Build A Better Brain
September 24, 2020
September 24, 2020
The human ability to think, reason and create is not only what sets us apart—it’s our most valuable asset. And it’s all made possible by our abnormally large, incredibly complex brains.
Like anything of value, protecting it through continued maintenance and attention should be a number one priority.
Yet, much of the modern day lifestyle does quite the opposite, serving only to further separate us from nature and subsequently health—we're talking late nights, chronic stress and constant technology. These effects are evidenced by growing concerns surrounding mental health and the increasing prevalence of diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia.
So, what’s the key to maintaining or creating optimal cognitive function?
Well, the truth is, there is no single strategy, supplement or practice that will guarantee cognitive function long-term. Rather, fueling your brain for success requires a lifestyle dedicated to the practices and choices that help your functional ecosystem thrive.
Below are easy ways to build a better brain using the Fieldlab method as a guide:
Eat Plenty of DHA
DHA or Docosahexaenoic acid, is a long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid (LCPUFA) in the omega-3 (n23) family. DHA is an important part of our evolution and remains irreplaceable despite 600 million years of human development—a claim no other component of our physiology can make.
Consuming DHA is arguably the most important action we can take for optimal cognitive health and function because of its complex role throughout the most important parts of our physiology. DHA is a major structural and functional component of the brain, the photoreceptor and synaptic junction1. DHA plays a fundamental role in neural signaling and it also possesses the unique ability to turn photons from light into a DC electric current using the photoelectric effect. This is crucial for recharging our cellular batteries, meeting our energetic demands and proper signaling throughout the nervous system—a recipe for enhanced cognitive function and brain health2.
While adequate DHA levels are critical for long-term brain health, it’s important to note that sourcing matters. DHA is best obtained from fresh, wild-caught, fatty, cold-water fish and shellfish. While algae and other sources can have high levels, DHA processed through marine organisms is more readily assimilated into the cell membrane and more stable, making it more beneficial3. Additionally, humans have virtually no ability to synthesize DHA, so preformed DHA must be consumed.
A few of the best and most readily available sources include:
Given the stressors of the modern world, daily consumption of DHA is critical to optimal health. Protect your brain long-term by making DHA a priority.
Optimizing your light environment through regular exposure to the sun and elimination/reduction of artificial light is critical to cognitive health for a number of reasons.
Like most organisms on the planet, our biologic functions are controlled by the daily and seasonal changes in our environment with light being the most important—this is referred to as our circadian rhythm. This includes regulation of hormones, production of neurotransmitters and control of metabolic processes4. In order to maintain an appropriate rhythm of biological functions, we must continually take cues from the environment—this means consistent natural light exposure throughout the day, starting with the sunrise and ending with the sunset.
However, in the modern world, regular exposure to natural light is becoming increasingly rare. Instead, we spend our days indoors and fill our environment with artificial light, completely desynchronizing our circadian rhythm from the natural light environment.
As a result, we are no longer able to initiate the correct biological functions at the correct time—this includes the production of critical hormones like melatonin and neurotransmitters like serotonin. This has been shown to negatively impact mental health, leading to depression as well as reduced cognitive function. Not to mention the cascade of other health concerns associated with chronic circadian desynchronization5.
For optimal cognitive function and mental health, a significant dose of sunlight is simply a necessity. This should begin in the morning with the sunrise (which is when many of these hormones/neurotransmitters are made) and end by watching the sunset (which stimulates the production of melatonin for quality sleep). Be sure to schedule plenty of time throughout the day for time outside as well—the benefits will be well worth it!
Practice Consistent Movement
Studies consistently find connections between regular movement and healthy brains. This includes enhanced cognitive function, protection from neurodegenerative disease, and reduced risk of depression.
There is no single factor that makes exercise such a critical component of a healthy brain, but instead, many. This includes actual changes to specific areas of the brain6, increased neurotrophic activity6, upregulation of key growth factors7 and enhanced neuroplasticity7. When done appropriately, exercise has also been shown to be therapeutic, which confers major stress relieving benefits and a reduced risk of depression and other mental health concerns7.
