How to stay mentally sharp with food and lifestyle

meIt was once believed, by both the average person and brain health experts, that each person had a finite number of brain cells, which diminished over time. If you lose enough, it can lead to neurological damage or disease, including dementia. It’s a school of thought that could make someone obsess over every football they’ve ever headbutted or the night they’ve had one too many booze.

But this line of thinking isn’t exactly true based on what researchers have learned about brain health over the past decade. A host of scientific studies are connecting certain dietary and lifestyle habits with neurogenesis, the process by which new neurons grow in the brain. It’s a topic that psychiatrist Drew Ramsey, MD talks about in his book, Eat to beat depression and anxiety ($22), and it means we can actively protect ourselves from cognitive decline, at least in part. Encouraging, right? The key, of course, is knowing how to do it.

How are brain cells destroyed?

Before we get into the growth of brain cells, it helps to know what exactly kills them in the first place. Dr. Ramsey says this comes down to high levels of chronic inflammation. While small doses of short-term inflammation can actually be beneficial, experiencing high levels of inflammation over long periods of time can be detrimental to the brain (and the body in general, TBH).

“Scientific research has made it very clear that excess inflammation affects the circuitry in the brain,” says Dr. Ramsey. Inflammation not only disrupts brain circuits, it also actively kills brain cells. He explains that an inflamed brain leads to brain fog, anxiety, depression, low energy, and (over a long period of time) cognitive decline and illness. What causes long-term inflammation? Chronic stress, eating a lot of processed sugar, processed meat, and refined carbohydrates, and not getting enough sleep are some of the main causes.

Another thing chronic inflammation does is prohibit neurogenesis, the key process for making new brain cells, says neurologist Faye Begeti, MD, PhD. (It’s important to note that most scientific studies on neurogenesis have been done in mice, very few have been done in humans, so knowledge about the process is still limited, says Dr. Begeti.) “The brain is protected by a blood-brain barrier. This barrier can leak, but this would only happen in prolonged systemic inflammatory states rather than a simple cough or cold.”

Watch the video below to learn more about the connection between diet and inflammation:



How the human brain produces new cells

Okay, so we can blame excess inflammation for killing brain cells. How do we get them back? actively working for decline inflammation. This not only prevents neurons from dying, but also actively leads to brain cell growth, according to Dr. Ramsey.

However, when it comes to brain cell growth, it’s important to understand the connection between neurogenesis and neuroplasticity, two words that sound similar, but mean different things, says Dr. Begeti. While neurogenesis refers to the growth of new brain cells, he explains that neuroplasticity is where existing neurons grow and form different connections with each other. “Kind of like intertwining the branches of nearby trees,” she says. “Neuroplasticity is vital for shaping our brains into who we are, learning, and recovering from illnesses, such as stroke.” Neuroplasticity is how new and existing brain cells communicate with each other; that’s why both are important, adds Dr. Begeti.

from which doctors they can Tell me, it seems that neurogenesis only occurs in two parts of the brain, the hippocampus being one of them. (The other is the olfactory bulb, related to smell.) Dr. Ramsey explains that the hippocampus is the part of the brain responsible for emotional health, as well as memory function, recalling old memories and creating new ones. Because of this, neurogenesis is key to maintaining mental acuity and emotional balance. And that’s where what you eat and your daily habits can come in.

Food and lifestyle habits that favor neurogenesis

Studies have shown that a healthy diet, consistent good sleep, and regular exercise are beneficial to the hippocampus. “Exercise, socialization and environmental enrichment, which means having a lot of stimulating activities, increases neurogenesis, but these studies have only been done in mice, as it is difficult to study. [brain cell growth] in humans,” says Dr. Begeti. This means that while there is likely a strong connection, more human studies are needed to confirm it.

However, some nutrients have been linked to benefiting the brain through neurogenesis in humans, according to Dr. Ramsey: omega-3 fatty acids (found in foods like fish, nuts and seeds, and soy), phytonutrients (natural compounds found in plants such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes), vitamin B (found in meat, dairy, whole grains, dark green leafy vegetables, citrus, avocado , banana, nuts and seeds, and legumes), zinc (found in lean meats, eggs, shellfish, lentils, nuts and seeds, and soy), and magnesium (found in whole grains, soy , nuts and seeds, legumes and dark chocolate). This is one of the reasons so many doctors follow the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes all of the foods mentioned here.

Watch the video below to learn more about the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in nutrients associated with neurogenesis:



In addition to all the nutrients mentioned above, Dr. Ramsey says there is a specific brain chemical that plays a role in neuroplasticity and brain cell growth: BDNF, which is a neurotrophin, also known as a type of protein that helps brain cells grow and survive. “Some say that BDNF is a lot like ‘Miracle-Gro for the brain’: a fertilizing biomolecule that supports the birth of new brain cells and synapses during development,” he says in his book. He also says that in addition to helping with brain cell growth, BNDF works to protect the mind from toxins.

Do you want to increase your BDNF production? Dr. Ramsey says that regularly eating foods with omega-3 fatty acids is key. (Yes, the nutrient is doubly good for brain health.) He says that flavonoids, a type of antioxidant found in green tea, berries, kale, tomatoes, dark chocolate, and nuts (except macadamia and Brazil nuts), are also linked to stimulate increased production of BDNF in the brain.

Incorporating all of the aforementioned foods into your diet will likely benefit your hippocampus, but Dr. Ramsey says that doing what you can to keep excess inflammation at bay in general is also important, as it’s what kills precious neurons. When it comes to food, cooking with anti-inflammatory spices like turmeric, rosemary, and ginger can help. You can also prioritize getting enough fiber. In terms of lifestyle, Dr. Ramsey says that stress management, good sleep, and regular movement are key. However, Dr. Begeti says it’s important to recognize that there are still many unknowns surrounding cognitive decline. While diet and lifestyle habits are connected, they are only one piece of the puzzle. If someone gets dementia later in life, it’s certainly not their fault.

When it comes to prioritizing these healthy practices, remember that adopting a “mind over matter” mindset can help new habits stick. “Knowing that we can actively grow our brain size is very empowering for me personally,” says Dr. Ramsey. “I’m motivated by making choices to eat nutrient-dense foods, meditate, and exercise. It’s not always easy to do those things consistently, but when you know how it’s affecting your brain, it’s very motivating.”

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