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How to get your brain to perform at its best
Posted 8 May 2018
Despite being the most highly researched organ, the brain is still the least understood organ in the human body. However, scientists have established a good understanding of how best to fuel, stimulate and rest our brains for optimum performance and health.
How does the brain function?
The brain controls and coordinates movements, feelings, thoughts, breathing and bodily functions. It is made up of billions of nerve cells which transmit messages using a combination of electrical and chemical activity. For a more detailed description of how each part of the brain works, click here.
Keeping your brain healthy is essential for living a fulfilling, healthy and long life. It’s never too early or too late to start as brain health can be improved and protected at any age.
What does the brain require to function at its best?
To lead a brain healthy life you need to look after your brain, your body and your heart – the earlier the better. Scientific research suggests that leading a brain healthy life may reduce a person’s risk of developing dementia later in life.
While dementia cannot yet be prevented or cured, evidence does show that people can reduce their risk for dementia and other chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease and cancer by adopting healthy lifestyles.
Your Brain Matters – an initiative run by Alzheimer’s Australia, recommends the following 5-step program for optimum brain health:
Step One – Look after your heart
Step Two – Be physically active
Step Three – Mentally challenge your brain
Step Four – Follow a healthy diet
Step Five – Enjoy social activity
Dr Sarah McKay, a neuroscientist and science writer adds two more steps to the five listed above:
‘A good night’s sleep should be a priority, not a luxury. Sleep is overlooked, underappreciated and the number one bedrock of good health. Sleep deprivation, even a few hours a night, impacts cognition, mood, memory and learning.’
‘Not all stress is bad, but chronic stress, especially life events that are out of our control, can change the wiring of our brains. Too much cortisol (a stress hormone) prevents the birth of new neurons and causes the hippocampus (the brain structure involved in learning and memory) to shrink, reducing your powers of learning and memory.’
What kind of environment does my brain thrive in?
For optimum brain health, it’s important to maintain the balance of a healthy diet, enough sleep, physical activity, good mental health and positive social relationships. We’ve put together a full article about the best foods to eat for your brain – read it here.
The Sleep Health Foundation recommends that for anyone aged from 18-65, 7 to 9 hours per night is ideal. For anyone over the age of 65, they recommend between 7-8 hours. For a full fact sheet with sleep recommendations, click here.
The Australian Government Department of Health recommends the following for physical activity in people aged between 18 and 64:
- Be active on most, preferably all, days every week.
- Accumulate 150 to 300 minutes (2 ½ to 5 hours) of moderate intensity physical activity or 75 to 150 minutes (1 ¼ to 2 ½ hours) of vigorous intensity physical activity, or an equivalent combination of both moderate and vigorous activities, each week.
- Do muscle strengthening activities on at least 2 days each week.
For their full fact sheet on staying active, click here.
SA Health encourages people to ‘keep learning’ for good brain health:
‘To keep your mind both healthy and active learn a new sport, language, learn to play an instrument, read books and take an active interest in feeding your brain with positive information.
Ensuring children and young people have a good start in life will help with the formation of healthy relationships throughout their life. However, developing and maintaining a healthy mind is not always easy. Some well-known risk factors that can impact on the way we think and see the world around us include:
- the overuse of alcohol and drugs,
- physical inactivity
- poor sleep or lack of sleep
- experiencing distress over a long period
- being in a violent environment
- poor food and nutrition
- being bullied
- being isolated and excluded.
These and other risk factors can impact on the development of a positive, healthy mind and make it difficult for us to function well.’
What are some examples of activities I can do to keep my brain performing and engaged?
There are so many great resources and activities available to improve and maintain good brain health. From brain-training games and puzzles to goal-setting programs and calendars that can help track your behaviour and encourage ideal activity and patterns for optimum health. One of the most popular resources on the internet is lumosity.com which provides a range of cognitive games, brain ‘workouts’, reports with detailed insight into your performance and progress, tools to track your training and more. There are free resources and available as well as paid subscriptions for further access to games and reports. Check them out here.
Are there any supplements I can take to support healthy brain activity?
BeBrainFit recommends the following supplements for brain health:
How can I support my child(ren)’s brain health?
The Australian Early Development Census describes the following key stages of brain development in children:
As a parent, guardian or carer, the best things you can do to nurture the healthy development of your child’s brain are:
- Ensuring they have a nutritious diet
- Encouraging an active lifestyle
- Fostering open conversations about mental health and positive relationships/friendships
- Minimising screen time, especially around bedtime
- Maintaining regular GP appointments for checkups
If I have any concerns about my neurological health, who can I seek advice from?
If you’re worried about your neurological or mental health, the first step is to see your GP. They can recommend an appropriate course of action and/or provide any referrals to specialists.
Click here for a list of mental health services, as recommended by SA Health.
The Brain Dialogue – Australian Research Council for Integrative Brain Function
Your Brain Matters – Alzheimer’s Australia