The relationships between our thoughts, our biology, the world around us, and our health and wellbeing are complex.
Add in the brain (the most complex of living structures, one that enabled humans to walk on the moon, map the human genome, and compose masterpieces of literature, art, and music) and you’re faced with a couple of BIG questions:
How does the brain affect our health?
How does the health of the mind, body, and world around us, affect our brain?
Bottom-Up, Outside-In, Top-Down: a Model of Brain Health.
One useful way I like to think about the many elements that influence the health of the brain is what I call the Bottom-Up, Outside-In, Top-Down Model of Brain Health.
- Bottom-Up elements are the biological or physiological determinants of brain health and include genes, hormones, the immune system, nutrition, exercise, and other lifestyle choices.
- Outside-In elements include social and environmental factors, stress, life events, education, current circumstances, and family background.
- Top-Down elements include thoughts, emotions, mindset, and belief systems.
Not only do these many elements determine the health of the brain, each element can impact others in complex, multi-directional and dynamic ways (often coordinated via the nervous system).
- Our thoughts can influence our physical health (which is why psychological stress can lead to heart disease),
- Our social environment can directly impact our brain health (folk who are socially isolated are at greater risk of dementia),
- Your physical health and mood are intimately entwined (which is why exercise is key for emotional regulation).
The 7 habits to adopt for brain health, wellbeing and a flourishing life.
Not all factors are modifiable (you can’t do much about your genes, or the family you were born into). But, based on my Bottom-Up, Outside-In, Top-Down Model here are the 7 key habits I believe you should adopt to promote a highly healthy brain and flourishing life – one free of physical or mental illness, disease, pain, or angst.
I’ve listed these loosely in order of importance, and you’ll see that they build from Bottom-Up (Sleep, Move, Nourish) to Outside-In (Connect, Calm) to Top-Down (Challenge, Believe).
1. SLEEP. A good night sleep every night should be a priority, not a luxury.
Sleep is overlooked, underappreciated, and the number-one, fundamental bedrock of good health. Sleep deprivation (even a few hours a night) impacts cognition (thinking), mood, memory and learning and leads to chronic disease.
Sleep is essential for consolidating memories and for draining waste products from the brain. Not only do we under-sleep, we under-consume natural light during the day and over-consume artificial light at night leaving our natural circadian rhythms, hormones and immune systems dysregulated.
Short afternoon naps consolidate memory, spark creativity and smooth your rough emotional edges (no guru, course or app required!).
2. MOVE. The best exercise for your brain is physical exercise.
Daily exercise increases blood flow to the brain. Exercise triggers the release of brain-derived neurotophic factor (BDNF), which promotes neuronal growth and survival, reduces inflammation, and supports the formation of long-term memories.
Exercise reduces the risk of dementia (and other chronic lifestyle diseases), acts as an anti-depressant, and regulates mood.
Our brains evolved to support bodies that move through, make sense of, and respond to the natural world around us. A simple walk outdoors gets you away from digital devices and into nature. You’ll do your best thinking when walking.
3. NOURISH. A healthy brain requires a healthy well-nourished body.
Research points towards a Mediterranean-based diet of mostly plants (vegetables, fruit and legumes), fish, some meat, olive oil and nuts as optimal nourishment for brain health. Wine and coffee in moderation (yes, really!) prevent cognitive decline, memory loss and protect against dementia (Plus, the little pleasures in life are important too!).
4. CALM. Find your moment or place of calm.
Not all stress is bad, but chronic stress, especially life events that are out of our control, can change the wiring of our brains. Too much cortisol (a stress hormone) prevents the birth of new neurons and causes the hippocampus (the brain structure involved in learning and memory) to shrink, reducing your powers of learning and memory.
To de-stress find your place or moment of calm. Do something pleasurable — meditate, practice mindfulness, walk, or nap. The most pleasure is to be found in doing something you’re reasonably good at and that also poses some degree of challenge.
5. CONNECT We are born as social animals and have a fundamental need for human warmth and connection.
Having supportive friends, family and social connections helps you live longer, happier and healthier. Socialising reduces the harmful effects of stress and requires many complex cognitive functions such as thinking, feeling, sensing, reasoning and intuition. Loneliness and social isolation have comparable impacts on health and survival as smoking.
6. CHALLENGE. Keep your brain mentally active.
Adults who regularly challenge their minds and stay mentally active throughout life have healthier brains and are less likely to develop dementia. It’s thought ongoing education and mentally challenging work build cognitive reserve (the capacity to cope better and keep working properly if any brain cells are damaged or die).
Choose mentally challenging activities that you can practice regularly, that are reasonably complex and that take you out of your cognitive comfort zone. Try activities that combine mental, social and physical challenges.
7. BELIEVE. Seek out your purpose in life.
Find your north star, your passion, your bliss, your inner voice, your wisdom, your calling. Whatever you call it. Research has found that people who score high on life purpose live longer, healthier and more fulfilling lives.
Do extraordinary things! Set fantastic, passionate goals and work like crazy to achieve them. Find your place of flow—that sweet spot where you so intensely and completely focus on the present moment and the task at hand and that time passes effortlessly. Some say flow is the point of life.
If you’re keen to learn more about brain health and wellbeing, and how to tap into the brain’s amazing ability to re-wire, you might be interested in joining The Neuroscience Academy. My course provides a glimpse of what is known about the brain, mind and nervous system and how research into these areas applies to health and wellbeing. I’ll offer suggestions on how to use the practical information from neuroscience to help you understand your own mind and brain, and those of your clients, students or colleagues.
Click here to learn more and pre-register your interest in The Neuroscience Academy.
About Dr Sarah
I’m an Oxford University-educated neuroscientist, presenter of ABC Catalyst, director of The Neuroscience Academy, and author of The Women's Brain Book. The neuroscience of health, hormones and happiness.
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