There is an abundance of books and articles on the subject of brain science, neuroscience, neuroplasticity and mindset. It is both fascinating and liberating to realise that our brains are not actually hard-wired after all. Our abilities, habits and character are not entirely predetermined and fixed for life. We can intentionally alter our mindset, upgrade our beliefs and adopt physical practices that enhance our neurological wellbeing, accelerate learning, restore lost functionality and optimise our development.
The idea that we have the potential to reshape and renew our own biology, our thinking and ultimately our entire world has hit the mainstream and sometimes it is difficult to separate the facts from the hype. Research is quoted extensively and often over-simplified, leading to sometimes faulty leaps of logic, suggesting that we now posess super-powers to become super-human!
Below is a quick overview of the brain science to date or jump straight to the 5 ways to optimise your Brain Health:
- The machine metaphor has had its day and the nurture side of the nature-nurture debate has gained significant ground. We constantly create new versions of ourselves through the assimilation of new inputs (food, information, ideas, experiences) and our whole system changes as it adapts its structures to accommodate these.
- The soft-wiring concept is a metaphor for the complex phenomenon of neuroplasticity, whereby the neurons (nerve cells) that comprise most of our brain matter are constantly changing form (plasticity). The soft-wiring metaphor can now be observed in our brain physiology, because we have the instruments to do it at the cellular level.
- There are some 86 billion neurons in the brain that are continually reorganising, forming new connections and dropping old ones. There are even new neurons developing all the time, a recently discovered process in the hippocampus region called neurogenesis.
- Pathways within the brain – as well as the synaptic connections between neurons – are always re-shaping, strengthening and redirecting, especially when we learn and practice a new skill, open to a new experience or extend and adapt a thought process. This is referred to as neuroplasticity.
- Imaging technology has enabled the study of brain functioning in a way that allows brain activity to be monitored across a range of mental, emotional and cognitive states. This is neuroscience.
- However, we cannot track one thought or idea to the level of a single neuron firing or read your mind by tracing the neural pathway of a thought as if it were a sentence in a book!
As always choosing the right goals and implementation process for you, leads to greatest success and satisfaction. Rather than aiming for a generic ‘perfect’ brain, we can use new insights and processes from the brain science field to make:
- goal setting more enlivening and enjoyable
- implementation more creative and less effortful
- your brain as physically healthy and available as possible, to support these processes.
5 Ways to Optimise Your Brain Health
Inspired by the work of Dr John Arden (2010), we can use the SEEDS approach to promote neuroplasticity, to best prepare our brain for changes. SEEDS can be an acronym for Sleep, Exercise, Education, Diet and Stress management.
1. Safeguard your Sleep
Sleep is essential to humans and animals. Popular wisdom says, “Sleep on it” and studies have shown that ability to solve a complex problem can improve after sleep. The production of the myelin coating on the neurons (which helps maintain the electrical charge needed for neurons to communicate) occurs during sleep as well as the elimination of waste products.
- When we are awake, the brain consumes a lot of energy, with many synapses (connections between neurons) being formed and strengthened. Sleep is thought to allow for the replenishment of energy sources (nutrients) as well as rebalancing and consolidation of synapses.
- Without adequate sleep, inflammation increases, blood flow to the brain diminishes, we see cognitive decline and greater stress. With lack of sleep, it is also harder for new neurons to form.
- If you would like to watch my 6-minute video presentation Healthy Habits for Sleepless Business Owners please email me here with Sleep as the subject.
2. Exercise – move your body
Just as exercise is good for the body it is also good for the mind and is one of the easiest ways to promote neuroplasticity and neurogenesis. Why does talking a walk clear your head?
- During exercise, increased blood flow to the brain promotes strong synapses and thick myelin, more nutrients and oxygen are available for key areas and the increased blood flow enables removal of waste products.
- Exercise also releases neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine (for attention), serotonin (for mood control), and glutamate (for growth factors). These prime the brain for the changes in synapse strength and renewal.
- Endorphins are also released during exercise, increasing the amount of available neurotransmitter dopamine, a key player in our experience of reward and pleasure. Healthy dopamine levels are particularly important for repeat behaviours such as the formation of habits.
