“In the same way that a car that is well-maintained will last longer and be more reliable, you cannot hope to get the lasting high performance you want from your brain if it is not properly cared for and protected.” —Kimberley Wilson, author of How to Build a Healthy Brain: Practical steps to mental health and well-being
Psychology, Sociology and Neurology.
Three courses I often share would be priceless academic courses to take regardless of one’s vocation in life.
Here on TSLL blog and the podcast, I have explored many topics within the first two subjects whether pertaining to emotional intelligence, relationships and communication, so when I came upon nutrition-trained Chartered Psychologist Kimberley Wilson’s book – How to Build a Healthy Brain, I was intrigued and wanted to explore its contents. In so doing, I found what she had to share to be founded in a vast amount of supportive research from reputable institutions (in the United Kingdom and the states) as well as written in an approachable prose for readers, like myself, who do not have an educational background in the field of neurology, but genuinely wish to understand how their brains function and how to care for the brain well in order to live well.
Today’s post/episode is an introduction, a tasting menu of sorts to explore the wide ranging areas in our lives that contribute to the health (or malnutrition) of our brain and thereby, its capability to work to its full capabilities.
Upon sitting down to read the book, once I began, once it was in my hands and I was reading it, it was hard to put down, and annotations now decorate nearly every page. Having completed my first reading of the book, I went back through and took detailed notes summarizing the key points that spoke to me and that I wanted to incorporate or strengthen in my own daily life. I will be sharing those here, but by no means is the list complete. The science of how the brain works, the parts of the brain, etc., are detailed in the first couple of chapters, and are worth reading prior to reading the entire book on your own as she lays a clear foundation of the parts of the ‘engine’ that make up the brain.
While I will be focusing on what to do to strengthen and nourish your brain, reading her book details what happens when the brain is not nourished properly. For example, what chronic inflammation does to the mind and the effects witnessed in our daily lives such as depression, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and other neurological maladies. However, because I want to lift today’s conversation to focus on preventative and constructive habits we can add to our lives to create a stronger sense and state of well-being, I will be focusing on what you can begin or continue to do and how it nurtures the brain, thereby elevating the quality of your entire life.
1. Invest in your neuro ‘pension’ plan
No matter how small your daily investments, so long as you keep contributing to your neuro pension plan, you strengthen your brain and stave off chronic inflammation. Daily investments as they pertain to brain nourishment are a conscious effort to continually be learning something new – whether that is information that is new or a new physical skill. When you learn something new, you are “promoting the growth of new neurones, helping new cells to survive (so be sure to continue to strengthen the newly learned skill with consistent repetition), supporting the survival of pre-existing neurones, and supporting the development of synapses – the communication junctions between brain cells”. This process is called Neurogenesis – literally translated as the creation of new neurons. And “neurogenesis is crucial to the process of learning and memory.”
When your brain undergoes this process of neurogenesis, you are building your ‘cognitive reserve’ which is what Wilson refers to as the ‘brain pension’ and was “coined in a research paper published in 1988.” I encourage you to read the findings of this research as it is shared in detail on page 52, but to put it very simply, even 137 elderly residents who took part in the study, upon their deaths, while their brains showed physical signs of advanced brain disease, they didn’t show any symptoms while alive. Why? Their brains, when weighed were heavier than the others, and it was surmised that these 137 residents had more stored up in their ‘brain pensions’ . . . this meant that when dementia started to take cells away, they still had more than enough left to function normally.”
To put it succinctly, prioritize learning new skills and acquiring new information. Make it a way of life to bulk up your neuro pension plan.
