Diet, exercise, social relationships,
and sleep habits influence brainpower
Shelley Breyen, M.D.
Have you ever misplaced your car keys, or walked into a room only to realize that you'd forgotten why you went there in the first place? It can be frustrating when our memory doesn't perform the way we think it should. Memory is a function of the brain, and if you're like most people, you probably don't give much thought to how important your brain is until it performs unreliably.
Our brain's performance fluctuates throughout our lives, and even throughout the course of a day. In part, this is because the brain has a very limited capacity to store nutrient reserves. Some of the body's organs maintain a supply of the nutrients they need to perform, and can even repair themselves when damaged. The brain can't do either of these.
In addition, the brain needs lots of nutrients. Although it makes up only about two percent of our total body weight, the brain uses up to 30 percent of the nutrients (calories) consumed. And the brain isn't satisfied with just any nutrient. It takes its energy from high-quality carbohydrates.
The brain burns calories night and day even while we sleep. This is one reason they call breakfast the most important meal of the day. A healthy breakfast helps to replenish nutrients used during the night.
When it comes to brain health, it's important to eat a well-balanced, low-fat diet that is rich in iron, antioxidants, the B vitamins, and complex carbohydrates.
Iron helps deliver oxygen to the brain, which helps thwart off fatigue, memory loss, and concentration problems.
Vitamins C and E, as well as beta-carotene function as antioxidants, which have been linked to better memory and reasoning. Antioxidants are beneficial because they decrease aging at a cellular level in our bodies.
The B vitamins B-1, B-2, B-6, B-12, and folic acid -- are involved in the formation of chemicals such as dopamine, epinephrine, and serotonin in the brain. The B vitamins work to preserve brain function and mental acuity.
What you drink can be as important as what you eat. Dehydration can cause confusion and memory problems. Drink plenty of water each day.
It's best to get nutrients by eating a healthy diet. Some people choose to get these nutrients through vitamin supplements. There are negative side effects associated with some vitamin dosages, and some supplements can interfere with the absorption of medication you may be taking. Before making any major changes to your diet or the vitamin supplements you take, be sure to consult with your doctor.
A healthy brain may start with a healthy diet, but your influence doesn't stop there. There are a number of other factors that influence memory and overall brain performance. One is exercise.
Keeping active, and staying fit seems to have a positive affect on the brain. Exercise can improve the blood flow to your brain. Research has shown that physical fitness can improve brain function and health in older adults, and one study in the Journal of Gerontology, found that aerobic exercise decreased the amount of brain-tissue loss associated with aging.
Want to boost your brainpower even further? Go out and make some friends. Studies have shown that supportive emotional relationships with friends and family members may be vital for maintaining memory and thinking ability as we age. Socializing keeps people connected and involved. More research is needed to determine exactly why social relationships affect brain function in a positive way, but the link is there.
A good night's sleep can do wonders for memory and brain's ability to function. If you are overtired, you aren't able to think (or do anything) at your best. Most people require eight hours of sleep each night.
It's been shown that games that stimulate the mind such as crosswords, Scrabble, or card games keep the brain active and working. Challenge yourself to the Sunday morning crossword, or invite a friend over to play chess.
The brain is one of the most vital organs in the body. It affects memory, day-to-day activities, relationships, and just about every other facet of our lives. Keeping the brain in top condition can be attained by leading a healthy lifestyle that includes a brain-healthy diet, a positive social network, getting enough sleep each night, and staying occupied with brain-stimulating activities.
Dr. Breyen is a board certified family practice physician at Raiter Clinic.