Keeping Your Brain Healthy
Your brain is the most important organ in your body, controlling your thoughts, emotions and behaviors. It will perform best under a certain set of basic environmental conditions, conditions which the brain has adapted to over the course of humankind. Unfortunately, certain technological advances (especially electricity, processed foods, industrialization, and computer technology) have resulted in broad environmental changes that are stressful for the brain. These technologies together have changed our sleep cycles, reduced the amount of natural light we are exposed to, reduced physical activity, radically increased the amount of information to process, and contributed to social isolation (although the internet has, in some respects, increased social connectivity, people remain physically isolated). As a result of these broad environmental changes, you must be very purposeful about taking care of your brain. Doing so can significantly reduce, and even eliminate over time, the symptoms you may be experiencing. At a minimum, it may reduce the need for medications to improve your brain’s functioning.
Sleep: It is recommended that you be aggressive in establishing and maintaining a regular sleep schedule. The number of hours of sleep generally necessary for optimum brain functioning depends on your age, but can be established using the following guidelines: 11-13 hours for pre-schoolers; 10-11 hours for pre-adolescents; 8-10 hours for adolescents, and 7-9 hours for adults. To get the required sleep, follow these basic rules: follow a consistent bedtime routine and schedule; transition to sleep with a quiet and relaxing activity such as 15-30 minutes of reading; do not fall asleep with a television or radio on; avoid foods or drinks that contain caffeine 3 hours prior to bedtime; do not go to bed hungry, but don’t eat a big meal before bedtime either; and, the bedroom should be quiet, dark and a little bit cool. If these steps do not result in an improvement in your ability to fall asleep, you may be experiencing a disruption in your body’s natural production of the hormone melatonin, which aids in sleep, and you may wish to consider, in consultation with your physician, the use of melatonin before bedtime. If anxious or racing thoughts at bedtime are a problem, you are encouraged to meet with a therapist to discuss cognitive and behavioral strategies to help you fall asleep. If sleep remains a problem, further consultation with a therapist and possibly a sleep specialist is recommended.
Light: Increase your natural light intake. Take 10-15 minutes to expose your skin, and especially your face, to direct sunlight once or twice a day to stimulate your body’s production of Vitamin D.
Diet: Follow a principle of reducing intake of simple carbohydrates (sugar, corn syrup, refined flours, pasta) and increasing intake of protein (found in lean meats, fish, and low-fat dairy products) and fiber (found in whole grains, nuts, and fruits and vegetables) as much as possible. In addition, decrease the ratio of omega-6 fatty acids (found in vegetable oils) to omega-3 fatty acids (found in coldwater fish and many nuts). Taking an omega-3 supplement is recommended since foods high in omega-6 fatty acids are so abundant and foods high in omega-3 fatty acids are less commonly available. Also, because dietary intake alone may be insufficient to establish minimum intakes of mineral and nutrients that your brain needs to function optimally, it is prudent to take a daily multivitamin.
Exercise: A daily 20-30 minute period of physical activity which elevates one’s heart rate is a well established baseline for therapeutic benefit. This can be accomplished simply by a brisk walk or bike ride. If you enjoy videogames, playing Dance Dance Revolution, or other physically interactive video games, is a creative way to incorporate exercise into your day.
Stillness: Set your mind on something beautiful, inspiring, or peaceful and let it rest there for an extended period of time. From a practical standpoint, this may be the hardest brain exercise to implement because it means slowing down and accomplishing nothing which is extremely counter-cultural given our information-rich, hyper-active, productivity-focused world. Whether approached from a spiritual or purely physiological perspective, research shows that meditative practices provide therapeutic benefit. A daily 15-20 minute period of focused meditation is recommended. If you are interested in meditation from a Judeo-Christian perspective, you are encouraged to talk with a therapist about Dr. Mark Shadoan’s Contemplative Focused Prayer approach.
Environment: Get out of the house and spend time around people. Join a club. Spend time at a coffeehouse. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Your brain is a socially constructed organ. Infants who are socially and emotionally neglected experience profound delays in brain development. The brain is wired by and for human interaction. Absent human contact, the brain becomes stressed and atrophies. While studies suggest that internet-based social networking is beneficial for people’s emotional health, it does not meet the brain’s inherent need for face-to-face human interaction.