It is important to realize that growing older (and wiser!) is not the same thing as aging. Everyone grows older all the time, but we aren’t necessarily aging as we do so since, by definition, the aging process is one of deterioration in both physical health and brain health.
The Art of Staying Young: Are You Aging or Youthening?
You grew older today, but did you age as well? If you drank a few cups of green tea, had five servings of fruits and vegetables, exercised for at least 30 minutes at your target heart rate, took nutritional supplements optimized for your age and health situation, spending quality time with close friends and loved ones, consuming a glass of red wine, had a romantic (and sensual!) time with your spouse or significant other, and got eight hours of quality sleep, then you probably aged very little if at all.
You probably sustained your bodily and brain health by engaging in these activities that foster healthy brains. If you were a couch potato, ate doughnuts for breakfast, skipped lunch, consumed an excessive amount of coffee, smoked cigarettes, and got into stressful arguments with friends, co-workers, and loved ones, then you probably aged a lot as none of these activities improve brain function. People can look old in their thirties or young in their sixties, and the lifestyle choices you make every hour make all the difference.
Multiple processes cause us to age. Some are simple, such as the depletion of a vital substance called phosphatidylcholine in our cell membranes (which you can reverse by supplementing with that substance, as we discuss in the section on brain health supplements below). Some are complex, such as keeping your most important organ—your brain—healthy. We’ll discuss optimal brain health and sleep since sleep is vital to healthy brain function.
We Think, Therefore We Are: The Importance of Optimal Brain Function
Your brain makes up only 2% of your weight yet receives 20% of the blood coming from your heart and uses 20% of your body’s oxygen and glucose. It also represents 50% of your genetic complexity. In other words, half of your genes describe the design of your brain, with the other half describing the organization of the other 98% of your body. Moreover, your brain is the master puppeteer: It controls every beat of your heart, every blink of your eyes, the release of your hormones, not to mention all of your willful activities. It has long been regarded as the seat of consciousness, the true you. So it makes sense to consider what you can do to support and improve your brain function, keeping it healthy—and happy, too! As it turns out, there is a lot you can do to cultivate a healthy brain. The ideas here can dramatically slow down brain aging and help you avoid the often catastrophic downsides of brain dysfunction.
100 Billion Neurons and 1 Trillion Cells
We now know the human brain is composed of about 100 billion neurons plus a trillion glial support cells. It was originally thought that the glial cells just provided physical support for the neurons, but recent studies have demonstrated that they play a role in influencing the synapses, which are the connections between neurons. We have about 100 trillion such connections, and that is indeed where most of the action takes place. So there is a lot of complexity that goes into brain health.
As we continue the accelerating progress toward “reverse-engineering,” understanding the methods of how the brain works, in both diseased and healthy brains, we’ll gain far greater insight into our own human nature, which has been the goal of the arts and sciences since we first wrote symbols on stone tablets over 5,000 years ago. The results of this grand engineering project, which now includes over 50,000 scientists and engineers, will also provide us with methods for evermore intelligent computer software and information about natural brain vitamins and supplements to maintain brain health. But the benefit most relevant to us is that we will gain far more powerful ways of improving brain functioning and fixing what goes wrong in our brains.And there is a lot that does go wrong. Evolution focused on our formative years and enough of our early adulthood to allow us to raise our children so that they became self-sufficient. As a result, keeping our brains healthy much past our twenties was not a trait selected by natural selection when our brains evolved. Our brain health is subject to either sudden or gradual decline with age, to self-destructive addictive behaviors, to depression and anxiety disorders, and to many other limitations, not to mention potentially catastrophic lapses of judgment—which can still happen even in healthy brains!
You Create Your Brain: The Self-Repairing Mind
Perhaps the most important insight relevant to brain health that has come from recent advances in information technology is the plasticity of the brain. Since the mid-19th century, it was thought that brain regions were hardwired for specific tasks and that neurons could not be replaced. In 1857, French neurosurgeon Paul Broca related specific cognitive deficits to particular regions of the brain affected by injury or surgery. For more than a century, it was believed that unlike other areas of the body that are capable of repairing themselves, the brain could not replace its neurons and connections that had been lost or damaged and that we are continually and irretrievably losing brain matter.
From recent brain imaging research, we now know the brain possesses plasticity, meaning it is perhaps the most dynamic and self-organizing organ of the body. Although there is some degree of specialization in the skills of different regions of the brain, stroke victims are often able to transfer skills from a damaged region to one that is undamaged and restore a healthy brain. Moreover, we can see in recent brain scans how we actually grow new brain connections and even create new neurons from stem cells as a result of our thoughts, which also contribute to brain health.