2. Prioritize reducing stress in your life
There are different types of stress – acute and chronic – and it is the chronic that is a “known risk factor for Alzheimer’s”. Chronic stress can cause the hippocampi to shrink, reducing your ability to retain information and learn new skills with relative ease. Wilson shares a list of potential psychological signs you might be under excess pressure which is causing chronic stress that while you may be brushing off as what you have to do to live the life you are living is actually a health concern and reason to reassess how you live and what you prioritize:
- short temper or frustration, increased aggression
- apathy, loss of interest
- forgetfulness or poor concentration
- loss of confidence/self-esteem
- impaired emotional responses
- social withdrawal
Now let’s look at the good stress that helps us grow and strengthens our ability to do things that are positive, and in fact, we should pursue this type of stress for a healthy brain Wilson encourages. It is called hormesis. It could be physical (lifting weights, strength training or yoga) or it can be psychological (learning a new skill, a new language, etc.). Hormesis involves applying “short-term, manageable pressure” to the body or mind’s muscle. “The body responds to this stress by up regulating muscular repair processes and making the muscles more able to tolerate the same amount of stress post-recovery i.e. becoming stronger.” The key with hormesis being a good stress is including the recovery time. So for example, do not attend a vinyasa yoga class on Monday and then again on Tuesday. Nope. Give your body at least a day of recovery, maybe even two. You can still walk or run during this time, but don’t take a vinyasa class that will stress those same muscles out as were engaged on Monday.
3. Put quality sleep at the top of your list for ‘good brain care’
“The journey to a more resilient brain and improved mental health starts in bed.” —Kimberley Wilson
A variety of necessary activities are taking place in our brain when we sleep and are sleeping deeply, reaching all four stages: memory consolidation (moving short-term information that was just gained to the long-term storage location in the brain), Synapses are augmented – changed, which means this is when learning becomes ingrained preparing the brain to learn new things and ensuring what we learned stays with us, enables us to be less reactive to negative stimuli.
Wilson also touches on the truth that medication that induces us to sleep does not promote true sleep. In other words, it does not allow us to reach all four stages of sleep. With that said, we have to naturally be able to bring ourselves and keep ourselves in a good night’s sleep. How can we do this?
- Keep a sleep routine – weekdays and weekends
- Try not to linger in bed whilst you are awake too long on either side – before you fall asleep and once you wake up in the morning.
- If you cannot fall asleep within 15-20 minutes, don’t keep fighting yourself. Turn the light on (a gentle dimmed light most likely) and do something non-stimulating such as journaling, read a non-stressful book, meditation or a simple breathing practice (deep breath in for 6 counts, deep breath out for 6 counts, for example). Once you feel sleepy again, return to bed and turn out the light.
- Ensure you are sleeping in a cool room (no warmer than 68 degrees Fahrenheit/20 degrees Celsius)
- If you can, add dimmer switches to your bedroom lights and lamps, and have them dimmed before you enter your bedroom to go to sleep.
- Keep your bedroom tidy. Clutter causes stimulation and stress which is the opposite feeling you want to have before trying to go to sleep.
- Don’t eat too late, in fact, try making your largest meal lunch and enjoy a lighter dinner that is not too close to your bedtime.
- Caffeine is a stimulant and can hang around for more than a few hours after you have enjoyed it. If you are not falling asleep and staying asleep, examine when you consume caffeine and try to stop by midday or at least enjoy your last tea (caffeinated) at tea time – 4pm.
- Avoid alcohol 3-4 hours before bedtime
- Refrain from using light-emitting devices in bed (tablets, smartphones, etc.)
- No longer use your smartphone for your alarm clock. Use something different.
- If worries clutter your mind and prohibit you from falling asleep, put them down in writing in a journal before going to bed.
- Have a journal or notepad next to your bed to jot down things you don’t want to forget that may pop up just as you go to sleep.
4. Feed your brain well
“Although [the brain] only accounts for about 2-3 per cent of your total body weight, your brain makes up around 20-25 per cent of your daily energy requirement.”
The brain doesn’t need simply calories of any sort. The brain needs quality, nourishing calories that provide vitamins and minerals feeding all of its cellular activity. “Food is one of the quickest and easiest ways to start improving your brain health.” And what I found even more interesting is that thinking about your nutrients, it’s not just about today’s meal to have a better tomorrow; what you feed your brain effects the brain over time, the long-run. “It’s about building up regular long-term habits.” So what habits should we be incorporating into our daily diet? Let’s take a look:
- more vegetables – 6 servings a day (1 serving is 2 heaping tablespoons)
- a minimum of 2 servings/wk of oily fish and/or seafood
- leafy greens every day – a delicious salad with a homemade vinaigrette
- nuts – unsalted, and preferably, unroasted (raw), 1-2 servings each day
- enjoy seeds – chia, sesame, etc.
- berries of all kinds, and especially blueberries as a daily snack – 3 servings a day
- cook regularly with fresh herbs – explore growing your own herbs
- beans – all of the beans you can think of. I incorporate lentils, black beans, and chickpeas most often.
