significantly lower rates of mental decline than women who were more sedentary. “Exercise helps with the whole array of physical and mental conditions,” says Dr. Momaya. “It promotes the release of endorphins and maintains neural connections and synapses intact, keeping the brain younger.”
In particular, aerobic exercise — activities such as walking, running, and swimming that increase the heart rate — is connected to improvements in cognition and mood. Even walking briskly for half an hour a day may help delay mental aging by as much as five to seven years. Dr. Momaya recommends a gradual approach. “Start with baby steps,” he says. “Give yourself a small goal such as five minutes on a treadmill, at a comfortable rate to get your blood flowing. Then build up to 10 minutes, then 15 minutes.” New evidence suggests that lifting weights can also have a positive effect on brain health. In one study, older women who practiced strength training twice a week experienced better cognitive function a year later. They were better able to make decisions, maintain their focus despite distractions, and resolve conflicts.
Of course, you should always consult your doctor before beginning any exercise program.
Bad Brain Habit 4: Lack of Sleep
For many people, a good night’s sleep is a luxury they can’t afford or just can’t seem to get. Responsibilities often keep them up late even if they have to get up early the next day. When they do lie down, many people can’t fall asleep or have trouble staying asleep all night. The result: a morning marked by fatigue, irritability, and poor concentration.
It should come as no surprise that sleep deprivation hinders the brain’s ability to perform. Researchers are continually finding new links between sleeplessness and cognitive losses.
For instance, doctors at the University of California, San Diego, and the San Diego Medical Center studied a group of people who were made to stay awake for nearly three days. Scans showed that while trying to perform a simple word test, the language center of the participants’ brains shut down. “Sleep deprivation is bad for your brain when you are trying to do high-level [thinking] tasks,” said study co-author Christian Gillin, M.D., in an interview.
If you’ve ever had trouble getting around a new city or forgotten where you put your keys, lack of sleep could be the culprit. Learning “spatial tasks” produces new cells within a part of the brain called the hippocampus. For those new cells to survive, they need the rejuvenating effects of sleep.
Without enough sleep, the cells die off, and it becomes harder to remember how to get to places or find objects around you. Over time, certain sleep disorders can destroy the brain. Doctors have found that people with sleep apnea — a condition in which a person’s breathing is interrupted repeatedly at night — show a reduction in gray matter in the brain’s cerebral cortex, which is responsible for processing information.
This damage may be responsible for memory loss, reduced cognitive function, and psychological disorders. Replacing bad sleep habits with good ones can go a long way toward boosting your cognitive abilities. Although every individual’s sleep needs are different, an average of 5 to 7 hours a night is considered optimal, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
If you typically get less rest than that, aim to go to bed half an hour earlier every night until you’re on track. Avoid food, caffeine, and alcohol at night; exercising too close to bedtime increases your alertness level and makes it difficult to fall asleep. Because darkness signals the brain to sleep, don’t watch TV or use a computer right before bed.
Bad Brain Habit 5: No Social Life
During childhood, our lives are filled with opportunities to socialize, mostly at school and in extracurricular activities. In young adulthood, we interact with our co-workers, fellow parents, and friends. But later in life, many of those connections tend to fall away. We retire and become less active; our children move away, old friends become ill or die.
Our brains are hardwired for socialization, and we need that human bond in order to think and function clearly. Studies have shown that children deprived of social contact are more likely to develop psychosocial disorders, and adults who have little social support are at risk of depression. Interacting with others helps maintain brain function and mental acuity. One large study from Michigan University found that people of all ages who talked and socialized with friends, family, and neighbors performed better on cognitive tests than those who didn’t talk or share their feelings with others.
Get in the habit of calling or visiting family and friends often; it’s good for their brains, too. If your social circle has narrowed in recent years, look for ways to expand it. Try taking an adult-education class in a subject that interests you, join a club, or audition for a community theater.
Taking care of your overall health and well- being, whether by eating good foods, exercising, getting enough rest or making time to relax and be with loved ones, will keep your body strong — and keep your brain sharp enough to enjoy life!