Surprising Ways to Improve Cognitive Health
People make decisions every single day to improve the health of their bodies – eat fewer calories, lose weight, exercise more, etc. – however, even though statistics show it’s more important than ever to consider cognitive health, considerably fewer people make resolutions to improve the health of their brains.
When discussing brain health and what you can do to keep your brain healthy, the first thing that generally comes to mind is cognitive stimulation or brain training through such sites as Lumosity or Brain Metrix. Undeniably, brain training is important, but there are many other surprising things you can do to improve your cognitive health on a daily basis.
5 Ways to Improve Cognitive Health
Everywhere we turn, an unlimited supply of unhealthy foods, legal drugs (yes, legal) and electronics are at your disposal – all can have a negative impact on your brain health. It should come as no surprise then that your brain is suffering the consequences. Reports of stress, anxiety, depression and dementia are at all-time highs.
So, what can you do to fight back? What everyday activities can be done, and habits developed to improve your cognitive health?
Maintain Blood Sugar Levels
Maintaining proper blood sugar levels is important for brain health. Additionally, type 2 diabetes can result from higher blood sugar levels which may lead to Alzheimer’s disease. Your food choices affect the way you feel, both physically and mentally, for the short- and long-term. Healthy foods produce steady, sustained blood sugar levels. Poor food choices cause sugar rushes followed by crashes, leaving you feeling depressed, anxious, listless and/or foggy. Diets filled with foods that cause blood sugar spikes mentally and physically wreak havoc on your body – making you put on pounds and increasing your risk of developing dementia.
To stabilize blood sugar levels and minimize spikes, avoid foods with high sugar content and regularly consume foods that have characteristics that help keep blood sugar levels in check, such as cinnamon, vinegar, red wine and raw to slightly cooked vegetables.
Some foods that help control blood sugar levels include:
- Raw, cooked or roasted vegetables
- Flavorful, low-calorie beverages
- Melons or berries
- Whole-grain, high-fiber foods
- Fat (just a little)
To help maintain blood sugar levels, avoid foods that have a high glycemic index. High glycemic index foods, including carbohydrates such as pasta, white rice, white bread, cookies and cakes, trigger spikes in blood sugar levels. These foods should be replaced with more complex carbohydrates that release sustainable, slow-burning energy to your brain. The Mayo Clinic offers examples of low, medium and high glycemic foods. Low glycemic foods include:
- Most fruits
- Green vegetables
- Raw carrots
- Kidney beans
- Bran breakfast cereals
Medium glycemic foods include:
- Sweet corn
- Raw pineapple
- Oat breakfast cereals
- Oat bran, multigrain or rye bread
High glycemic foods include:
- White bread
- White rice
Place Houseplants in Every Room
Houseplants are a great addition to any décor. Not only do they look good, but they also purify the air. Pollutants in the air can have a detrimental impact on brain health. Here’s a list of easy to care for (i.e. hard to kill) houseplants studied by NASA and found to be great at purifying the air:
- Garden Mums
- Spider plants
- Dracaena plants (toxic to cats and dogs if eaten)
- Ficus/Weeping fig
- Peace lily
- Boston fern
- Snake plant/Mother-in-law’s tongue
- Bamboo palm
- Aloe vera
Avoid Nonessential Medications
Don’t feel like you must reach into the medicine cabinet for every single little ache and pain. Many people are overmedicated with over-the-counter and prescription drugs, including ibuprofen, acetaminophen, aspirin, steroids, antibiotics and asthma medications. All of these deplete B vitamins in the body, vitamins essential for boosting energy and mood.
Of course, if you need medicine, by all means, take it. And, never stop taking a prescription medicine without talking to your doctor first. But, taking unnecessary medications can increase the risk of inflammation in your brain. Inflammation in the brain causes you to think less clearly and causes your brain to age more rapidly. Take time to find more natural ways to treat what ails you. Consider changing your lifestyle or diet to treat a condition. For example, a diet high in omega-3s may reduce anxiety levels by as much as 20 percent.
