Four things we can do to keep our brain sharp for longer
By Alexandra Rojas
Everything we do, from our thoughts and conscious movements – such as going for a walk – to our autonomic actions like our breath or heart rate, is commanded by our brain. While this fascinating organ represents around 2% of our body weight, it uses more than 20% of the energy our bodies generate; so, it is wise to keep it nourished with the right lifestyle and nutrition habits. Here are my top four recommendations for keeping our brains sharp for longer:
1. Hydration helps our brains thrive
Hydration is essential for brain health; the body has homeostatic mechanisms through our kidneys and brain to maintain balance by reducing urination or increasing thirst sensation. Many of us are not attuned to these signals, which can lead to chronic dehydration.
Research shows our brain’s abilities are sensitive to suboptimal hydration, which include cognitive deficits in short-term memory, numerical ability, psychomotor function and sustained attention deficits.
The mechanism on how hydration impacts our brains is complex. One theory is that neurotransmitters are impacted by antidiuretic hormones during dehydration (triggered by our kidneys), which could increase cortisol levels due to the stress response. Higher cortisol can, in turn, reduce memory and processing speed (Masento, et al., 2014).
Maintaining adequate levels of hydration is easy. Drinking fluids in small intervals throughout the day is always preferred and making sure we drink according to our activity levels. I encourage my clients to drink a glass of filtered water upon waking, either with electrolytes or lemon and a pinch of Himalayan salt. During the day, warm or cool herbal teas could be a great addition if water is not the drink of choice.
2. Pick a challenge on a daily basis
We have all heard the phrase “use it or lose it” when it comes to our brains, but I don’t quite agree with it. Challenging our brains with complex activities and learning new things, such as languages, hobbies or sports, might be the biggest key to improved cognitive function at any age.
Cognitive training and physical exercise as well as mindfulness can improve cognition via a molecule called brain‐derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) involved in the plastic changes related to learning and memory. In adults, BDNF maintains and regulates excitatory and inhibitory synapses, which is how our brain cells (neurons) communicate with each other (Miranda, et al., 2019).
Just attempting to challenge our brains could be good enough. Let’s say you start learning a new language; you don’t need to speak it fluently for new neuronal pathways to emerge. Merely starting to learn a new alphabet – how to write or pronounce it – will increase those neuronal connections.
A few ideas I give to clients who want to keep performing at the top is to do something away from screens if possible. New languages, painting, reading, drawing, Sudoku, word puzzles, Rubik’s Cube (my favourite), board games and any physical exercise, especially if outdoors, can all boost cognition.
3. Focus on eating nutrient-dense foods
You wouldn’t put low-quality petrol in an Aston Martin, so we should think the same way for one of our body’s most powerful pieces of ‘machinery’. Here are my top nutrients for brain health and why you should try to include them in your daily diet:
- Phosphatidylserine (PS), a key component of neurons cell membranes that support transmission of nerve impulses. Good sources: eggs, chicken, herring, beans, blueberries.
- DHA, a type of Omega 3 abundant in our brain, as our cell membranes are layered with fatty acids. It also supports PS production. Good sources: oily fish (salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, herring).
- B vitamins (especially B6, B9, B12) act as cofactors for neurotransmitter synthesis, brain energy production and methylation. Good sources: leafy greens, avocado, eggs, fish, meat, poultry, dairy.
- Magnesium, nature’s relaxing mineral is key in regulating metabolism of neurons and nerve transmission. Good sources: nuts and seeds, dark chocolate, avocados, leafy greens.
- Zinc, supports neuronal communication. Good sources: Pumpkin seeds, cashews, legumes, oysters, shellfish, meat.
- Turmeric, is neuroprotective, increases BDNF and supports new neuronal connections. Consume the root or powder in cooking, tea or turmeric latte.
- Lion’s Mane is a mushroom that helps reduce oxidative stress and inflammation. It is also used as a nootropic to enhance focus. Easiest way is to use a powder supplement on a hot drink or smoothie.
4. Sleep for vital housekeeping
Ensuring we have a consistently good night’s sleep is beneficial for overall health. There are two activities that take place while we sleep to support cognition and performance:
- Processing all our learnings and consolidating them into our memory, priming our neurons for problem solving and decision making;
- Astrocyte cells, a type of neuron, carries out important housekeeping activities, such as removing free radicals and metabolic waste products that build up while we are awake.
While it isn’t clear at which specific interval these activities take place during sleep, it is known astrocyte cell activity is dramatically enhanced during deep sleep cycles (Jessen, et al., 2015). For this, it is essential to have a bedtime routine that gets us in bed by 10 or 11 pm and up in the morning at the same time every day of the week, where possible.
Good sleep routines can prime us for 1 to 1.5 hours of deep sleep, which should occur at the peak level of our melatonin production between 10 pm and 2am. Coincidentally (or not), melatonin is also a potent antioxidant, which may well have a correlation with the enhanced activity of astrocytes.
If you struggle to get a consistent sleep routine, have a look at my blog for some tips.
Following these four recommendations consistently can help our brains stay sharp for longer but also provide a myriad of overall health benefits. As with any lifestyle or nutrition changes, always start with one change at a time, pick the one you find easiest and do it for a week before starting the next. Good luck!
Mensa member Alexandra Rojas NT (Distinction), IFM is a Functional Medicine Practitioner. Follow her at: