“There are enough connections in the brain to go to the moon and back,” says Professor James Goodwin, director of science and research impact at the Brain Health Network, who has also written a book, Supercharge Your Brain. “It’s a mysterious organ – until two or three years ago, we didn’t even know that the brain rejuvenates itself throughout life. But it does, and how you lead your life has a big impact on it.”
Inflammation is the “assassin of good brain health”, Goodwin adds, so anything we can do to minimise that is a good thing. Here, Goodwin shares some key ways to improve your brain health now.
Do some exercise every day
Being physically active is crucial for good brain health, and you should seek to do some form of exercise every day. “You need 150 minutes a week, minimum,” says Goodwin. “But that’s not enough – you also need to stay active in your lifestyle as well. I call it declaring war on the chair.”
Sedentary lifestyles are on the rise, with 27.5 per cent of adults and a huge 81 per cent of adolescents globally failing to meet this level of activity. Just anecdotally, we can all relate to spending too much time sat in front of a screen, right? Goodwin’s advice is to avoid sitting down for more than 45 minutes at a time, and he emphasises that those of us with couch potato tendencies can’t out-exercise a generally sedentary lifestyle. “You can’t just do one hour of exercise a day to boost brain health. Instead, you can actually reverse brain ageing by combining it with an increase in movement throughout the day. Yes! You can actually make your brain younger!”
One study he references, carried out by the University of Pittsburgh, monitored two groups of people over the course of a year. One group performed 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise a week, and the other group were limited to stretching and toning exercises. In those that exercised aerobically, the hippocampus, responsible for learning and memory, increased in volume by two per cent over the year. “This group didn’t just stop ageing, they also reversed it!” So however you do the minutes, just make sure you do them.
Be a social butterfly
Turns out, saying yes to that invite is actually beneficial to your health. “Your social life is extremely important – if you’re lonely or socially isolated, it’s the equivalent of having 50 cigarettes a day – it’s bad for your health,” says Goodwin. The reason for this is because we’ve evolved as social creatures – the need for food, water and human connection is deeply embedded in our brains. Feeling lonely can cause inflammation in the brain, Goodwin says, which speeds up ageing and increases the risk of dementia and other degenerative brain diseases. In fact, a study of 12,000 people carried out by Harvard University found that one in five who said they were habitually lonely experienced brain health decline by 20 per cent more than those who weren’t.
According to Goodwin, sex can be beneficial for your brain health in terms of memory, visual-spatial awareness – even your ability to do maths. “Recent research found that regular sexual activity with someone you’re in a close relationship with improves cognitive health and verbal fluency,” he says.
Be as vain as you like
If ever there was an excuse to book that salon appointment, let it be the scientifically-proven fact that it’s a surefire way to boost brain health (provided you’re happy with the end result). “The three elements of brain health are how well you think, how well you mix with others and how good you feel,” explains Goodwin. “So if you don’t feel good about yourself, your brain is more at risk of decline.” Consider that strict instructions to prioritise self-care.
Eat a balanced diet
Modern western diets don’t just impact our weight. Processed food, ready meals, takeaways and any food that comes out of a packet cause inflammation, plus they rarely contain any useful nutrients that allow the body to thrive. Goodwin name-checks vitamin B12 as a key nutrient that around 80 per cent of people are deficient in – particularly those who follow a vegan diet. “People who don’t get enough B12 show earlier cognitive decline than those who do – if you want to be vegan, that’s fine, but it’s not a natural diet for your brain,” he states.
Another crucial nutrient is vitamin D, something that is notoriously difficult to glean from food. Even mushrooms, which we are led to believe can solve a vitamin D deficiency, would need to be eaten in mass amounts to get the level the body needs. The antidepressant qualities of omega 3 fatty acids have been scientifically proven, so incorporating three to four portions of cold water fatty fish, such as cod or halibut, into your diet is important.
Do supplements work? “There is no sustainable evidence to show that supplements will make any difference over a balanced diet,” says Goodwin. “With the exception being vitamin D.” The key, then, is to eat a diverse diet of meat, plants and fruit, and to use supplements as a back up. “You should also ensure you cook your foods, gently and properly, as this makes the nutrients more available to the body to ingest.” Also, be sure to eat lots of fibrous food for a healthy microbiome.
Consider intermittent fasting
With an abundance of research to suggest that intermittent fasting is excellent for body and mind – and that it can boost neuroplasticity (the ability to learn and function) in the brain – you might consider incorporating an intermittent fast into your routine. The 16:8 is a popular method, broken into 16 hours of fasting – to include the hours you spend sleeping overnight – and an eight hour window within which to eat during the day. “I don’t eat breakfast before about 10am, and then I eat supper at about 6pm – fitting all my food into eight hours,” explains Goodwin. “It brings down inflammation – and for the brain, anything that reduces inflammation means you’re on to a winner.”
Look after your dental health
You probably already know about the impact gut health has on how we behave and think, but did you also know how important dental health is? One 2021 study by the University of Birmingham found that those with gum disease have an increased risk of developing illnesses, such as poor mental health and vascular dementia. Goodwin confirms that the mouth is a key source of inflammation. “Seventy per cent of your immune system is in your digestive system, which starts at your mouth,” says Goodwin. “As well as putting the right foods into our bodies, keeping good dental hygiene is key.” He recommends a consistent daily routine at home, as well as regular trips to the hygienist.
This article was originally published on Vogue UK.