- olive oil – 3 tablespoons a day
- cook with alliums – onions, shallots, green onions (spring onions), etc.
- choose whole grain everything – pasta, bread, etc.
- Include fiber in your daily diet everyday – look for grains for breakfast such as steel cut oats, and other sources such as beans and farro. Alliums also contain fiber, so add the onions!
- dark chocolate, 70% cacao at least
- unlimited tea (except not after tea time if it has caffeine which will affect negatively your sleep)
- hydrate, hydrate, hydrate – even when you don’t know what you are craving, likely, it is hydration – grab the water first, not the food
- limit the sweets (freely added sugar – cakes, candy, pastries, etc; and limit processed meat to only 3 servings each week
- no more than 2 glasses of wine/day, red wine is best
- enjoy chicken 2-3 times a week
- Eggs – no more than 6/week
Looking at such a list may be what we think we want. “Just tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.” But when you know the why behind choosing such foods, it becomes even easier to find motivation to select the foods above (or not select as in the case with sugar). For example, eating sugar reduces our brain’s cognition and the omega-3s in oily fix reduces the brain’s aging process. Let me share a few more, but all of the reasons for including or excluding the items I listed above are detailed with research as to how it helps or hinders the brain’s ability to function optimally. “Leafy green vegetables are brain-protective” as these vegetables contain ‘bioactive nutrients such as beta carotene, folate, vitamin K, magnesium and potassium. Eating nuts (unsalted and raw) five times a week increases brain function, and eating fiber reduces the risk of some cancers due to the prebiotics.
Keep in mind, all that I am sharing is merely a tasting of of the details, specific meal ideas and research Wilson shares in her book.
5. Create a regular exercise regimen that cares for your brain
It will not surprise you that physical exercise plays a significant role in brain health. The question is how much and how strenuous. Wilson offers three suggestions and reminds readers that any form of physical activity whether structured (taking a class) or physical movement such as gardening, tending to chores or walking rather than driving is beneficial because “movement protects the brain” as it is an organ.
With each of the three suggested weekly workout regimens, she suggests at least two or more days of strength exercises for major muscles. If you are not someone who is likely to want to go to the gym and lift weights (I am no longer someone who enjoys this), there are various combination exercise that would equate to strength training as well as aerobic exercise: Vinyasa yoga, rocket yoga, circuit training class, CrossFit, climbing and bouldering, and boxing training. If you prefer more moderate exercise, she suggests 150 minutes a week and for more strenuous workouts such as running, 75 minutes. You can mix and match the two to find a balance that works for you.
The type of exercise you engage in regularly will give you certain benefits, so it is best to incorporate some sort of more strenuous or mentally challenging activity that holds your attention in the present moment; however, again, any physical movement is beneficial. Also, especially after strenuous workouts, give yourself the necessary recovery time – a day, sometimes two – not from any type of physical activity, just not that strenuous workout that challenged your muscles.
Benefits of exercise (again, please read the book to see specific examples of types of exercise for each of the following benefits):
- reverse brain aging
- improved cognitive performance, focus and attention
- improved memory and processing speeds
- reduced stress
- improve sleep quality
- elevation of mood
- reduced risk of anxiety, depression and severity of depression if genetically predisposed
6. Why yoga is one of the best things to give your brain
As many listeners and readers know, I have been practicing yoga, vinyasa yoga, for 13+ years. A quality and well-trained and informed instructor makes a tremendous difference in our ability to reap the benefits for our brains, so let me share what Wilson writes about yoga:
“Though all kinds of physical activity provide health benefits, the practice of yoga is a natural integration of many of the lifestyle factors that have been shown in clinical trials to promote brain health.”
Yoga packs a one-two punch, and really a third punch as well. Beginning with the breath, yoga helps us to “focus on controlled use of the breath”. By doing this we become more aware of our breath, and this ability is strengthened through meditation (we’ll talk more about this in the next point). As well, as we move, we are stretching our muscles and our own bodies provide the resistance. So essentially, yoga gives us healthy brain activation through the deep breathing through the nose, the movement “promotes the process of neurogenesis” which was talked about above in #1 and meditation strengthens our control over our thoughts which improves our mindfulness which is associated with “reduced perceived stress, lowered anxiety, reduced inflammatory biomarkers and increased neurogenesis.”
