The brain is the command centre of the nervous system and is responsible for our thoughts, emotions, memory, movement and more, and is vital in preserving and activating every aspect of the body, both mental and physical.
There are several different ways to keep your brain healthy starting with a bottom-up approach (factors that change our biology) such as your immune system and hormones. A top-down approach (how you think) focuses on your belief systems, thought patterns, mind set and feelings. Thirdly environment and external factors (your environment) are important such as stress and life events, as well as factors that influence who we are today such as education, work, upbringing and relationships. Each of these three factors also influence each other and we can influence how our brain is wired and our brain’s health in a multitude of ways.
Neuroscientist and cognitive psychologist Dr Lynda Shaw explains what influences our brain and reveals what she does every day to make sure she maintains good brain health.
- Sleep is food for the brain. I prioritise sleep and try to wake up and go to sleep at roughly the same time every day and avoid screens at least one hour before bed to allow my brain to produce melatonin so I naturally fall asleep. As our bodies are resting, our brains stay highly active, doing necessary work processing emotions, memories and replenishing our minds for the next day. If you sleep poorly it affects every aspect of your life from what you eat to your mood and your physical and mental health.
- Exercise in all sorts of different ways. I try to do different types of exercise to work on different aspects of my physical and mental health including strength, balance, aerobic and flexibility through different exercises, classes and sports. By mixing it all up I hope to get a range of health benefits and improve my neuroplasticity which is my ability to learn, change and adapt.
- Check in with myself about how I am feeling. When I feel stressed I consciously check in with myself about why I am feeling that way, can it be reframed in a different way, am I ruminating (having the same thought over and over), and I can break any unhelpful patterns. I check for limiting beliefs and try not to suppress my feelings even if that just means being conscious of them and letting them be with me for a few minutes. I also acknowledge that not all stress is bad and sometimes it helps us learn. I try to be kind to myself.
- Spend time with loved ones. My family means everything to me. Not only does spending time with loved ones help to reinforce valuable relationships, it maintains social bonds, boosts confidence and self-esteem and creates a sense of security. It even helps to improve communication and social skills. I have four young grandchildren (yes, I am an extraordinarily young Grandmother!) who I love to spend time with, though they do keep me on my toes! Being pack animals, humans rely on a strong social infrastructure for support during tough times, which is needed now more than ever, even if seeing them on a screen is the only option. Family, a loving partner or fabulous friends are all important and are my top priority every day.
- Fresh air maintains brain function. 20% of the oxygen we breath is used solely by our brain. Of course we are breathing all of the time whether we are outside or in, but I make it my mission to spend at least 30 minutes a day outside and try to keep a window open at all times to allow a healthy flow of air through the room. Being in the fresh air improves my mood, concentration and helps me sleep better and often gives me thinking time.