I write a lot about habits because working to develop healthy habits has actually allowed me to find more peace of mind and control my anxiety. I’ve found that routines allow me to control my anxiousness because they are familiar and allow me to feel more stable in my environment. While I enjoy the unexpected I also thrive in the well planned for. As a result, I am constantly seeking to find habits that breed improvement and allow me to lead my best life.
I never considered brain function as something to consider optimizing until recently. Maybe I was too caught up in bullshit (as is usually the case) or maybe I figured I was smart enough as is and failed to realize that with proper care of my brain I could actually improve brain function, make quicker decisions, and lead a fuller, more productive, happier and energetic life.
After it occurred to me that I was slacking on my brain game I sought to adjust my personal wellness plan to intentionally account for cognitive function, and it has made a world of difference. Not only do I feel better and more in control of my anxiety, but also I think more efficiently. I can notice myself solving problems or organizing situations in ways that I would’ve never thought of before. Moreover, I can notice a dramatic difference in my mood. Through focusing on practices that are set up to optimize cognitive function, I find my ability to stay calm in stressful situations has increased, as has my ability to think quickly. I do believe that life is nothing more than a series of mental challenges set up to look like physical ones- so boosting up my brain power aligns with my personal aim of living my best life now.
Why does brain health matter?
The brain is the most important organ in our body, and with the steady increase in national prevalence of depression, anxiety, Alzheimer’s and dementia- conditions that all stem from brain health it is obvious that we need to focus more on caring for the beautiful, magically supercomputer inside of our heads.
Not your average organ.
The brain is the most complex organism in the human body. According to a recent article in Scientific American, it uses more energy than any other organ in the human body, using up to 20% of our total energy expenditure. The brain is arguably the most important organ in our body. We use is to think, feel, imagine, create memories and emotions- essentially all the processes that make uniquely human happen inside that tiny 3-pound brain. And while the jury is still out, because at present we can’t quantitatively measure it- many scientists believe that our consciousness, the thing of magic, mystery, and endless yogic folklore, resides in the brain.
Better brain care for managing Depression and Anxiety.
Statistics from the ADAA (Anxiety and Depression Association of America) reveal that 40 million adults in the US over the age of 18 years old are diagnosed with anxiety and depression annually- that’s a whopping 18% of the total population. The ADAA further goes on to claim that while anxiety is highly treatable only about 37% seek and receive treatment. According to an article in Psychology Today, untreated mental disorders, such as anxiety, clinical depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorders can cause shrinkage in key areas of the brain.
Alzheimer’s is not just a disease for the elderly.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association’s website: Alzheimer’s can strike people in their 30s, 40s and even 50s. This is called younger-onset Alzheimer’s. It is estimated that there are more than 5 million people living with Alzheimer’s disease in the United States. This includes 5.2 million people age 65 and older and 200,000 people younger than age 65 with younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease. They further cite the research that suggests combining good nutrition with mental, social and physical activities may have a greater benefit in maintaining or improving brain health than any single activity.
In addition to regular exercise and proper diet, which are essential no-brainers for brain health ;)- here are my
7 HABITS for keeping the noggin’ healthy and ACTIV*:
* I am a big fan of “scale-downs” which is a Crossfit term for doing a modified version of the prescribed exercise at a lower intensity. I’ve included ‘scaled down versions’ of my brain boosting habits- and if you’re interested in boosting your brain power- hopefully this will encourage you to start small and work your way up accordingly.
Rx- Meditate daily for at least 15 minutes
While the idea of sitting still for longer than two minutes might scare most people, research has shown that meditation has unprecedented effects on the brain’s gray matter. In a recently publishes study, a Harvard research team observed (in this study and earlier ones) that “gray matter” increased over eight weeks in brain areas correlated with emotional regulation, empathy, and perception. This study also noted that brain cell volume decreased in the amygdala, a region associated with anxiety, stress, and fear.
Scale down: Sit still for 90 seconds. Try to master daily consistency, and then work your way up from there. Meditation is a tough habit to start- especially in our “always busy” culture. The idea of sitting down and doing nothing makes many people I know shutter, or fall asleep, and understandably so. We have been programmed to believe that if our mind isn’t constantly running we will shut down. But, the mind, like everything else needs rest. The bonus of sitting still is the art of cultivating focus. You don’t have to attempt to think of nothing- though that is the ultimate goal, you can start by focusing on a single object, mantra, or action- the basic idea is to learn to control your thoughts by slowing down.