- Enjoying a daily walk or other aerobic activity actually pays-it-forward as our habit strengthens and we look forward to the next walk or session.
3. Education – Learn Something New
Being cognitively active is the perfect complement to being physically active. If you think of the brain as a muscle, it needs to be stimulated to grow (and to prevent atrophy).
- To “exercise” the brain use it! Focus and attention are important stimulators.
- Your brain will respond by stimulating more connections between your neurons through dendritic branching. (Dendrites are like tiny fingers at the end of the neurons that receive information. The more branches, the more is received and the stronger the synapse).
- Keeping your brain metabolically active over time and challenging yourself mentally throughout life keeps your brain flexible and also helps builds up a buffer (cognitive reserve) protecting against cognitive decline in later life.
- Novelty helps as well. For example, challenging yourself by learning a new language, study course, playing a new game, sport or learning a musical instrument all increase neuroplasticity throughout the brain.
4. Diet – Feed Your Brain
The biochemistry of your brain is dependent on obtaining specific nutrients from your diet. Essential to brain regeneration and health are the following:
- Quality Protein. When proteins are digested or broken down, amino acids are left. Certain amino acids are the crucial building blocks for neurotransmitters, which your body makes by synthesising these amino acids from your food. Of the 20 different amino acids that your body needs to grow and function properly, nine are classified as ‘essential’, meaning that the body cannot make them and they need to be consumed daily, through your diet and/or supplementation.
- The Good Fats. The health of your synapses depends on getting the right fats. In particular, membrane at the synapse has a higher concentration of docosahexaenoic acid than most tissues in your body. Docosahexaenoic acid is an omega-3 fatty acid. By not eating enough omega-3 fatty acids, synapses can become rigid, which decreases the information transfer between neurons, and inhibits neuroplasticity. Omega-3 also plays a role in preventing cognitive decline, especially Alzheimer’s disease. For information on recommended supplements please email me here.
- Anti-inflammatory and antioxidant rich foods. Fresh fruits and vegetables are well known sources of antioxidants. These foods are believed to assist neurogenesis as well as protecting existing neurons and preventing atrophy. Some other foods that have shown promising positive influences on memory and preventing cognitive decline are cocoa, curcumin (found in turmeric) and omega-3 fatty acids. A healthy, balanced diet is the most basic foundation you can provide to allow your brain to run at its optimal level.
5. Stress – Give Yourself a Break
As with exercise, moderate amounts of stress to the system are great, whereas too much can be detrimental. Being overly stressed decreases neuroplasticity and our ability to learn and remember, like overtraining the body which causes injury instead of fitness. Long term stress can have a negative effect on our brain. Effects include an increase in cell death and decrease the creation of new neurons in the hippocampus. This is further exacerbated by have higher levels of the glucocorticoid hormone (cortisol) in our brain that are produced under extended stress.
- The decrease in neuroplasticity created by prolonged stress has direct effects on our cognition, leading to impaired learning and memory – a negative feedback loop that is opposite to the pay-it-forward that we looked at earlier in relation to exercise.
- Fortunately, there are many ways to reduce and manage stress. While medication can be useful as part of an integrated approach, we also have access to a range of modalities and practices that can be used without the need for medication.
- Release of stress, increased resilience and improved problem-solving skills are associated with the four measures above in our SEEDS model, as well as through mindfulness, meditation, counselling, therapy and coaching.
So, here’s to your brain health and a long, interesting and inspiring life!
In preparing this article I have supplemented my own accumulated knowledge with excerpts from the certification program Neuro Change Practitioner Training. This training is from Life in Balance Careers, with whom I am recently aligned. The program offers an evidence-based approach to optimising performance, that integrates the purpose and beliefs work that I’ve taught for some time with a substantial body of more recent research in the fields of the subconscious mind, epigenetics and neuroscience which have all added new dimensions to my work. As a Neuro Change Master Trainer, I will be opening up classes from early 2022 for other practitioners and leaders, who want to help themselves and their clients to engage more powerfully and productively with change.
For anyone personally wanting to create change in career, life or business and considering working with the support of a coach, I am also offering a complimentary conversation to help you decide what could be the best area to focus on right now and recommend some next steps to get there.