There are very few reasons to not welcome yoga into your regular exercise program, even if you only include one of the three aspects above.
7. Meditate to strengthen how you think
As mentioned above, but I think it is worth underlining for emphasis, especially as we are talking about the brain. When we regularly meditate, having a teacher or instructor guide you through the process as you build your understanding of why and how it works helps you to stick with it when you are just getting started. Meditation helps us become more mindful because we are becoming better at being observers of our thoughts, rather than wrapping ourselves up in them and being reactive which is not helpful. Becoming more mindful strengthens our awareness of ourselves, and helps us to step away from our emotions and thoughts and observe them, acknowledging their temporary nature and where and why they came from.
As we begin Season 9 of the podcast, I will share an entire episode that will discuss the paradox of contentment and a piece of this paradox is the realization that when we become more mindful, which is what meditation helps us do, we begin making more constructive choices in our lives. We begin to create environments, engage with people who fuel our lives in ways that alleviate or eliminate stress, and we also give ourselves the tools to navigate situations we do not have control over. So as much as contentment is about finding peace no matter what is going on outside of us, it is also giving us the tools to cultivate a life that invites more of what nurtures us than what harms us.
Wilson dedicates an entire chapter to Using the Breath, and begins by stating, “There is one powerful, criminally underused tool that is always available to you: your breath.” When we become conscious of our breath and begin to strengthen our breathing (which what meditation exercises), “your breath can significantly improve your emotional resilience and psychological performance in a given task.” She goes on to share a variety of options of structured breath practice and then goes on to address the vagus nerve which has a wide-reach throughout our entire body. “[The vagus nerve] is the main structural component of the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of our nervous system that is responsible for rest, relaxation and recovery, and it regulates heart rate and respiration.”
All of this is to say, because the vagus nerve “passes down the neck, its activity can be influenced by breathing practices . . . this is understood to be the primary way that breathing can have antidepressant effects.” Lastly, remember the neuro pension plan we spoke about in #1? “It is important to note that “brain scans showed that regular meditators had thicker brains (think ‘cognitive reserve’) compared to non-meditators with similar lifestyles.”
~Explore more posts and episodes on Mindfulness in TSLL’s Archives.
8. Welcome regular visits to the sauna into your life (or 30-minute hot baths)
Most of us don’t have access to a sauna in our daily lives, but if we do, the brain benefits. Why? “Heat promotes neurogenesis. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor, the compound that stimulates the growth of new brain cells, is reliably increased through exercise.” So, while we want to have our regular workout regimen that we discussed above, enjoying 20-30 minutes in a sauna can have the same effects, and if you don’t have access to a sauna, I am giving you a reason to enjoy a hot bath for 30 minutes regularly. ☺️
9. Strengthen your emotional intelligence
Emotional intelligence (EQ) is a skill each of us can learn and strengthen. Not only does EQ improve our relationship with ourselves, our self-esteem and confidence, it also strengthens our ability to connect healthily with others, communicating in a non-violent way to both have a voice and listen to what others are truly saying. I won’t go into too much detail about EQ here, but be sure to tune in to episode #140 of the podcast which is focused entirely on this subject. However, quickly, let me share a list of ideas to ponder when it comes to understanding our emotions and not shying away from being a student of them:
- Let yourself feel your emotions – constructively of course, but don’t suppress them. This only causes more stress to the brain. Wilson explains that yes, letting yourself feel envy as well as jealousy are beneficial not because we should act on them in the manner that is often shown on television, etc., but rather to observe something in ourselves. Wilson shares quite succinctly: envy reveals our self-esteem is threatened; jealous reveals our exclusivity is threatened, or our ability to feel a part of something with another. We cannot control other people, but we can control ourselves, and if we are depending upon others to lift our self-esteem or make us feel welcome, this should tell us we have some work to do on ourselves, and that is valuable information.
- Have those necessary difficult conversations if it is a relationship you wish to repair, strengthen or maintain. Use the non-violent communication method as discussed in episode #293. “Even if the other person can’t understand or won’t change, there is often tremendous value in demonstrating to yourself that you are worth sticking up for.” As well, you build your emotional confidence as “having a big conversation makes it easier to have another, and often the conversations never go as badly as you think they will.”