In an experiment with monkeys at the University of California, brain scans obtained before and after the animals were trained to perform a specific task involving the nimbleness of one finger showed substantial growth in neural connections associated with controlling that finger. An experiment with humans who were taught how to play the violin showed substantial growth of connections associated with the fingers of the left hand responsible for controlling the notes.
A brain-scanning experiment at Rutgers and Stanford universities involved training dyslexic (reading-impaired) students on how to distinguish between hard-to-resolve consonants such as “p” and “b.” After the training, brain scans showed substantial growth and increased activity in the region of the brain responsible for this discrimination. All of these studies show that brain health can be continually strengthened in healthy brains without any brain supplements or nutrients. Paula Tallal, one of the scientists who created this dyslexic training system, commented that “you create your brain from the input you get.”
In the latest brain image studies, we can see real-time movies of individual interneuronal connections actually creating new synapses (connection points between neurons), so we can see our brain create our thoughts and in turn see our thoughts create our brain.
The true meaning of Descartes’ famous dictum, “I think therefore I am,” has been debated for centuries, but these findings provide a new interpretation: I do indeed create my mind from my own thoughts.
Use It or Lose It
The lesson of these new insights is that our brain is entirely like any of our physical muscles: Use it or lose it. We all know what happens to your muscles if you are bedridden from illness or just living the couch potato life. The same thing happens to your brain health. By failing to engage it in intellectually challenging activities even if you’re supplementing with brain vitamins and nutrients, your otherwise healthy brain will fail to grow new connections, and it will indeed become disorganized and ultimately dysfunctional. The converse is also true for both body and brain. If someone who has not been physically active for a sustained period starts a program of physical therapy and regular exercise, she can regain her muscle mass and tone within a matter of months. The same thing is true to improve brain function.
Many studies demonstrate that people who maintain their intellectual activities throughout life maintain a healthy brain and remain mentally sharp without using brain supplements. A Canadian brain health study called the Victoria Longitudinal Study has shown that older individuals who routinely engage in mentally challenging activities, including everyday activities such as reading, remain mentally alert, as compared with the substantial cognitive decline of those who do not engage in these activities.
Just as we have more than one muscle to keep fit for a healthy body, we have more than one region of the brain that we need to exercise to keep a healthy brain. To keep the cerebellum—the region of the brain that controls voluntary movement—healthy, you should engage in physical activities, particularly those that involve the development of skills such as sports.
Everything is Connected
The concept that certain brain activities occur in the left half of the brain and others on the right is only partially true. As researchers have learned more about how a healthy brain operates, they’ve recently discovered that a type of neuron called the spindle cell crosses from one side of the brain to the other and appears to be heavily involved in higher-level emotions. In recent brain-scanning experiments using new types of scanners that can image individual neurons, these cells “light up” (become especially active) when test subjects are shown a picture of a loved one or hear their child crying. The spindle cells are unusual in that they can be very long, spanning the entire length of the brain, and are deeply interconnected with other neurons. In a healthy brain, one spindle cell will typically have hundreds of thousands of connections to other cells. Unlike the highly organized cells of the cerebral cortex, the brain region responsible for rational thought, the spindle cells display unpredictable and fairly exotic structures and connection patterns.
They are connected to almost every other region, so they receive input from everything else going on in our brain. From these studies, it is apparent that the spindle cells are not doing rational problem solving, which is why we don’t have rational control over our emotional responses. Moreover, these studies hint at how important emotional health is to overall brain health.
Although each spindle cell is very complex, we don’t have very many of them. In a healthy brain, only about 80,000 of our 10 billion neurons are spindle cells. Only a few animal species have spindle cells at all. Gorillas have about 16,000, bonobos about 2,100, and chimpanzees about 1,800. Recently we have discovered that whales actually have more than humans. Interestingly, newborn humans don’t have any spindle cells. They begin to appear at about 4 months and develop through 3 years of age, which exactly mirrors the ability of young children to deal with higher-level emotions and moral issues.
About 45,000 of the spindle cells are in the right hemisphere, and 35,000 are in the left. This small imbalance appears to account for the notion that the right brain is the emotional brain and the left brain is the more rational brain. Although the right brain does have more spindle cells, both halves of the brain are engaged in logical and emotional activities. Individuals with a rare brain health disorder who use only half of their brain often appear to behave almost normally, engaging in both logical and emotional activities.
Exercising Your Mind For a Healthier Brain
The concept that the right brain is responsible for creativity and emotion and the left brain is the center for rational and logical thought is more metaphor than reality. Nonetheless, in terms of exercising your brain, it is important to engage both your logical and your emotional faculties for a healthy brain. To the extent that your job or educational activities do not engage your logical brain, find activities that require problem-solving in order to improve brain function and brain health. There are myriad examples, ranging from board games such as chess to solving crossword or Sudoku puzzles. Keeping track of your finances or planning a trip will engage your logical mind. Reading and writing certainly engage both aspects of your brain. Express your creative and artistic urges by studying a musical instrument. Learn to create art using any modality, including computer graphics. Take up a hobby. Take an adult education course. Travel to new places. Engage in conversations with interesting and thoughtful people. Most important, emphasize interpersonal relationships for a healthy brain. Strong connections to others deeply engage both types of mental activities and satisfy a basic human need.