Exercise, while demonstrated to be beneficial for building a better brain, must be balanced by proper recovery. Ultimately, high intensity, challenging workouts/movements activate the sympathetic, fight or flight response—without an effective recovery routine, this can become a chronic stressor and will eventually become harmful. Focus on recovery over fitness and be conscious of not tipping the balance.
While acute stress can be beneficial, chronic stress is consistently implicated as a major source of disease and dysfunction—especially in the modern world where most live in a state of perpetual stress.
Being the messaging and action center for the body’s stress response, it should not be surprising that the brain takes a huge hit as a result.
Potential negative effects of chronic stress include:
While we fully recognize that the stressors of the modern world are likely not going away anytime soon, there are some actions you can take in order to reduce stress and protect your brain, including:
Consciously working to reduce/eliminate stress is critical for building your best brain. Do everything you can to make this a priority and don’t further stress yourself out if you find it isn’t working—make your goals small, achievable, fun, and keep working at it.
Community and Connection
Community is a powerful tool for long-term health and using it to create optimal cognitive function is certainly no exception.
Humans are inherently social animals, constantly seeking out connection with one another. Positive relationships are shown to have a significant effect on mental wellbeing, brain health and even memory13.
On the flip side, factors such as loneliness or lack of social connectedness have been demonstrated to increase the risk of cognitive decline and depression—especially in older adults13.
For optimal brain health and cognitive function, it’s extremely important to find a community that produces consistent positive interactions. You can even combine many of the tips suggested here—for instance, join a gym and get your movement and community all in one shot or find a group engaged in a hobby you enjoy. Whatever you do, make it fun and do it with others—your brain will thank you!
Time and time again, studies show that inadequate, poor quality sleep significantly increases individual risk for cognitive dysfunctions like dementia and Alzheimers as well as mental health concerns like depression and anxiety. In fact, the connection between sleep and the brain could be its own blog altogether!
But, the bottomline is that consistent quality sleep is absolutely critical to long-term cognitive function and mental wellbeing. Sleep is the critical period reserved for recovery processes and your brain relies on this time to:
Each task plays a critical role in protecting the brain and enhancing its ability to perform. It’s also important to recognize that these processes occur during different stages of sleep (REM, deep, and light), so ensuring quality sleep that allows you to enter each stage is critical. This means practicing good sleep hygiene, optimizing your light environment and maintaining circadian synchronization is an absolute must.
There’s no doubt that a good night’s sleep does wonders for focus, productivity, creativity and overall wellbeing, but the effects may go deeper. If you’re somebody who consistently finds themselves sleeping poorly, taking some time to get to the bottom of it is an investment in the health of your brain.
Reduce/eliminate Technology Whenever/Wherever Possible.
In the modern world, technology has become a way of life. From morning to night, we rely on a multitude of devices and systems for everything from work to play—it has become virtually unescapable.
But, in the history of human evolution, this is a relatively new phenomenon and one we are certainly not adapted to. Not to mention, social media, which further amplifies the issue and potentially negative consequences.
Unsurprisingly, the health of our brains and cognitive abilities are suffering, resulting in17:
Reducing/eliminating technology usage is a challenge in the modern world—but, it is possible with some targeted strategies and discipline. And frankly, it’s a requirement for optimal health given the digital world’s extraordinary entanglement in our every day lives. Here are some strategies to try:
Reclaim your attention, focus and creativity by reducing/eliminating technology in your life. The immediate results and long-term implication are well worth the initial discomfort.
Takeaway: Your brain is your most valuable asset and what makes you the incredibly complex being that you are. Putting brain health on the back-burner, like the modern world often encourages, in exchange for short-term comfort is a recipe for disaster for your long term health. In fact, optimal brain health and long-term cognitive function should be a number one priority on your journey towards optimal.
Give these strategies a try for yourself—but, remember, making significant changes all at once is hardly effective. Instead, choose one or two lifestyle changes to play with and then pay attention to the results. If all goes well, keep adding, refining and carefully analyzing the data so you can fuel your brain for success and do all things well, all the time.