It is probably safe to say that our brain is the most complex organ. It has hundred billion neurons (nerve cells). You know how many that is? If you were to count all the neurons, one per second, it would take you something like 3200 years. And each of the neurons has multiple connections, which are all there for a purpose… As I am writing this, the control freak in me is getting really nervous -- how come it is all working so well without me standing there and making sure each neuron is doing its job? Shouldn’t I be more involved or something? Well, let's just consider it a miracle it is all working. But if you would like to support your brain and make sure it keeps up the good work, there are indeed things you can do.
When it comes to physical health, doctor’s orders with respect to lifestyle tend to be rather clear. Quit smoking. Drink in moderation. (Although, I have a question, why is “moderation” defined as maximum fourteen drinks per week in the UK, but if you are in Spain and you are a man, it’s ok to drink up to thirty five a week?). Minimum 150 minutes per week of exercise of moderate intensity. Sleep seven to eight hours every day. Eat six portions of fruit and vegetables every day. Quit cake (no!!)... And so on. We all know the drill and love to tell other people about it.
With respect to mental health, everybody agrees it’s important. So much so that it has been included into the UN Sustainable Development Goals. However, mental health lifestyle guidelines tend to be rather vague. “Avoid stress”, says the brochure. Well, thanks for the concise and clear advice, doc! Bother to tell me how? Should I now stress about being stressed? There is also quite a bit of research showing the benefits of meditation and other mindfulness exercises for mental health (more on that in a bit), but we are yet to see the official recommendation by WHO to mediate X number of minutes every day.
I like the term brain hygiene because it underscores the idea that maintaining mental health is not only about short-term treatments when things go wrong, but also about specific habits we can incorporate into our lifestyle to support our brain. In difficult times, such as periods of high stress, brain hygiene is particularly important. You may think of it as the necessary foundation for any mental health intervention. When we feel great, brain hygiene is what is going to help us stay resilient once difficult times come again (as they sure will). The list of brain hygiene principles below is by no means exhaustive, just an inspiration. You probably won’t be surprised that there is quite some overlap with the physical health guidelines. A healthy mind in a health body, as the ancient said.
The brain needs energy to function properly. Where is the energy going to come from? Exactly. We have to provide the brain with a large variety of nutrients on a regular basis. Which means that if you skip meals, are on a crash diet, a diet that is highly restrictive of what you eat, or sustain yourself by eating exclusively hamburgers, you might be doing your brain a disservice. When we are stressed, we often don’t have any appetite, so it becomes particularly important to be mindful of our food intake.
The damaging effects of high doses of alcohol on the brain are well-known. The effects of alcohol in low and moderate doses are debated – it is unclear whether moderate alcohol intake is harmful or actually beneficial for the brain. However, as we discussed above, no one is really sure what “moderate” means. Moreover, there is certainly no evidence that if you don’t drink, then you should start.
A lot of people turn to alcohol to “take the edge off” their stress, anxiety, or other intense emotions because of its sedative effects. The “relief” alcohol provides is only short-term. Some people find that once these effects wear off, the feelings of worry and anxiety might actually intensify. Furthermore, alcohol negatively affects sleep quality. Which, as I am sure you know, is not good for the brain.
Caffeine in moderate doses improves cognitive performance and reaction time. Some studies even suggest that it might slow down cognitive decline. On the other hand, caffeine may negatively affect sleep, especially if consumed in the evening. (Chocolate for dessert? There is also caffeine). Some people report that they sleep better and have more energy if they quit caffeine altogether.
The positive effects of physical exercise on the brain have been well-established by researchers. It’s one of the most common and quite effective ways to relieve stress and improve general psychological well-being. Some studies suggest that exercise can promote neurogenesis. Neurogenesis means growth of new neurons. Here you might ask, why do I need new neurons, I already have hundred billion?! Well, actually, scientists have been wondering, too, what the purpose of neurogenesis in adults is. They still don’t have a clear answer, but the speculation is that it might play a role in learning, memory, and emotional regulation. However (I think, this word is one of the most overused by researchers), it is also worth noting that intense exercise late in the evening may interfere with sleep.
REST AND SLEEP
To restore itself, the brain needs to sleep. No matter what else we do and how relaxing it feels, if you don’t sleep enough, you brain will not be performing at its best. More on sleep and well-being here. Are you sleeping enough? Take a quiz!
We will also talk more about rest (other than sleep) in the next section. Meanwhile, let’s just think about what it means for the brain to rest. Is it doing nothing? No. The brain is always doing something. It’s only doing nothing when we are dead. So for the brain, to rest means to do something else. Different areas of the brain are involved in different tasks. When we switch activity, we give some of those areas that have just been working a break. But is switching to any activity equally invigorating? Do you feel refreshed after spending an hour on Facebook? I usually don’t… Well, sometimes, when I read something really inspiring, funny, or thought provoking. Rest matters, but only when we do it like we mean it.
BEING IN THE PRESENT
Remember I asked you about rain drops and snowflakes? Do you know why I did? Because paying sustained attention to the present moment – our surroundings, physical sensations, our own thoughts and emotions – in a non-judgemental way, has a capacity to ground, calm down, and re-energize us. Mindfulness, the ability to mentally be in the present moment, has been researched quite extensively by both psychologists and neuroscientists. What they find is that learning to be more mindful of the present moment is not only associated with less stress and better subjective psychological well-being, but also with changes in the brain itself. These changes are noticeable already after a few months of mindfulness practice.
What’s the magic of the "ordinary" present moment? Well, when you pay attention to it, whether it’s by focusing on your breath during a formal meditation or just by being aware of the sensations in your feet as you walk, it takes away some steam out of emotional reactivity, overthinking, worrying about the future, and ruminating about the past. Essentially, these practices turn the volume down on the relentless chatter in our heads. (Do you know what I am referring to? That nagging voice in your head that you are really tired of, but can’t seem to stop listening to?). With practice, one becomes better at switching the chatter off, and more stillness becomes available to us.
We are hard-wired for being connected with others. For babies, forming a connection with a steady adult caregiver is a prerequisite for normal brain development and growth. Being connected with others is also a prerequisite for our mental and physical health as adults. Everyone knows that smoking is bad for health and that it shortens lives, but did you know that so does loneliness?
When we talk about connections and interactions, we are not only talking about family and friends. Have you noticed how a quick exchange with a stranger can sometimes make your day? Next time, observe how you feel when you’ve just had an insignificant quick chat with someone. Well, I am assuming it was a friendly chat – otherwise it can of course ruin your day, but to me, that just underscores how much we are dependent on social interactions. If you are like me and tend to withdraw and hide in your office when you are too stressed, consider spending a few minutes throughout the working day just “hanging out” with colleagues a part of your daily brain hygiene. Notice also how it affects the chatter in your head when you step out of your office and ask someone how it’s going.
Learning new things might help us preserve our full intellectual capacity as we age. People with more complex jobs have higher levels of cognitive functioning later in life. Speaking more than one language has the capacity to delay the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Scientists still argue whether it is only learning in childhood or learning throughout life that might slow down cognitive ageing. What is clear, though, is that we cannot thrive without novelty. Novelty activates pleasure centers in our brain. Having opportunities to learn new things makes for a happier life.