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The 5 Pillars of Brain Health — And How to Prioritize Brain Health in 2022

Fun fact to break out around the dinner table: your brain only accounts for 2 percent of your bodyweight, but it makes up 20 percent of all metabolic energy expenditure (a fancy way of saying the total energy it takes to maintain homeostasis in your body, plus the energy required to do physical activities). Clearly, your brain is a big deal. After all, it’s what makes you human. But besides doing the occasional Sudoku puzzle, what else could you be doing to take care of your brain health?


Surprisingly, brain health goes far beyond brain teasers and learning new vocab words. In fact, there are five pillars of brain health you should know about. Here’s a look at each category of brain health and the corresponding ways you can take care of your brain.


Sleep

Think of your brain as a computer: It needs to be rebooted every night in order to function properly the next day. Sleep is the way your brain reboots, and two parts of the sleep cycle are especially important for brain health: deep sleep and REM sleep. In deep sleep (which occurs early in the night), the brain restores and repairs itself. In REM sleep, which occurs later in the night, your brain consolidates and stabilizes memories, so they’re easier to recall the next day.


How to sleep well for brain health: Aim to go to bed at a reasonable hour (ideally between 10pm and 11pm, which has the added benefit of reducing risk of heart disease). And step away from the Candy Crush—in fact, put your phone in a totally different room, if possible. The blue light emitted from electronics suppresses the body’s production of melatonin, the hormone that’s responsible for making you drowsy and ready for bed.


Stress

A little neurology lesson: When you’re stressed, your brain gets stuck in “fight or flight” mode. Too much time in fight or flight mode means your brain doesn’t have the time or capacity for restoration and recovery—it’s too focused on survival. On the flip side, when your body enters the “rest and digest” mode, your brain and body can build their energy stores back up towards homeostasis. It’s crucial for your brain health that you reduce your stress and learn stress management techniques to work for you.


How to reduce stress for brain health: Find activities and practices that help you get out of your head and into a state of flow. For many, that means finding a type of exercise they love, a creative pursuit that engages them, or a mindfulness practice that teaches them to simply sit and be present. If you regularly find yourself stressed out due to work, a relationship, or something else, it may also be worth examining that thing more closely.


Nutrition

Yes, the old saying is true: You are what you eat, and eating certain foods can help or harm your brain health. Red meat, for example, can lead to plaque buildup in the brain, while high-sugar diets have been connected to Alzheimer’s, dementia, and lower cognitive scores. Similarly, bombarding the brain with easily absorbed carbohydrates allows proteins to link with glucose molecules. Those proteins are not able to adequately function, which leads to slower brain function, brain fog, and memory loss.


How to eat for brain health: Swap red meat for brain-boosting proteins like fish or eggs a few times a week (ideally, wild-caught fish and pasture-raised eggs, if you have access to them). Eggs are an amazing source of choline, a nutrient that helps cognitive function, while fish have been linked to reduced risk of cognitive decline. Try to limit your intake of processed foods and instead focus on a whole foods diet that’s heavy in plants.


Lifestyle

Where and how you live can also impact your brain health. Do you live in a crowded urban area notorious for pollution? What’s the quality of the water you’re hydrating with daily? Are you exposed to any heavy metals or mold? All of those can significantly affect your brain function.


How to adjust your lifestyle for brain health: While it may not be possible to move to a more brain-healthy area, there are things you can do to manage your personal environment. Try adding an air purifier to your home, or filling your space with air-purifying plants (like snake plants or English ivy). Depending on the quality of your tap water, you might also invest in a water filter like a Brita or Soma.


Electromagnetic pollution (EMF)

Electromagnetic pollution comes from power lines, electrical equipment, phones, household appliances, and more electronic and magnetic objects. Since our brain cells communicate through electrical impulses, foreign impulses from EMF can interfere with that communication and disrupt our brain signals.


How to reduce EMF for brain health: For low- to mid-frequency EMFs (think smaller items, like household appliances), keep a physical distance of at least one foot to reduce exposure. After all, do you really need to watch your soup heat up in the microwave? You can also practice social distancing from your phone by keeping it in another room and carrying it in a bag, rather than your pocket. For higher EMFs, like x-ray machines or UV rays from tanning beds, it’s best to limit that exposure to only when medically necessary.


While these are general guidelines for brain health, your specific best practices will vary depending on where you live, your family’s medical history, and more. To learn exactly what you should be doing to protect your brain health, consult with a precision medicine team. They’ll be able to build a plan specifically for you, so that your memory stays sharp and your brain continues functioning well for years to come.


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