How to achieve an optimal healthy Brain?

How to achieve an optimal healthy Brain?

The engine is the most vital part of a car. When we refuel, many cars require a high-performance petrol to run the engine. It appears the intake is going to affect the outcome, i.e. enhancing the performance or functions of the car.
By the same token, the brain is the commander of the mind and the body. It consists of the cognition, long term and short memory, decision making, controlling emotions, and also coordination of the whole body system through the spinal cord, all the nerves and muscles in the body. There are many self-help books, fitness centres, and programmes to advocate for physical health. On the contrary, there are not many books or advocates talking about how to achieve an optimal, healthy brain both short term and long term.
Every organ or devise has a lifespan. We occasionally hear that someone needs a lung transplant, a heart transplant or a kidney transplant. Have you heard of any brain transplant? How do we protect our brain life or even maintain the various functions of the brain to enable it to be run effectively? In other words, how do we reduce the chance of clinical dementia when we are going to age? Younger people may say it will not happen now as dementia only happens in older people. One thing worth mentioning is the brain starts ageing from the age of around 24. We need to think about how to match our brainspan with our lifespan now. According to the neuroclinical psychologist Dr Nichola Gates (2016), there are four steps to achieve optimal brain function and reduce clinical dementia.

Boosting our healthy brain

Most people already know what to eat to reduce heart disease, diabetes, lowering our cholesterol, etc. But is there any food out there that is particularly beneficial for our brain?
First of all, we need to include elements of the Mediterranean diet in our meals. Food that is low in saturated facts, and high in anti-oxidants are preferable, and also include wholegrains, high amounts of omega 3 food such as oily fish, eggs, avocado, etc., vegetables and fruits. Processed meat such as ham and salami might have to be avoided as it might be carcinogenic. Food that can promote good mental health should include food containing calcium, protein, vitamins D3, B3, B5, B6, and B12, folic acid, Vitamin C, zinc, copper, and amino acids including Tryptophan. All vitamins Bs are good for mental health especially B6 and B12.

Research indicates that there is a link between the brain and the gut. Most of our serotonin neurotransmitters are manufactured in our gut rather than in our brain. Chronic stress can affect our immune system as well as changing the barrier function in the gut making it more prone to infection. Most of the Irritable Bowel Syndrome is caused by anxiety, and it demonstrates the gut-brain-stress link existence within our system.

Reducing our brain burden

All drugs have a different pharmacological effect on the brain as they have different effects on the perception and cognitive function. Too much or over stimulation of dopamine due to substance abuse can increase the dopamine level by five to ten times the normal levels thus overwhelming the brain, leading to the consequences of reducing the capacity for critical thinking, decision making, learning, and memory, as well as poor brain function.

Research shows that there is a 16% chance of getting dementia for smokers. Some life style factors that can also lead to dementia such as lack of exercise, chronic stress, cardiovascular disease, smoking, poor sleep, illicit drug, alcohol, diabetes, and obesity are unhealthy brain burdens.

Excessive consumption and chronic alcohol abuse will damage the brain. When alcohol reaches the brain, it damages the connective tissue at the end of the neurons which results in disrupting neural communication. Fortunately, it is a temporary damage, and the brain will repair it once the ethanol remits. Chronic alcohol abuse and excessive consumption of alcohol over a period of time will affect the cerebellum and the frontal lobes. Frontal lobe dysfunction leads to difficulties to make decision and judgement, regulate emotions and affect the executive functioning. Cerebellar atrophy will lead to the classic symptom of ataxic gait which affects muscle coordination in balancing and walking. Wernicke syndrome can also happen due to extreme loss of Vitamin B1 as it is being depleted by alcohol. People with Wernicke syndrome shows ataxic wide gait, and involuntary changes to eye gaze with rapid side-to-side movements. Moderation of alcohol consumption is crucial in order to extend our brainspan.

The nicotine in cigarettes will disrupt the neurotransmitter systems that associated with dopamine and reward, as well as causing oxidative stress. In addition, research suggests that a new compound in tobacco called NNK has been found to provoke white blood cells in the central nervous system to attack healthy cells. As a result gray matter is decreasing in the brain that leads to the thinning of the cerebral cortex which involves thinking and memory.

Building brain reserve

The last ten years of neuroscience research suggests that our brain can change and grow due to neuroplasticity. Reserve here means resilience. We have to build up this capacity for the brain to function well and develop functional resilience against pathology and trauma. The research found out that by engaging the brain in more stimulating and mental activities, physical exercise, and social connection will benefit our brain by increasing the performance, stimulating brain growth and decreasing the chance of developing dementia.
A study (2017) revealed that adults who participate in high levels of physical activity tend to have significantly longer telomeres than their counterparts. Telomeres are nucleoprotein structures positioned at the end of chromosomes. As a consequence of mitosis, telomeres naturally shorten and as telomeres shorten, cell senescence increases, and eventually cell apoptosis occurs. In other words, high level of physical activities can enable us to live longer as telomeres will be lengthened instead of shortened. Another research revealed meditation also has some effects on telomere length by reducing cognitive stress and stress arousal, and thus it increases positive states of mind and hormonal factors that promote telomere maintenance. In short, both physical activities and meditation can lead to longer telomeres which mean cell division can still be continuing when we are ageing.

Cultivating wise mind

Marshal Linehan (1995) explained that the wise mind is the balanced part of us that comprises our inner knowledge and intuition. It is that place where reasonable mind and emotion mind overlap. Emotion mind is driven by our emotion whilst reason mind is mainly based on our logic and analytical mind. It can be cultivated through practising of mindfulness skills. The practice of mindfulness skills over time will help us develop our self-awareness and insight. It enables us to look inside and the environment around us without judging, as well as accepting the whole situation. This will foster an internal calmness which empowers us the capacity to regulate our emotions and alleviate our stress. As we know that chronic and long-term stress will develop into depression as stress hormones damage the hippocampus.

Epel, E. Daubenmier, J.; Moskowitz, J.; Folkmna, S.; and Blackburn, E. (2015). Can meditation slow rate of cellular aging? Cognitive stress, mindfulness, and telomeres. Journal of American New York Academy Science, 1172:34-53.
Gates, N. (2016). A brain for life: How to optimize your brain’s health by making simple lifestyle changes now. Australia: HarperCollinsPublishers.
Linehan, M. (2015). DBT Skills Training Manual, second edition. NY: Guilford Publications.
Tucker, LA. (2017). Physical activity and telomere length in U.S. men and women: An NHANES investigation. Journal of Preventive Medicine. July, 100:145 -151.

Gabriel Wong
Clinical Psychologist