It was once thought that our brains were hard wired forever - that we couldn't change them and that they would gradually deteriorate with age leading to neurodegenerative disease.
We now know, however that the brain is resilient and pliable – 'plastic' and capable of regeneration. This is called neuroplasticity and relates to the brain being able to ‘rewire’ itself through the consistent practice of a desired skill.
The combination of new learning and new cells contributes to neuroplasticity. Nerve cells make new connections when they get stimulated by specific learning exercises or 'brain training'. These new connections contribute to your learning and development of the new skill. Think of it like treading new 'paths' through a forest - the more you tread these new pathways, the more they become established.
When you exercise – your body feels good. The same goes for your brain – with the right
nourishment and exercise or ‘brain training’, your brain will stay healthy and keep regenerating
throughout your life.
Here are my top five tips to look after your brain health, stimulate new brain growth and heal your brain:
1. Do lots of physical exercise
When you exercise your body, you don’t think you’re exercising your brain as well. Well, you are.
Our brain uses a lot of oxygen and glucose, but it doesn’t store it for later use so it needs a constant supply to keep functioning optimally. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain and delivers fresh glucose to the brain cells. Even thirty minutes of moderate cardio has been shown to be enough to increase cognitive function in adult brains.
In addition to this, exercise is thought to stimulate neurogenesis in the hippocampus – the area of the brain associated with long-term memory and emotions. We need healthy cell growth in this area for our ageing brains, so exercise could help to prevent cognitive decline associated with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
2. Manage your stress
Stress hormones can cause damage to our brains as well as our bodies. Stress has been associated with age-related cognitive decline. Having time to play and unwind leads to better brain health and actually helps you with problem solving.
For managing stress, it’s better to do things that you are interested in. Passive activities like watching TV don’t count! A study published in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry in 2011 suggested that activities such as puzzles, crafts and problem-solving reduced rates of cognitive impairment by nearly 50%.
Art is also up there in the list of activities that stimulate the brain, with those who
produce art showing increased activity between the frontal and parietal areas of the brain. This
means that those who produce art showed better psychological resilience than those who just
Playing or listening to music has also been shown to stimulate neurogenesis, while
meditation can also lower blood pressure, reduce inflammation and help build resilience in the face of stress and anxiety. Meditation isn’t for everyone – that’s why it can be helpful to build a simple practice of contemplation and being ‘in the moment’ in to your every day life.
3. Using herbal medicine
A vast body of evidence supports the use of turmeric for reducing inflammation in the body and lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease. Turmeric has been described as a remyelinating compound, which means it can help nerves to regenerate. Remyelination compounds work to repair the myelin sheath – the protective layer around the nerve bundles. These areas are often those damaged in certain autoimmune and vaccine-induced disorders.
In the model of pharmaceutical medicine, as soon as a plant has shown potential therapeutic effects, much effort and money is spent to isolate the exact constituent responsible for its effect. This doesn’t take in to account the other thousands of compounds in the plant which are all acting together to deliver its medicinal properties.
An example of this is an active constituent of turmeric, curcumin, which has been synthesised and is now widely available as a supplement. A more recent study in the Journal of Stem Cell Research and Therapy has found another compound called Ar-tumerone, which may also support regeneration in neurological disease. In this study, when brain cells were exposed to Ar-tumerone, the nerve stem cells increased in number and complexity.
This could mean that Ar-tumerone might be available as a supplement one day. Imagine taking two separate supplements to reap some of the benefits of one plant. I suggest it’s better to obtain a standardised tincture of turmeric from your Medical Herbalist that has been tested for its safety and efficacy.
The health-promoting benefits of green tea have been known for thousands of years. More recently, a 2014 study confirmed that the catechins in green tea (which are the antioxidant compounds) are also neuroprotective because they stimulate the brain to produce more neurons. This has massive implications for supposedly incurable neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Huntingdon’s disease.
Researchers have confirmed that green tea catechins are a “highly useful complementary approach” in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases.
Ginkgo is a very powerful herb in the Medical Herbalist’s pharmacopoeia. It has demonstrated over 50 different health benefits, and is documented in the treatment of more than 100 diseases. Many studies show that ginkgo stimulates BDNF – brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which is a protein involved in repairing damaged regions of the brain. It is also important for regulation, growth and survival of brain cells, so plays an important part in long-term memory.
A 2006 paper published in the European Journal of Neurology found gingko to be as effective as Donepezil – a drug used in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.
A recent article in Cell and Molecular Neurobiology showed that gingko actually modulates neural stem cell development in to the type that’s needed in a specific part of the brain where BDNF proteins are active. Neural Stem Cells are multipotent cells – they can grow in to the many different types of cells that make up the brain. Gingko therefore stimulates the growth of the correct cell phenotype needed for the affected area of the brain.
4. Eat brassicas
Brassicas, as well as containing health-promoting vitamins, iron and flavonoids, also contain a
compound called sulforaphane which has been shown to stimulate nerve growth in the brain.
Sulforaphane is also a potent antioxidant and has anti-inflammatory effects. Researchers have observed that this compound also shows a beneficial effect on neural stem cells differentiating in to other useful neurons, supporting the idea that sulforaphanes may stimulate brain repair.
Sulforaphane-containing brassicas include broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts,
turnips, radishes, horseradish and watercress. For therapeutic benefits, it’s best to try and eat 3 cups a day, raw or slightly steamed.
5. Never stop learning
Research shows that keeping up our critical thinking skills can help us keep a sharp and lucid brain. The 2011 study I mentioned earlier showed that working with computers, reading books and doing activities related to patterns and problem-solving contributed to a significant decrease in the chances of developing mild cognitive impairment.
Passive activities didn’t show any statistical effect which emphasises the importance of feeling challenged and engaged in the activities we pursue.
Another study that followed almost 3,000 volunteers over more than ten years looked at the long-term benefits of cognitive training in older adults. Those who participated in the study showed better brain processing speed and reasoning skills for up to ten years after the training was completed. That’s not all – the participants also had enhanced abilities when completing everyday tasks such as personal finances, preparing meals and personal care.
The more engaging and stimulating our environments, the more the brain increases in its complexity as a response.
If you'd like to learn more about how you can heal and repair your body, why not sign up here for my Health Reset starting in September?