- Let yourself cry. “The action of crying, which typically includes deep breaths, may stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting relaxation and recovery”.
10. Revel in self-care rituals
Self-care and knowing what you need and how it benefits you is part of having a strong emotional intelligence. Each of us is different as to what we need, and why we need it, but if you choose to be the student of yourself, you will discover the answers you have been seeking that seem to be impossible to translate, especially if others seem to have figured it out and you’ve tried what they’ve done, but it doesn’t work for you.
Adhering to a regular self-care regimen is a necessity, not a luxury. We’ve talked about this truth in previous episodes (#242, #227) and this post about well-being. One of the reasons we must permit ourselves engagement in self-care rituals is that it gives us space and time when we notice we are stressed to decompress so that we don’t react, but rather, when we have composed ourselves, respond in a manner we will not regret.
11. Invest in building a healthy social support community
Because so much of America’s life is go-go-go, our social support structure is weakened, and some relationships receive too much of the burden to care for one another – our spouse, our children, etc. In other words, if after reading #2 on this list you realized how stressed you actually were, start to make real changes, and make room for connecting with people in your life that are healthy connections – friends, neighbors, people in the community you want to be a part of. When you diversify and connect genuinely, not out of a place of desperation or want, such connections may take time, but that is actually quite healthy because you realize who is trustworthy and they see that you are trustworthy, and they also come to realize you don’t want anything but a real human-to-human connection.
When it comes to friends, be a friend. Connect. Stop dancing on the surface – texting is nice for logistics, but it’s not a deep connection. Make time to talk face-to-face, and perhaps you will also realize who your real friends are and who is just keeping you in their circle for disingenuous reasons.
By being someone who is grounded and secure, you will be better able to know who to connect with, who to invest your time and who to be vulnerable with, and they will see that in you as well. Having a strong, healthy, social support system reduces stress, rather than creates it. The former is the goal, and that is reason enough to determine who you should share your time with.
12. Know your values and have a purpose that lights you up
When you have a purpose, that is your purpose, not society’s or your parents or [the person who you are trying to gain approval from], the endorphins increase in your mind when you engage in this activity, and that is positive fuel for the brain as it reduces stress and reduces inflammation.
13. Travel regularly
To travel is to feed your brain well. Travel builds cognitive flexibility. So the next time you think taking that dream trip to France is a luxury, oh no, no, no, it is not. It is a necessity. Why? Because you are challenging your mind to be surrounded and immersed in a culture that isn’t rote, that isn’t what you know or are familiar with, so you are exercising the mind and new synapses are firing, and neurogenesis is happening. A very, very good thing. So where are you going next and how soon can you do it? ☺️
14. Be a realistic optimist
Wilson is adamant that being a positive thinker actual involves a bit of denial and delusion. “It contains too much of what I recognise as emotional suppression for it to be a sustainable approach to psychological health.” For this reason she embraces the concept of realistic optimism, “in which you pay attention to negative outcomes but do not dwell on them, instead focusing on the growth opportunities, is associated with greater resilience than either a pessimistic or unrealistically optimistic viewpoint.” In other words, mindfulness and meditation come in to play here which give you the tools to observe your thoughts when something goes not as you would have preferred, giving you the space to respond rather than react, and then with a growth mindset, choose constructive action.
15. Failure is a prerequisite to success
Speaking of things not going your way, if something didn’t work out as you had hoped, some may call it failure, and it may well be in that instance, but when you shift your mind as to how you perceive the event, you give yourself fuel to use to point you in the best direction moving forward for success.
16. Let go of attachment to outcomes
To piggy-back onto #15, when it comes to anything in which you are investing your heart, money, hopes and dreams, hold on to hope, but let go of attachment of what has to happen for it to work out well in your mind. If any of the variables are out of your control, which they likely will be or you would have made the changes already, you just cannot know how it will all work out. As we know, often, when it doesn’t work out as we planned or expected, it is actually working out in our favor to be witnessed at a later time when we will better be able to appreciate it, but if we are so stuck and so focused on a narrow window of what ‘has to happen’, we’ll never experience the latter outcome that is meant for us to revel in.