So, here’s a useful suggestion on what you can think about to keep your brain healthy: Contemplate how to keep your brain—and body—healthy. You can start improving brain function by adapting the suggestions here into your personal plan! The suggestions include both lifestyle adjustments and brain supplements, nutrients, and vitamins you can incorporate into your diet.
Healthy Lifestyle, Healthy Brain
As we’ve discussed, in many ways you are what you think. But the old dictum that you are what you eat is also true. In addition to keeping your brain challenged, our dietary recommendations constitute your first line of defense for maintaining a healthy brain and if you’re not meeting those there are some additional brain supplements you may want to incorporate. Your brain is 60% fat, so consuming healthy fats is especially important for brain health. Both EPA and DHA, the principal components of the omega-3 fats found in fish, are important constituents in brain tissue.
Inflammation (overactivation of the immune system) is a major accelerator of brain aging, so our dietary recommendations aimed at reducing inflammation (such as avoiding high-glycemic-index carbohydrates including sugary foods and starches) are also important for brain health.
The Importance of Sleep
Shakespeare’s lines illuminated sleep and dreams as among life’s precious pleasures. We all value a good night’s rest, and yet research shows that one person in three is chronically sleep-deprived. People often try to solve the problem by consuming a lot of caffeine in the morning, but this habit has cultivated a population of nervous—and still tired—individuals. And though you might be convinced that caffeine actually does improve brain function, good sleep is the real key to a healthy brain and can be just as helpful, if not more, as brain supplements and nutrients.
Sleep has also been shown to have many other important functions for health. The brain consumes 20% of the body’s supply of glucose, and sleep improves glucose uptake into the brain. A baby’s brain can use as much as 50% of the total glucose supply, which may help explain why babies need so much sleep. Leptin is a hormone that decreases appetite, and leptin levels rise during sleep. Many people today don’t get enough sleep, which may help explain the dramatic rise in the number of people with weight problems. Sleep improves brain function, memory, and the ability to learn and retain new material. Lack of sleep adversely affects mood and decreases energy and overall brain health. We feel that getting adequate sleep is just as important to a healthy brain as diet and exercise in everyone’s wellness program.
The most important phase of sleep, called REM (rapid eye movement), makes up about a quarter of our time spent sleeping. (Don’t worry, if you aren’t getting enough REM sleep there are some brain health supplements that can help with that.) This is the phase during which you do the most dreaming and are most likely to remember your dreams. Your eyes move rapidly as if you were engaged in a drama from your waking life, although the body from the neck down is largely paralyzed.
What the Science Says About Sleep
Recent advances in brain scanning technology have begun to reveal why sleep is so important to body and brain health. We can actually see in brain scans of a living healthy brain how our brain reorganizes itself during dreaming and processes the information that streamed into our brains during the day. In the journal Science, scientists reported studies of the brain during dreaming, especially during REM sleep, using a brain-scanning technology called positron emission tomography (PET). They found that many regions of the brain are just as active during dreaming as when awake, some actually substantially more so. The brain continues to process visual images, though obviously not from the eyes; and the regions of the brain that process new visual information, including regions of the frontal lobe that combine processed information from the eyes with other sensory information, are quiet. Here’s what’s interesting about how sleep contributes to improving brain function: The regions of the brain involved in creating new memories and making sense of our emotions are even more active than when we are awake. The amygdala, a region responsible for intense emotions such as fear, as well as other regions responsible for consolidating emotional memories, is especially active during REM sleep. Psychiatrist J. Allan Hobson of Harvard Medical School, a researcher on the PET brain imaging study, commented that “the PET results are consistent with Freud’s idea that dreams have meaning.” As you can see, sleep, and maybe even dreaming, are playing a big role in ensuring an emotionally healthy brain.
Research at Harvard Medical School has demonstrated that sleep helps us absorb new information and process our experiences in a procedure called memory consolidation. In studies, people who slept adequately after studying a new task scored significantly higher on tests than people who did not sleep well, despite both groups having otherwise healthy brain function. With the most recent brain scanning technology, we can now actually see the brain make new connections as it creates new memories and new insights by processing information gathered through the day. An agreement on the exact role of dreaming will require further progress on reverse-engineering the brain in general, but there is a growing consensus that dreaming is not just a random process of neural firing and that it is vital for our brain health but also our physical health.