By sitting still and focusing on a single point I have trained myself to focus better on tasks I perform when I am not meditating, and have also learned to willfully calm my mind down when thoughts begin to race in stressful situations. Think of meditation as concentration training, where you are teaching your thoughts not to drift. Focus on one thought; it could be a mantra, your breath, or even an object. I like to meditate with my eyes open and pick one point in the room to focus on. In Hinduism, this is known as drishti or focused gaze. When my mind drifts, which it inevitably does, I just guide it back to that point. I meditate 15 minutes a day- usually in the morning, but am working toward adding an evening session as well.
Eliminate added sugars
Some researchers are now referring to Alzheimer’s as Type 3 Diabetes, as more studies prove the connection between sugar consumption and cognitive decline. A study published in the journal Diabetologia followed 5,189 people over 10 years and found that people with high blood sugar had a faster rate of cognitive decline than those with normal blood sugar- even if they weren’t diabetic. More sugar, more problems. I have eliminated all added sugars from my diet and honestly, I have never felt more energized.
Scale down- Limit sugar consumption to before 7pm. I realize asking the average person to eliminate sugar is like asking a fish not to swim because sugar is such a pervasive ingredient in the average American diet. Even healthy individuals who tout the powers of juice- don’t realize the sugar content in those things can negatively impact your long-term health. The good news is recent studies like those conducted by Dr. Satchidananda Panada reveal that our bodies digest food most effectively when in synch with our circadian rhythm- the process that can influence sleep-wake cycles, hormone release, eating habits and digestion, body temperature, and other important bodily functions. Meaning that what we eat is not as important as when we eat. Our bodies naturally slow down in preparation for sleep- so the pancreas- the organ that produces the hormone insulin, which is responsible for regulating blood sugar levels, essentially closes up shop around 7 pm. if eliminating sugar is too much for you – try limiting sugar intake to before 7pm- so that your body doesn’t store it as fat.
Rx- Avoid rumination
Rumination is basically going over a problem or thought without completion. A recent article in Psychology Today notes that rumination prohibits the brain from effective problem solving by tapping into negative neural networks. The article recommends switching off the ruminating switch by getting out of the negative frame of mind and approaching one problem at a time with proper planning. In a recent podcast with Dr. Rhonda Patrick, Dr. Charles Raison mentions the fact that studies have shown that rumination actually causes inflammation.
I used to overthink the shit out of everything- believing that I could solve my way out of problems, I would sit up in bed all night tossing and turning. The truth of the matter is problems will come and eventually go, resolving themselves on their own- and as long as I have done the very best that I can do, then there is nothing else left to be done. It is important for us to realize that there is a threshold upon which we should focus on things. The law of diminishing return certainly applies to thinking about ways to solve problems that are usually out of our control.
Scale Down – Make peace with regret. It’s easy to spend countless hours thinking about what we could have done differently to change the outcome of our current situation, but those thoughts are unproductive and unhealthy. Remember that mistakes are a tool for learning- and if we never made any we would never improve. Embrace your mistakes and treat yourself with love and forgiveness- at the end of the day, we are all doing the best that we can and we deserve to give ourselves credit for that.
Rx- Cold Showers
Until recently cold water, and cold showers for that matter were the bane of my existence. It wasn’t until I heard a podcast touting the mood-boosting benefits of cold showers that I decided to investigate further.
In a recent study by Dr. Nikolai Shevchuk at The Department of Radiation Oncology at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine conducted a study that showed cold showers could be an effective treatment for depression. He proposed that depression was caused by a coupling of two factors: “(A) A lifestyle that lacks certain physiological stressors that have been experienced by primates through millions of years of evolution, such as brief changes in body temperature (e.g. cold swim), and this lack of “thermal exercise” may cause inadequate functioning of the brain. (B) Genetic makeup that predisposes an individual to be affected by the above condition more seriously than other people.” His study proved that cold showers, also known as hydrotherapy could have an analgesic (pain-relieving) effect on the brain by activating the sympathetic nervous system (part of the brain responsible for flight or fight), boosting beta-endorphin and noradrenaline levels in the blood, and sending electrical impulses to the brain through cold receptors in the skin.