17. Clean those teeth! Professionally, that is.
So much of our health ties into our gums and our teeth, so keep them expertly clean and tended to by visiting your dentist twice a year and brushing and flossing every day, twice at least. Wilson goes into great detail about the relationship of our teeth to our brain. I will let her explain, but it will give you the motivation to take these simple, regular steps to care for your teeth.
18. Acknowledge the power of social media and be proactive about distancing yourself from mindless use
To blanket all social media as bad is incorrect. There are benefits and it comes down to how we use our phone. If you use social media to actively engage – connect, comment, extend appreciation, etc., then its fine, but if all you do is scroll, stop. In all cases, keep your phone out of reach. Don’t have it next to you at all times, monitor your use, and use as a phone to stay in touch, but not to entertain you as that too is passively engaging and doesn’t add to your social support system. If you use it to reach out to someone – go for it, but consciously be aware of how you truly do use social media.
19. Handwrite rather than typing or solely listening/reading
If you are trying to learn something or understand something, take a pen or pencil and write it out. Studies and research have shown, our brains retain more information when we handwrite and we also deepen our understanding of the subject matter when we take the time to write out what we heard, read or are trying to understand.
20. Grow neurotransmitters for good and constructive habits
In episode #245, I discussed the findings in the book Hardwiring Happiness which speaks to how we have to essentially train our brain to look for and savor the good, and we can in fact to do this. We can also do the opposite – look for only the negative, the bad, what won’t work, and because we are doing this, we are causing more stress to our brain.
I want to include a quote from Rick Hanson’s book Hardwiring Happiness because it aligns beautifully with what Kimberley Wilson found when it comes to nourishing the brain, “The more [neurons] fire together, the more they wire together. In essence, you develop psychological resources by having sustained and repeated experiences of them that are turned into durable changes in your brain.”
In other words, when a good or meaningful moment or event happens, focus on it, celebrate it and savor it. Consciously, really revel in it, no matter how big or small in the eyes of others. If it is something delights you, give it your full attention and dive deep into that feeling and that moment. You are beginning to rewire your brain. Continue to do this – repeat it often, and you can do that by looking for what you want and enjoy. Focus on habits in your life that are good as this will strengthen them rather than berating yourself for doing what doesn’t help or isn’t working. When trying to learn or acquire new knowledge, concentrate wholly (turn off distractions). When we are doing something new or experiencing something new – travel comes to my mind – our attention is wholly grabbed which makes it easier to absorb all that there is to see and become deeply moved by it.
I want to circle back to habits – focusing on the ones you want to have in your life and refraining from dwelling on those that are not wanted. The only way a bad habit will be replaced (old hard-wiring) is if you stop doing it, stop focusing on it and replace it with something that you give your full attention and focus. It will take time to change it, but when you do, and it is a habit that is healthy, you will have all the more motivation to keep doing it, especially now that it is hard-wired into your brain.
21. Reduce money stress
While Wilson doesn’t go too far in-depth into finances, she does point out that money is a primary stressor in people’s lives and chronic stress, if it is caused by money, is not good for the brain. Whatever you have to do to reduce your money stress, do it. Not only for your future financial stability, but for your overall health so you can enjoy a long and healthy life.
22. Find your reason for wanting to improve the health of your brain
This # isn’t really part of the list, but rather a reminder that if you want to a brain that will be working optimally well into your latter decades of life, the changes you need to make are not incredibly difficult, but rather habits you need to see as beneficial not just for tomorrow or to fit into that favorite pair of jeans, but because you want to enjoy living life and doing what you are doing now and possibly so much more. Wilson reminds readers to have self-compassion as you begin to make any or all of the changes she advises. ‘If you need to make significant changes, it is inevitable that you will ‘mess up’. Inevitable . . . Remind yourself that this is what change looks like. Remind yourself of the motivation [for making these changes]. Then find something that gives you a quick win for a much-needed morale boost.”
Why I found this book to be a book to inspire me to act is that it provided detailed reality outcomes that if we take action, specifically this is what happens in the mind, with our emotions, and thus in our daily lives. And when we make these changes to our simple everyday habits, our lives change in powerful ways for the long and short term. No longer should any of the above habits or suggestions be seen as vanity pursuits. These habits enhance your health, your relationships, the quality of a long life you will have the opportunity to live and live well.