At the center of cognitive function, physical performance, and life as we know it sits the wonders of the human brain. Weighing a little more than 3-pounds, this unimpressive looking chunk of grayish-pink meat is by far the most advanced data-processor in the known universe.1 It is the key to changing lives and enhancing performance on many levels.
The objective of this discussion is to provide an all-encompassing overview of how the brain functions optimally. This will provide a frame of reference for making dietary and lifestyle changes that promote brain health and improve cognitive function.
The Human Brain
The brain is the central repository for all experiences collected by the senses. It is housed inside the skull where it is kept inside a special brain fluid called hydrocephalus, or brain water.
The human brain relies on 2.5 million gigabytes of storage capacity and is the final product of over 500 million years of evolution.2 Believe it or not, this organ is one of the fattiest organs of the body. 60% of it is fatty content which helps to insulate and direct over 23 watts of electrical power produced by the waking brain.3
Medical science is constantly studying the human brain and making breakthroughs in understanding how and why it operates the way it does. Many of these insights have shed light on the operations of a healthy brain and what is required for optimal mental functions.
As it turns out, the brain functioning at optimal capacity relies on the support of six essential components. Through addressing the needs of these components, brain health and cognitive capacity can be maintained and prolonged. Let’s take a closer look at these pillars of brain health and see how they can be bolstered.
1. Brain Energy
The brain requires tremendous amounts of energy to work well and not suffer fatigue after the slightest exertion. 20% of the oxygen and energy used in the human body is consumed by the brain. Some of this is required for mental operations and even more for maintaining and regenerating brain cells. A brain that is constantly energized is less susceptible to damage and cognitive decline.
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The brain can be energized through several processes but primarily relies on metabolizing glucose in the blood. This is a process that requires plenty of oxygen. Glucose is the fuel the body gets from carbohydrates in the diet and selecting healthy complex carbs is the best dietary choice.4
When the body is receiving an excessive amount of glucose, the surplus can be transformed into glycogen which can be stored in the liver and muscles. Glycogen is not just an alternative fuel supply but is also important for powering memory functions and fueling mitochondria which provide power on a cellular level.
Improving brain energy is all about affecting these processes positively. Start with better dietary choices that provide high-quality energy. Legumes and whole grains are the best choices. Supplementation that improves the metabolism is also important to brain energy levels.
Finally, don’t forget the importance of oxygen in this process. Open up the windows and exercise regularly to get some of that fresh air and O2 in your life. As we will see further in the article, oxygen is important to many aspects of brain health.
2. Brain Chemicals
The brain is the headquarter of the nervous system. It relies on a complex network of neural pathways and networks to send and receive messages from all parts of the body. Messages are relayed from neuron to neuron via synaptic transmissions, which essentially convert the electrical impulse to a chemical message.5
There are many different chemical messengers, called neurotransmitters, which can be relayed depending on the signals being transmitted. Some of the messengers are used for sending commands to muscles that coordinate physical movements. Other messengers are used for creating solutions to current problems through new associations in the memory storage department. Still, there are more that send distress and emergency signals.6
Actually, everything that happens in the body and mind is a direct result of neurotransmissions in the nervous system.
The brain requires a healthy intake of nutrients and vitamins to synthesize chemicals and maintain their transmissions. Other nutrients support biological functions essential to the health and function of neurotransmitters. A healthy supply of vitamin D, magnesium, iodine, and proteins is a good way to promote optimal neurotransmissions and the synthesis of these vital brain chemicals.7
3. Blood Supply
Everything the brain needs for energy and optimal levels of brain chemicals will be delivered through the bloodstream. Keeping these vital supply lines clear and running at full capacity will allow the brain to follow suit. By the same measure, the brain will begin to die and suffer damage if disconnected for even a few seconds.
Optimal blood flow serves and protects the brain in three primary ways. First, blood brings nutrients and glucose, which are the raw materials for building and energizing the brain. Second, blood brings the oxygen that keeps the brain alive and active. Finally, blood carts away all the waste materials and toxins that can contribute to brain damage and cognitive decline.8
The first step in improving the blood supply is getting regular exercise. Breathing exercises can also help control blood pressure and improve oxygen levels in the blood. Drinking the right amount of water each day also optimizes blood flow and aids in the elimination of toxins. Swapping out caffeinated and alcoholic beverages for healthy teas will indubitably add some years to your life and is good for blood and heart-health.9
Neuroprotection refers to the way the brain cells (neurons) are protected from injury, degeneration, or even natural breakdown. The brain can become damaged if it is working hard but it is relying on insufficient nutrients or impaired blood supplies.
Not all types of brain damage can be properly repaired. Without effective neuroprotection, the brain is at risk of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Multiple Sclerosis.
While new neuroprotectives are being developed, none can actually reverse brain damage. The best way to protect your body and brain from harmful elements is by leading a healthy life.
Healthy habits and diets can protect the brain from oxidative stress, inflammation, increase resilience to brain injuries, improve energy levels and supply important nutrients that keep the brain safe from damage. Nootropics and smart drugs sit on the cutting edge of neuroprotection and offer a variety of benefits to neuroprotection as well.10
There was a time when the medical community considered the brain a relatively inert organ. Neurogenesis, they assumed, was accomplished after birth and then the brain just crunched numbers until one day the lights go out. Now we understand the brain changes and evolves greatly throughout life.
Neuroplasticity is the term used to describe this process. The brain has the capacity to create new neural connections, reorganize brain pathways, and even produce neurons. A lot of this happens throughout childhood and adolescence because the brain is more malleable. Experiences can change the way the brain sees its reality.
Plasticity is an ongoing process and can even be triggered as a result of a brain injury or unsafe drug use. Neuroplasticity allows brain function to be restored in some cases of injuries like a stroke. When skills are re-learned and functions are restored after an injury, we see neuroplasticity allowing functioning parts of the brain to take over the roles of damaged areas.11
Some important dietary elements that promote neuroplasticity include fatty fish like salmon, sardines, cod, and other sources of omega-3. Magnesium is another important mineral for neuroplasticity and can be taken as a supplement or found in natural sources like black beans, almonds, and avocados.12
6. Brain Waves
All healthy human brains display five separate types of brain waves emitted in the cortex. These waves can be observed with the help of an EEG, an instrument that measures the electrical impulses of the brain. The waves in order of lowest to highest frequencies are delta, theta, alpha, beta, and gamma.
Each frequency is more predominate during different conditions of consciousness and allow for improved performance under those conditions. Cycling through the brain waves can have a profound effect on achieving your desired mental state.
When the brain is able to cycle quickly and easily through these waves, you can be creative, focus intensely, or fall into deep relaxation when you need.13 Studies have shown that those with a higher propensity for beta and gamma brain waves were faster at picking up new languages.14
By the same measure, if brain waves are out of synch, their associated states of consciousness can also be impaired. However, brain waves can be fine-tuned and improved in a number of ways.
Final Thoughts on Brain Health
While there are extensive options available to building a powerful mind through supplementation and the use of synthetic nootropics, some of the most effective plans involve improving daily life and dietary intake.
Simply getting enough sleep and getting more water can boost cognitive function exponentially if you are deficient in any of these essentials. Finally, a healthy mind is a positive mind. Stay grateful and keep smiling!
Photo credits: Jezper/shutterstock.com, LeighPrather/shutterstock.com, PopTika/shutterstock.com, agsandrew/shutterstock.com