How to improve your brain health might not be something you’ve really given much thought to, but it’s an important question we should all be asking. From reaction times to skill acquisition and problem-solving, brain health is inextricably linked to all aspects of cognitive function, and by extension, human performance.
And it’s not just practical stuff such as coordination and spatial awareness, brain health governs your whole mindset. But what do we mean when we refer to ‘brain health’ and how can we make our brains as healthy as possible? Is it possible, for example, to improve brain health and cognitive function through diet and nutrition? Let’s see what the science says....
What is brain health?
The brain is the most complex organ in the human body. It is also one of the least understood. With no universally recognised definition or measurement of brain health, the term typically refers to cognitive function: perception, memory, learning, attention, decision-making etc. Genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors all influence cognitive function. While it’s impossible to alter genetics and often difficult to change environment, lifestyle changes are totally possible.
Why is it important to have good brain health?
Our brains change as we learn and experience new things throughout our lives. In a healthy brain, new connections continually develop and broken ones are repaired. But as we age, changes start to happen within the brain that create a gradual decrease in mental capabilities. The better your brain health, the better chance you have of avoiding problems later in life. More than that, good brain health is the key to thriving in daily life as well as those crunch moments that demand God-tier reactions or some serious lateral thinking.
Can you improve brain health?
Your brain health is dictated by a multitude of lifestyle factors. The usual suspects such as drinking alcohol, dehydration, smoking cigarettes and poor quality sleep can have detrimental effects on brain health, for example. On the flipside, quality sleep, regular exercise, and a nutritious diet are your best bet for taking it the other direction, partly by managing general health indicators such as blood pressure and cholesterol levels and partly by ensuring your brain has all the vital nutrients it needs to function at its peak.
How to improve your brain health
The link between sleep deprivation and reduced cognitive function is well documented, with multiple studies finding an undeniable connection that can’t be ignored. So, first things first, you need to work on an optimum sleep strategy.
Exercise is the next best thing you can do for your brain health. The good news is even quick sessions can have a positive impact as demonstrated by a 2019 study by Oregon Health & Science University that found short bursts of exercise could directly boost the function of a gene that increases connections between neurons in the hippocampus, the region of the brain associated with learning and memory.
Even better news? Researchers at University of South Australia who set out to discover if the intensity of exercise matters concluded that, ‘the brain derives substantial benefits from both high intensity interval training and longer, continuous bouts of moderate exercise’.
Your brain works 24/7, meaning it requires a constant supply of fuel. The vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants you consume nourish the brain and protect it from oxidative stress (the waste produced when your body uses oxygen, which can damage cells). Therefore, how you fuel your brain is vitally important for optimum cognitive function.
Which foods promote brain health?
You can head to Google and read various ‘Best brain health foods’ list, and while there is no harm guzzling punnets of blueberries for the memory-boosting anthocyanins or handfuls of tomatoes for the antioxidant qualities of lycopene, the general rule of nutrition applies: try to eat as wide a variety of whole foods such as fruit, vegetables and grains as possible.
Of course, maintaining a consistently varied, healthy diet is often easier said than done. Thankfully, dietary supplementation can help, but with so many to choose from (all claiming a multitude of benefits) what ingredients should you be looking for to ensure optimum brain health?
What are the best brain health supplements?
Sometimes referred to as nootropics (a catch-all term for substances that claim to improve cognitive function) some supplements contain nutrients that could improve your brain health. Some of the scientifically researched brain health boosting ingredients to watch out for are...
Studies suggest saffron’s high levels of carotenoids and B vitamins help increase the levels of serotonin and other chemicals in the brain associated with happiness. A meta-analysis of five studies even found saffron extract to be as effective as antidepressants at treating severe depression (1).
Zinc plays a critical role in regulating communication between cells in the brain, possibly governing the formation of memories (2). It also contributes to the protection of cells from oxidative stress.
Four of five randomised controlled studies linked L-theanine with reduced stress and anxiety in people experiencing stressful situations (3).
Found naturally in foods such as egg yolks and peanuts, and even in the human body, palmitic acid monoethanolamide (PEA) works in a very similar way to CBD to improve brain health by reducing inflammation (4). Unlike CBD, it has been clinically-proven to be 100% safe and there is also no risk of athletes failing doping tests.
How to improve your brain health: Summary
Your brain is your body’s most powerful organ and like the rest of your body, it performs better when healthy. The good news is you can improve your brain health through lifestyle factors such as recovery, nutrition and training. Additionally, you can supplement your diet with nutrients that have been scientifically-proven to improve brain health. Just remember, not all supplements are created equal.
(1) Hausenblas HA, Saha D, Dubyak PJ, Anton SD. Saffon (Crocus sativus L.) and major depressive disorder: a meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials. Journal of Integrative Medicine. 2013;11(6):377–83.
(2) Enhui Pan, Xiao-an Zhang, Zhen Huang, Artur Krezel, Min Zhao, Christine E. Tinberg, Stephen J. Lippard, James O. McNamara. Vesicular Zinc Promotes Presynaptic and Inhibits Postsynaptic Long-Term Potentiation of Mossy Fiber-CA3 Synapse. Neuron, 2011; 71
(3) Theanine consumption, stress and anxiety in human clinical trials: A systematic review. J.M.Everett, D.Gunathilake, L.Dufficy, P.Roach, J.Thomas, N.Naumovski. Journal of Nutrition & Intermediary Metabolism, Volume 4, June 2016, Pages 41-42
(4) Palmitoylethanolamide for the treatment of pain: pharmacokinetics, safety and efficacy. Br J Clin Pharmacol. Linda Gabrielsson, 1 Sofia Mattsson, 1 and Christopher J. Fowler. 2016 Oct; 82(4): 932–942.