Your body and mind are connected by nerve bundles, which move muscles and keep your organs functioning. Sensory stimuli is provided to the brain through these nerves. A healthy brain therefore starts with a healthy body. Athletes have more than likely been focusing on athletic performance, perhaps without even realizing the affect your physical activity has on your brain. For those of us who quit exercising abruptly (perhaps because of an injury, or because of getting so sick of pushing the body for hours, years on end), may therefore not know the affect that a lack of exercising has on the brain.
Many brain health programs begin by focusing on physical health. A quarter of the blood our heart circulates is consumed by the brain. Therefore, the stronger your heart, the more efficient the brain. A healthy heart requires a balanced and nutritional diet low in fat and high in fiber and antioxidants, as well as regular exercise.
Exercise also physically changes your brain. To get all sciency, “Aside from boosting the amount of oxygen red blood cells carry to the neurons, exercise increases the density and number of blood vessels in the motor cortex and cerebellum, which control conscious and unconscious movement” (Sweeney 2013). Our health and our minds are of course interconnected, but it helps to know the ways in which to stimulate our brain, and what substance (in addition to no exercise), can limit the flow of blood to the brain.
- Nicotine: Smoking cuts the flow of blood to every organ.
- Dehydration: The brain is 80% water, so without it, it is difficult to perform physical acts and hard to focus.
- Caffeine: In addition to reducing blood flow, caffeine also disrupts sleep and causes dehydration (however, research also suggests that there are also some benefits to the brain with a small amount of coffee or tea per day, because a little can improve attention—essential to learning and memory).
- Lack of Sleep: Studies have shown that those who sleep less than six hours per night have decreased blood flow to the brain, impairing memory, mood, and cognitive function.
- Drugs and Alcohol: The toxic affect of these substances harm blood vessels. An exception is red wine that contains the ingredient “resveratrol,” which actually protects blood vessels.
- Diabetes: This disease causes blood vessels to grow brittle, and prevents proper healing of damaged tissue. The risk of stroke is also increased.
- Stress: When to body reacts to potential danger, real or imagined, the endocrine glands prepare to fight against an enemy or predator or to run away. The flood of stress hormone adrenaline slows blood to the muscles at the expense of other regions. A bit of stress can actually spark higher achievement, but chronic stress can damage the brain due to the change of blood flow. Spikes in pressure can leave blood vessels vulnerable to breaking, impair memory, and create difficulty concentrating and learning.
So, if we eliminate (or at least reduce!) that which decreases blood flow, and increase exercise, we are taking steps towards a healthier brain with a better capacity for concentration, memorization, learning, and function. Studies have found that even walking for just ten minutes a day can boost energy levels for an hour. Whatever elevates your pulse and gets you sweating improves the function of your heart and lungs.
Basic Recipe for a Healthy Brain:
30 minutes of blood pumping, sweaty excercise
3 healthy meals (low in fat, high in fiber and antioxidants)
6 + hours of Sleep
2 deep breaths in stressful situations
1 cup of coffee at most
1 glass of red wine at most
Sweeney, Michael S. & Green Cynthia R. (2013). Complete Guide to Brain Health: How to Stay Sharp, Improve Memory, and Boost Creativity. Washington D.C.: National Geographic Society.