I’ll be the first to admit it took me a while to get used to jumping into the cold water, even after a sweaty workout- but I can definitely attest to the mood-boosting benefits; I feel so invigorated after a nice cold one. The added bonus is that my skin and hair have never looked more hydrated. Win-wins are my favorite.
Scale Down – Start hot and gradual go cold. If you are used to warm/hot showers then start with warm water and gradual turn the water cold. I would recommend at least 2-3 minutes of cold water- but you can certainly build up to that. I really enjoy a cold shower after a good sweat- so that’s also another option to help you get acclimated.
Rx- Hot yoga
Hot yoga is different from regular yoga because it is conducted at a faster pace in a heated room (up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit). However, research shows that it is the very stress from this style of yoga that can lead to an increase in serotonin levels and result in a better, more relaxed mood. Regulating serotonin levels help thwart depression and improve your overall mental health. According to the website com “Serotonin is a hormone that is classified as a neurotransmitter, sending nerve impulses between nerve cells. Serotonin may play a role in regulating your mood, sleep patterns, and learning capabilities. Serotonin levels fluctuate with the seasons, and serotonin’s impact on the body differs between men and women. Many antidepressant medications work by chemically raising serotonin levels. Exercise, such as yoga, is a natural way to boost your serotonin levels.”
Scale Down – Yoga. If hot yoga is too rich for your blood, definitely do yoga. There are oodles of research popping up to corroborate why yoga is good for you. Beyond mod boosting benefits, some studies have shown that yoga helps regulate sleep, lower cortisol levels, suppress emotional eating, and, similar to meditation, has even been shown to increase the gray matter in your brain.
Rx- 30-minute nature walks or jogs
I try to go for jogs at least twice a week and there is definitely something to be said about getting up and getting outside. There are times when I have to fight the internal resistance to stay in, and I am always glad for it. Something about getting out of my house helps me clear my head. I always equate my apartment to the inside of my head- and many times we get trapped in our own heads for so long- that minor problems appear major. It is then this physical stepping outside that helps to soothe me. As luck would have it, science backs up my intuition. A recent article in the New York Times corroborates the fact that walks in nature can actually lessen the blood flow to the subgenual prefrontal cortex- the part of the brain responsible for rumination and over-thinking.
Scale Down –Get outside for 15 minutes. While it’s not clear exactly how much time is needed to reap the benefits of being in nature, if you can’t find 30 minutes to go for a walk, then how about sitting outside? When I need to get out, I love sitting in my backyard and staring at the trees. Something so simple as watching the wind blow and realizing there is a giant universe out there, beyond the four walls of my apartment- really helps to soothe my spirit and put things back in their right perspective.
Rx- Get 7-9 hours of continuous night’s sleep a day
An immense amount of brain repair takes place in our sleep. According to an article in Live Science, “Scientists once thought that sleep was a passive state, a time when a person’s brain and body shut down for the night to rest and recover. But now, researchers know that sleep is a highly active time, a period during which the brain and some physiological processes may be hard at work.”
Scale Down – There really is no scale down for this. After starting Matthew Walker’s book, Why We Sleep– I realize the non-negotiable importance of 8 hours of sleep for our brain to properly function. Brain repair, REM and NREM sleep are important parts of what helps us retain new skills, deal with trauma, and perform at our optimum potential. Too many of us are burning the candle on both ends, trying to get ‘ahead’ not realizing that it is hurting us in the long run.
The brain is such a mysterious beautiful organ housed inside of us, and it’s so important to give it attention, love, and care. Since focusing on brain health I have been able to reap the benefits of better moods, less anxiety, and higher functioning cognitive abilities. The brain like anything else we chose to take care of- it will prosper if we nurture it. I hope you see that giant blob between your ears in a different light, a beautiful light, a light that inspires you to do everything in your power to care for it- to make sure you are not hurting it- but that you are doing everything in your power to develop habits that allow your brain to thrive.