Currently, the available data from the last two decades indicate the global average life expectancy has increased by at least 5.5 years between the year 2000 and 2016 (1). However, while this increase in life expectancy is a testament to both the progression of modern medicine along with generic human knowledge, it also corresponds to an increase in the prevalence of age-related cognitive impairment and diminished brain function, amongst many other diseases including inflammation, cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and more. Of these impairments, diseases of the human brain, such as Alzheimer’s Disease or Dementia, represent a major concern due to the severe lack of solidified treatment strategies aimed at improving the associated symptoms (attention, memory loss, delay in cognitive information processing, etc.). Aside from the age-associated decline in cognitive function, the significance of a healthy brain cannot be understated in young adults or even developing children as well – and the incidence rate of mental health disorders has risen at astonishing rates over the past decade to highlight this importance.
Organic, natural substances have been used to improve brain health and prevent/treat other serious disorders in Eastern Medicine for hundreds of years, and the Western world (including the United States) has only recently begun investigating these compounds at either the pre-clinical or clinical levels. Things like phytochemicals from plants, lifestyle, or dietary changes, and even items as common as caffeine or cocoa have been demonstrated as effective agents for the improvement of brain health, and in some cases even the treatment of cognitive impairment. Thus, it has been postulated that these natural compounds or lifestyle modifications can be used to improve overall brain health – a factor that may be significant for the prevention of cognitive impairment, mental disorders, and brain function.
This article will discuss 7 ways in which you can improve your brain health. This includes supplements like nootropics or phytochemicals from plants and lifestyle/dietary modifications that peer-reviewed evidence suggests, improve overall brain health in humans.
7 Ways to Support and Optimize Brain Health
Nootropics, or compounds (synthetic or natural) known to augment cognitive function, have shown recent promise as supplements or ‘smart drugs’ to improve brain health. These compounds function primarily by altering the activity of specific brain pathways, including those of the dopamine (D1) receptor, or α-adrenergic receptors1. Interestingly, activation of either of these receptors can enhance catecholamine levels, a small neurotransmitter molecular important for brain function, mood regulation, and more, in the prefrontal cortex. In elderly individuals, treatment with the natural nootropic agent known as Ginkgo Biloba, a polyphenol we will discuss later, improves brain cognition through vasodilation of arteries in the brain, presumably resulting in increased oxygen availability1.
2. Physical exercise
Physical activity has been linked to improvements in brain health and the treatment of mental disorders, amongst numerous other metabolic disorders like obesity or type 2 diabetes2. This association has constantly been reiterated in rodents, non-human primates, and humans. For example, rodents that were given access to running wheels showed dramatic improvements in neuroplasticity and learning outcomes2. Likewise, elderly humans who regularly exercise show augmented levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein in the brain that improves cognitive function2.
3. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are a particular subset of polyunsaturated fatty acids found in fish, plants, olives, flaxseed, nuts, and more. Over the last decade, a vast amount of research has been performed aiming to better characterize the role of omega-3 fatty acids to improve brain and/or cardiometabolic health. One such omega-3 fatty acid known as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) has shown promise for the treatment and prevention in these areas. The brain is composed of high concentrations of DHA – it is the most prevalent fatty acid in the mammalian brain. Interestingly, studies have shown that DHA deficiency in the developing brain results in neural complications, including reductions in important brain processes such as neurotransmitter metabolism, altered learning, and more2, 3. Nutritional DHA intake also improves the development of the growing fetus and decreases the risk for poor infant, visual, and neural development3. Finally, other investigations have shown another omega-3 fatty acid known as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) may have beneficial effects on brain health as well, although these data are somewhat controversial.
The importance of sleep for brain health is clear, and the research suggests that most adults require at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep to maintain proper physical and mental health2. To accommodate these studies, consistently getting less than optimal sleep causes numerous negative effects to overall brain and physical health. These negative effects include but are not limited to decreased memory and ability to execute basic cognitive functions and the decision-making process as well2. Likewise, insomnia is a key contributor to both the onset and development of depression, and a lack of sleep is associated with increased risk for insomnia; while clinical studies on individuals with sleep apnea, another common sleep disorder, illustrate that it clearly causes a degeneration of brain tissue and the brain stem2.
The clinical studies on the effects of coffee or caffeine are more controversial given that excess amounts can result in anxiety and sleep disturbances which, as we just discussed, can dramatically negatively influence brain health. However, caffeine is well-known to enhance alertness and improve overall mood and well-being. Likewise, epidemiological investigations have shown that individuals who drink coffee may limit depression or depression-related symptoms as well4.
Polyphenols are natural, nutritional phytochemical substances commonly found in plants and other organic materials. Recently, the use of polyphenols, such as flavonoids or quercetins commonly found in vegetables and vegetables or cocoa, has demonstrated neuroprotective capabilities in both rodents and humans. For instance, studies have shown that increased polyphenol consumption from tea, cocoa, or blueberry provides beneficial effects on memory and learning capacity and rodents and humans. Flavonoids are a specific type of polyphenol, and these organic compounds have also displayed significant anti-inflammatory and antioxidative benefits in the brain and other peripheral tissues throughout the human body, indicating they may have beneficial effects on the brain and over metabolism as well. Importantly, 5 distinct flavonoid groups exist based on their chemical structure, including flavanols, isoflavones, anthocyanidins and flavanones, and phytochemicals within each of these groups have displayed beneficial effects on neural health, cardiometabolic health, or both.
7. Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT)
HBOT is a therapeutic method where patients inhale pure, 100% oxygen inside a hyperbaric chamber that has been pressurized to pressures greater than 1 absolute atmosphere (ATA). This increased pressure can induce a state of hyperoxia or a situation where an excess supply of oxygen is delivered to tissues/organs, which has previously been shown to cause beneficial mechanical and physiological effects throughout the body – including our nervous system. Interestingly, hyperoxia – particularly due to HBOT exposure, can increase nervous system activity and vagal nerve stimulation to improve cognitive functions such as memory retention or recognition5. Clinical research also indicates that HBOT is useful for post-concussion syndrome in athletes, stroke, and in individuals suffering from neurodegenerative disorders5. In 2017, a long-term study that investigated the effects of HBOT in individuals experiencing strong post-concussion symptoms found that 5 days of HBOT/week for 6 months resulted in significant improvements in memory, information processing speed6. The authors of this work also found that HBOT beneficially altered fibers within the brain which correlates with optimized cognitive functioning.
Concluding Remarks On Optimizing Brain Health
Even though we are living longer, the age-related decline in mental health in diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s is continuing to rise. Moreover, mental health disorders are dramatically rising in the modern-day for a variety of reasons. Thus, brain health has never been more important. This article provides a few ways – either through diet, supplements, or lifestyle modifications, that can positively influence brain function to improve mood, alertness, memory, and more, while helping steer your clear of cognitive decline in the future.