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5 Ways to a Better Life and Better Brain

Still deciding what to add to your list of New Year’s resolutions? If you are like many, you might have set a goal that has something to do with health, weight, or fitness. As you wonder whether you really want to spend the next 12 months staring at a Fitbit, a scale, or health goals list, may I suggest you flip that scale upside down and set a new goal to bring your numbers WAY up?

Up?? Seriously??? That’s right!

I’m suggesting you work this year to increase one of the most important numbers in your body and brain that researchers have ever discovered. Before you think I completely lost my mind over the holiday season, hear me out…

The Research

This month we are after one of the most important numbers in your body and brain. It is the number of NEW brain cells you preserve every day. Your brain adds new cells and loses brain cells daily, so without adding new ones your brain is losing mass!

There are only two known ways you can upgrade your body or brain. One way is to reduce and remove toxic exposure (unhealthy exposure to toxic air, water, foods, radiation, etc.).

A second way is through enrichment strategies such as oxygenation, new learning, walking, moving, exercising, running, swimming, doing yoga, positive mental practices, novel environments, better nutrition, sunlight, supportive social networks, etc.

But how would you know if you’re succeeding in enriching?

It’s easy! When you enrich your brain, the marker is…more new brain cells. That’s the number you want to bump UP this year!

The growth of new brain cells, called neurogenesis, was first suggested in humans decades ago (Altman, 1962) but nobody believed the research. The idea was too far of a stretch and there were critics of this “wild idea.” A well-known, skeptic, Dr. Pasko Rakic was vehement that humans could NOT grow new brains cells (Rakic, 1985).

What a discouraging assumption!

But persistent neuroscientists in the late 1990’s made the ground-breaking discovery when events came together: 1) a tsunami of studies showing neurogenesis in other mammals and, 2) new biomarkers (like BRDU, a fluorescent biomarker that could be injected into the blood) allowed scientists to see and quantify the growth of new brain cells.

So, what’s the big deal and why should you care?

First, just to confirm, our brain can, and DOES, produce new brain cells … every day. Even elderly patients with terminal cancer are producing new brain cells (Eriksson et al., 1998). On average, we are producing 700-1000 new brain cells every day (Spalding et al., 2013). But researchers had to figure out two more things before I could write this newsletter.

First, is neurogenesis ANY GOOD for us?

Yes, it is good for us. Neurogenesis has been shown to occur in several areas of the brain including the hippocampus. This is such a BIG deal for us as educators. Remember that the hippocampus is highly involved with learning and memory. That means that when you are adding new neurons to this area of the brain you are helping yourself learn better and create stronger memories.

When neurogenesis is stopped (scientists can suppress the genes that normally “switch on” neurogenesis), the results are disease-like. Poor neurogenesis is correlated with poor memory, weight gain, cognitive difficulties, depression, and a host of other challenges.

Second, can neurogenesis BE REGULATED OR IS IT FIXED?

Yes, it can be regulated- it is NOT FIXED! We can influence this production of new brain cells. That’s right – enrichment (your diet, lifestyle, and emotional state) significantly impacts the growth of new brain cells (Poulose, Miller, Scott, & Shukitt-Hale, 2017).

5 Ways to Promote Neurogenesis

We know enrichment promotes neurogenesis. To make your life better and the decision easier (about what to do), I’ve grouped your brain-building strategies into 5 areas. Pick the ones you are most likely to actually do, and then start building those bonus daily brain cells.

  1. Enrichment: Here are some ways you can “enrich” your life to promote neurogenesis: take up a new hobby, learn something new, travel, increase your social interactions, or do some intense exercise (van Praag, Kempermann, & Gage, 1999).Any form of high intensity exercise can help you take huge strides toward your goal of creating new brain cells. And, of course, it can help if you still want to keep your other goal of losing weight. Brain cell count, up. Weight, down. The perfect one-two combo. Voluntary gross motor movement (run, swim, cycle, etc.) does build the brain (Pereira et al., 2007).The good news is you only need 20 minutes of high intensity exercise daily to reap the benefits of neurogenesis (Jeon & Ha, 2017). So, start packing for your next vacation. Just remember to pack your running shoes and bring along a friend for some brain workouts (Ma et al., 2017).
  2. Sunlight: Enhanced Vitamin D exposure (such as sunlight) also has been shown to promote neurogenesis in animal studies (Kwon et al., 2014 and Groves & Burne, 2017). Those sunny vacation plans keep getting better!
  3. Sleep: Here is an appealing strategy! Sleep is critical for memory formation, which is moderated by the hippocampus. So, it is no wonder that our sleeping habits also influence neurogenesis (Mueller, Meerlo, McGinty, & Mistlberger, 2013). Although moderate sleep deprivation may interfere with enhancing neurogenesis, it is usually only the all-nighters (sleep deprivation of 24 hours or more) that really take a toll on our brain cell count (Meerlo, Mistlberger, Jacobs, Heller, & McGinty, 2009). Either way, keep aiming for those 7-8 hours of sleep a night. Your brain is working hard to repair itself, consolidate memories, and build new brain cells.
  4. Reduce Distress: Chronic stress is one of biggest brain cell killers (Watanabe, Gould, & McEwen, 1992). Neurogenesis has been shown to be very sensitive to the effects of stress from the perinatal period all the way through adulthood (Gould et al., 1997). All the more reason to take this vacation, right? Luckily, you don’t have to go on a costly vacation to reduce your stress. Even a few minutes of meditation each day can combat stress and boost your neurogenesis (Shors, Olson, Bates, Selby, & Alderman, 2014).
  5. Diet: If you’d rather eat your way to more brain cells, choose these smart choices shown to enhance neurogenesis. Get plenty of Omega-3s and DHA either by eating foods such as salmon, anchovies, and other cold water sea foods, or in supplement form (arctic krill is best) (Cutuli, 2017). Flavonoid-rich foods such as cocoa (Nehlig, 2013) and blueberries (Rendeiro, 2013) have also been shown to boost neurogenesis.As you might suspect, sugar has a negative, adverse effect on neurogenesis (Beilharz, Maniam, & Morris, 2015). And, since alcohol is a central nervous system depressant (and it turns to sugar), consumption of more than one alcoholic drink a day is also bad. In fact, having 3-4 drinks per day can decrease the production of the number of new cells by nearly 40% (Anderson, Nokia, Govindaraju, & Shors, 2012).

Surprisingly, intermittent fasting (the 18 hours from dinner to lunch the next day) actually fosters neurogenesis! So, you can lose weight and gain brain cells with one smart lifestyle change. The fasting puts your brain into overdrive and it enhances new cell proliferation (Mattson, 2005; van Praag, Fleshner, Schwartz, & Mattson, 2014; and Manzanero, et al., 2014).

It is likely several of the items above are already part of your lifestyle or diet. That is great! Pick a couple that aren’t (yet) and add those to your New Year’s resolution. Let’s make it a mission to foster a better brain in 2018 by building more new brain cells! 


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