We hear a lot about the importance of heart health, gut health and taking care of our overall health, but one area often overlooked is brain health. "Your brain is a unique organ like a muscle, the more you use it the more it develops," Dr. Walid Wazni, a Neurologist and Medical Director of the Stroke Center at Dignity Health St. Mary Hospital in Long Beach tells us. Having good brain health enhances your ability to effectively communicate, problem solve, make good decisions and live a productive life. "The health of one's brain is the most important goal for a happy and functional life. Anyone with a family member with advanced dementia is aware of how dehumanizing it is to be without a well-functioning brain," Dr. Mark Liker MD Neurosurgeon with Dignity Health Northridge Hospital adds. Eat This, Not That! Health spoke with neurologists who explain why it's important to rewire your mind and daily habits to include in your daily routine that are good for the brain. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.
Why Brain Health is Important
Dr. Liang Wang, MD Neurology, Dignity Health Northridge says, "As a neurologist, I am always searching for the latest in evidence-based medicine so that I can provide the most current recommendations regarding brain health to my patients. We as human beings have a brain that is most extraordinary and capable of astonishing things: our brains have led us to the moon, composed beautiful music (that get stuck in our heads coincidentally), and make the most complicated acrobatic movements look easy. Yet we were all born without these abilities; that's where neuroplasticity comes in-one of the most important concepts in neuroscience and neurology. No, our brains aren't made of plastic (though some days we might feel that way); it simply means our brain is constantly reorganizing and rewiring itself. Think of it like your smartphone's operating system, constantly changing its functions depending on how you use it, without ever needing periodic updates. Pretty neat! Not every change is for the better however. Sadly, many readers likely have experienced a most tragic loss of a loved one due to declining mental function resulting in dementia, robbing someone of a dignified living as a person. This is all in large part due to neurodegeneration that has either hijacked or overcome the potential of neuroplasticity to ill effect, causing permanent brain damage. Which is why maintaining brain health and avoiding detrimental changes to our neuroplasticity will help ensure we remain our optimal selves for as long as possible."
Why You Should Rewire Your Brain and How To Do It
Dr. Liker states, "Nowadays the significant changes in the daily circadian and therefore brain rhythms have been disrupted by a variety of influences and we are seeing that in the increased rates of psychological disease affecting both young and old. Rewiring the brain is a loose term that can be better defined as rectifying the functional connectivity that has gone awry due to whatever exogenous influence whether it be separation from friends and loved ones, increased drug and alcohol use, reduced physical activity, excess use of social media, change in eating or sleep habits, illness or financial stresses etc. . The most effective way to reconstitute the normal functional connectivity of the brain is to resume a healthy lifestyle. It requires a return to structured and healthy habits that we perhaps forgot or dismissed due to recent societal changes. Because of the natural diurnal changes in many brain hormones and neurochemicals, a set of regular habits will stand to benefit the brain in the long term. That means returning to the things that we all know make us feel better and improve brain function such as eating and sleeping at regular times, reducing exogenous and endogenous stimulation, getting regular exercise, eating a balanced diet. The pandemic and its effects have uncovered a great deal of psychopathology that has been "submarined" in the pre pandemic period because of loss of some regular coping mechanisms that were interfered with due to the effects of the pandemic. Depression (adult, adolescent and pediatric), anxiety, OCD, addictive behavior, pain syndromes, effects of prior head trauma can all become more burdensome in recent times. One promising technology involves non-invasive and gentle transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), an FDA approved therapy for some of these diseases but which also has shown surprisingly good outcomes in off-labeled applications. The general concept behind TMS is the transmission of energy to the brain surface (cortical layer) in the form of a magnetic current that rectifies the abnormal circuitry and brain oscillations that have emerged because of the above negative factors. Improvements in objective brain wave patterns (electroencephalography) and more subjective clinical behavior can be identified after the series of treatments needed to provide lasting benefit. It is a technology more common in Europe but recent developments such as MRI-guided brain navigation and personalized treatment based on abnormal EEG patterns have made the technology much more effective."
Mindful of Mental Health
Dr. Wang reminds us, "We live in a stressful and unpredictable time right now, so I will start with this. I tell my patients that even in the face of all the stressors and negativity in life, they should face it with a positive attitude; not only will they feel better, but it also helps their brain as well! Coping with stressors and maintaining mental health have been shown in studies to improve neuroplasticity and significant stress have been shown to decrease it. Talking about mental health is no longer a taboo topic, and in fact has become a hot button issue since the era of Covid. Make time and effort daily to be mindful!"
Dr. Wazni explains, "Both the quantity and quality—is crucial to our brain health. Poor sleeping habits have been linked to numerous neurological diseases such as stroke, cognitive aging, dementia, Parkinson's disease."
According to Dr. Wang, "Restful sleep is essential for neuroplasticity as well as overall bodily health; lack of sleep, even for one night, has been shown to significantly impair brain function. Ask yourself, when was the last time you had consistent restful sleep for one week in a row? When I counsel my patients on this topic, I also include this question and I can tell you a staggering amount I can't remember when. Restful sleep also means that the sleep you are getting is quality sleep, so go see a doctor if you have any suspicion of a condition, such as obstructive sleep apnea that is disrupting sleep. Snooze away (healthily) for better brain health!"
Dr. Wazni says, "Social engagement can provide protection against dementia. Engagement in social activities may reduce the risk of dementia due to mental and intellectual stimulation, this is especially important later in life."
Daily Walking and Exercise
Dr. Wazni shares, "Exercise can help protect our memory as we age by preventing brain atrophy. Exercise also reduces stress and anxiety by releasing neurotransmitters responsible for stress and anxiety replenishing your synapses."
Dr. Wang states, "We all know exercise is important, but specifically for the brain, I recommend daily walking to my patients. From a brain perspective, walking is just fine. Repeated studies have shown increased blood flow to the brain, increased markers of plasticity, and better cognitive function, all just from daily walking! Contrary to popular belief, we really do use 100% of our brain, and walking (even at normal speed) uses a large portion of our brain and cognitive capacity, even if we don't feel that it is mentally challenging (unlike say, doing taxes). So, my advice is to lace up, check out a new playlist or podcast, and get to 30 minutes of walking a day!"
Dr. Wang says, "The adage, use it or lose it, is what I say to my patients. We have this gift of a brain and its extraordinary capacity to learn and absorb new things in life, throughout our life, so don't waste it! Whether it be crossword puzzles, a new recipe, a new sport, and yes even video games, the key is new and novel. The very nature of neuroplasticity means experiencing something new and different, so doing the same routine every single day isn't as beneficial as trying new things. It doesn't have to be a new thing everyday of course, but new enough to keep your brain engaged. There's no recommended frequency of new things, just do what feels natural to you."
Diet and Gut-Brain Connection
According to Dr. Wazni, "A healthy diet reduces your risk of stroke or cerebrovascular disease. Mediterranean diets which are typically rich in omega-3 fatty acids and unsaturated fats that have been linked to lower blood levels of beta-amyloid—the protein linked to Alzheimer's."
"One of the newest intriguing areas in neurology and neuroscience is the concept of the "gut brain connection" and yes, it is exactly what it sounds like," says Dr. Wang. "Research has shown that altered gut microbiota (the variety and number of different microbes in your gut) contributes to development of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease as well as mental health issues. Even more amazingly, fecal transplant of young mice into older mice reversed some hallmarks of aging in the eyes and brain! Because everyone's gut is different, I generally recommend to my patients the MIND diet specifically because it has been shown to reduce the risk of cognitive decline and dementia. As for probiotics, I generally find natural ones found in soy and milk products like yogurt and miso."