Sleep Problems and What it Means
Each of us will experience occasional periods of poor sleep resulting from a wide range of distractions, such as gastrointestinal upset and daytime worries, but the serious health concern is chronic sleep deprivation. Harvard Medical School reports a wide range of negative effects on healthy brain functioning from a consistent failure to get a good night’s sleep. It can cause weight gain by affecting leptin levels that control appetite as well as our ability to process carbohydrates efficiently. Sleep deprivation has been linked to hypertension and increased levels of stress hormones, which heighten the risk of heart disease. It can suppress the immune system, which can increase the risk of cancer and other diseases. Not sleeping can make you accident-prone. And not sleeping adequately can wreck your mood and ability to concentrate. If you think this may be you, check with your doctor about taking some of the brain supplements for sleep listed below.
Moreover, good sleep can improve brain health and function. In our own experience, we have found that if we get a good night’s sleep (which is most of the time), we have a positive attitude toward life and have the energy and optimism to deal with the challenges that each day brings. Conversely, if we’ve slept poorly, even small problems can stick and become upsetting.
Our first recommendation with regard to sleep is to recognize its importance and to give it a high priority. Pulling an all-nighter to make a deadline is invariably self-defeating. Following the recommendations that follow will put you in close touch with your body and your needs so you will be able to identify just how much sleep you need to keep your brain healthy and happy. Although sleep requirements do vary from person to person, to ensure healthy brain and cognitive function most people need at least seven to eight hours per night.
How to Get Great Sleep Every Night
Here’s our seven-point program for getting a good night’s sleep every night:
1. Eat right. By following the nutrition recommendations in our book Transcend, as well as getting some of the brain health supplements and vitamins listed above, you’ll feel better overall, your gastrointestinal system will be happier, and you’ll sleep better.
2. Remember that exercise promotes a healthy brain and a natural cycle of sleep. If you have difficulty sleeping, increase your aerobic exercise, although you shouldn’t exercise right before retiring for the night. Aerobic exercise releases endorphins, which are natural chemicals that reduce stress.
3. Follow our guidelines for reducing stress, as outlined in our book Transcend (Chapter 9).
4. Practice good sleep hygiene before retiring. This means slowing down and engaging in relaxing activities such as reading before going to bed. Working on a stressful project or listening to stimulating music is not the best way to wind down. Having a regular routine at the end of the day is conducive to sleep, which dramatically improves brain function.
5. If you have difficulty sleeping, cut down on caffeine or avoid it altogether. Don’t consume caffeine in the afternoon or evening.
6. Assess whether you suffer from sleep apnea, a common condition in which the mouth opens widely during sleep, causing a temporary blockage of air and a decline in available oxygen. This is a very common reason that people do not sleep well.
7. Consider the following natural brain supplements, which are helpful for ensuring a good night’s sleep (the authors take some of these):
+ L-theanine is a substance found in tea and promotes relaxation.
+ GABA is a brain nutrient/neurotransmitter and a natural, mild tranquilizer. We recommend 500 to 1,000 milligrams before retiring.
+ Melatonin is a natural hormone that controls the body’s sleep clock, which is necessary for a healthy brain. Normally, the body’s level of melatonin dramatically increases when it is time to go to sleep. This in turn triggers a cascade of other hormonal changes to prepare the body for sleep.
Melatonin levels decline with age, which is one reason people have more difficulty falling and staying asleep as they get older. You should take melatonin only when it is time to start your night’s sleep. Do not take it in the middle of the night if you wake up because that will confuse your body’s sleep clock. If you have trouble falling asleep, we recommend the sublingual form, which will go directly into the bloodstream. Standard oral preparations or timed-release preparations are better if you have trouble staying asleep. A wide range of doses, from 0.2 to 10 milligrams, is usually effective. The sublingual form is also available in doses of 2.5 to 3 milligrams. Usually, a 1-milligram sublingual dose is sufficient, and many people find that larger doses leave them groggy the next day. Melatonin is also useful for resetting your sleep clock when you change time zones. In this case, take this brain health supplement when it is time to go to sleep in the new time zone.
The Power of Ideas
Here is a suggestion for an idea that you can adopt today that will change your life: You alone are responsible for your brain health—not your doctor, not your relatives, not your friends. You are not only the pilot, you’re the only one on the plane. Once you’re on the road to improving brain function, slowing down aging, and dramatically reducing your risk of disease, you’ll find that you will discover new ideas on a regular basis as our knowledge of how to maintain a healthy brain and biology continues to grow exponentially.
We are the only species that uses its brains to extend its horizons. We’ll eventually have powerful new technologies to improve our brains in dramatic ways, but you can apply your own mental powers to start enhancing your life today.
The article on brain health supplements and habits is excerpted from Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever by Terry Grossman, M.D. and Ray Kurzweil.
If you would like to see the supplements please go to the website https://www.consciouslifestylemag.com/brain-health-key-supplements-habits/