Eat More Omega-3s and Less Omega-6s
According to Dr. Andrew Weil, M.D. and most other healthcare providers, most North Americans and Europeans consume a diet too high in omega-6s and too low in omega-3s. Not only is the correct balance of fats important for the health of your brain, it’s believed the imbalance between the two may explain the rise of many forms of cancer, autoimmunity, coronary heart disease, asthma and many neurodegenerative diseases (conditions affecting the neurons in the brain) – all believed to be caused by inflammation in the body. An improper balance between the two is also believed to be a contributing factor to depression, obesity, hyperactivity and even a tendency towards violence.
Essential fatty acids, such as omega-3s and omega-6s, can only be obtained through your diet. Your body cannot manufacture them and is dependent upon you to provide them, and to do so in the correct proportions. This has become more difficult in the modern diet because many processed foods contain hidden omega-6s. Too much omega-6s leads to inflammation and the health problems already mentioned. The goal should be to consume at least twice as many omega-3s as omega-6s. To do this, you should consume foods high in omega-3s as often as possible. Some foods that are high in omega-3s are:
- Chia Seeds
As you can see, even if you don’t like to eat fish, there are other sources high in omega-3s that can be consumed instead. Other foods that also have fairly high amounts of omega3s include hemp seeds, pastured eggs, dairy products and meat from grass-fed animals, Brussels sprouts and spinach.
When eating fish, it’s best to use wild-caught over farm-raised. Wild-caught typically has a higher concentration of omega-3s and fewer toxins.
Cutting down on omega-6 consumption is harder. Omega-6s are hidden in the processed foods and refined vegetable oils we find on the grocery store shelves, especially soybean oil. In fact, it’s so prevalent that 20 percent of the calories in the American diet is believed to come from soybean oil. This means that more foods need to be prepared from scratch to avoid too much omega-6s.
If you want to know more, watch this video of Dr. Joseph Hibbeln, M.D., a psychiatrist at the National Institutes of Health and possibly the world’s leading authority on the relationship between fat consumption and mental health, as he discusses the important role of omega-3 fatty acids in mental health and overall well-being.
Get Plenty of Sleep … But Not Too Much
Sleep is important for brain health. Sleep acts as the brain’s “self-cleaning” cycle, getting rid of Alzheimer’s-causing plaques and preventing brain fog. Sleep boosts creativity and learning. And, just one or two sleepless nights can have a major impact on the brain. Findings show that poor sleep puts you at risk for cognitive decline and the development of Alzheimer’s.
It’s important to get roughly eight hours of sleep each night. Although many people believe they can function on six hours a night, studies show that individuals who get approximately six hours of sleep multiple nights in a row share the same performance deficits as individuals who are totally deprived of two nights of sleep.
Even too much sleep can be bad. A review published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine reported that older adults who sleep less than six hours and more than nine exhibited lower cognitive functioning. Another study using PET scans showed that individuals who didn’t have sufficient slow-wave deep sleep (the kind that is believed to clear out amyloid protein associated with Alzheimer’s) experienced problems with cognition.
Follow these tips and more to get a good night’s sleep:
- Keep a regular sleep schedule. Go to bed and get up at the same time each day and night.
- Develop a relaxing pre-sleep bedtime routine.
- Avoid electronics at least an hour before bedtime.
- Journaling about your day just prior to bedtime can help you release problems that prevent sleep.
Sleep benefits your brain in so many other ways. Sleep gives your brain the opportunity to lock in memories, making them easier to recall later. Adequate sleep enhances your ability to learn new skills. Sleep has long-term effects on your risk for cognitive decline as you get older.
Play it safe. Get the recommended amount of sleep. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults aged 26-64 should receive seven to nine hours sleep and those aged 65 and older should get between seven and eight hours of sleep.
We here at Havenwood Heritage Heights understand the importance of cognitive health. Want to know more? Contact our friendly team online today.