These are the 7 habits of highly healthy brains (in order of importance)

The 7 habits of highly healthy brains (in order of importance)

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.

Bottom-Up Outside-In Top-Down

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).

For example,

  • 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.

Image creditPatrick Bombaert (modified from original).

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  1. Amlan on January 23, 2016 at 4:13 am

    Can you suggest me a few mentally challenging activities or name a few that you use yourself?

    • Sarah McKay on January 23, 2016 at 2:43 pm

      Sure! Most of my cognitive challenges come from reading and writing (which involves first understanding and then distilling the ideas into something simple and relevant for my readers). And I read. A lot.
      I’m also a big fan of activities that combine different elements – my ‘Walking Book Club’ for example (Move, Challenge, Connect), or Neural Knitworks (Calm, Connect, Challenge).

  2. Susan on January 28, 2016 at 12:24 am

    Your model is unique and incredibly useful!

    The ‘7 habits’ – thank you for the succinct, clear synthesis – I am going to share this with everyone I meet!

  3. nathalie on January 28, 2016 at 8:10 am

    I really like your approach and I agree with you. To make it “shorter”, maybe you could call it “the multi-directionnal brain health model”? Some points may not be easy to get. A lot of people suffer from insomnia and it may be stressfull to look for our purpose in life…

  4. Karen on January 28, 2016 at 8:16 am

    Sarah, how do you determine the order of importance of the factors? Why for example is calm more beneficial than connect?

    • Sarah McKay on January 28, 2016 at 10:49 am

      Hi Karen

      As I said, they’re ‘loosely’ in order and calm vs connect could go either way. And some people might use their social networks as a buffer against stress. I firmly believe that sleep, move and nourish need to be first, and purpose is something we aspire to later (a bit like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs).

  5. The 7 Habits of Healthy Brains | RICK MOLINAR on January 28, 2016 at 10:31 am

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  6. Paul on January 28, 2016 at 12:01 pm

    Also important I think to brain health are microbes.

    As Professor Tim Spector says in his book ” The Diet Myth”, P67 ( when writing about serotonin)

    ” So changes in our microbes will alter this key brain chemical and, potentially, our mood.”

  7. Carol Newnham on February 1, 2016 at 10:48 am

    Hi Sarah
    There is one more “habit” or process that I think should be added to these 7 – having good social relationships. Because I work with families of prematurely-born children, I know the literature about how important early attachment relationships are to both the brain (connectivity), skill development and general mental/health/well-being. Attachment relationships are important at every age, but if we don’t have the right experiences as children, then they are much more difficult to establish as adults. The evidence also shows that there are long-term outcomes in all areas of development that have their foundation in early (infant) mental health.

    • Sarah McKay on February 1, 2016 at 11:47 am

      Hi Carol. That is exactly what the habit ‘Connect’ involves 🙂

  8. Janet on February 4, 2016 at 9:43 am

    Thank you Sarah I truely believe in everything you have stated. I had a mental break down after my 6th child and know just how much sleep one needs. I am sure it was caused by lack of sleep.My brain appeared to be whipped clear and I needed to start to learn ALL of my skills from the beginning it took me 12 mths to recover and then I felt that my new brain was not as sharp as I had been before this disaster. I will enjoy all of your knowledge.

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  14. Linda Sharp on October 19, 2016 at 2:59 am

    Hi Sarah. Looking forward to getting your email. I had a brain aneurysm rupture in January of this year. I am still recovering, actually I am going to see Dr. VanAdel tomorrow at Hamilton General Hospital. I am looking forward to getting back to some sort of part time work soon.
    Thank you,
    Linda Sharp

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