Your Brain and You: How to Keep Your Neurons Happy and Healthy

The brain is our most fascinating organ. It affects every aspect of our lives, from movement control to memory, to emotional development and social cognition. It is the grand central station for all of the body’s physiological and psychological behavior. 


Understanding how the brain functions and how it reacts to different stimuli is core to maintaining happy and healthy neurons, and in turn supporting a happy and healthy life.

Your Brain and You: How to Keep Your Neurons Happy and Healthy


The brain is our most fascinating organ. It affects every aspect of our lives, from movement control to memory, to emotional development and social cognition. It is the grand central station for all of the body’s physiological and psychological behavior. 


Understanding how the brain functions and how it reacts to different stimuli is core to maintaining happy and healthy neurons, and in turn supporting a happy and healthy life.


Brain function 


The brain is a web of neurons connected by way of electrical impulse synapses and neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are chemical substances that travel through nerve fibers and are released following a nerve impulse. These are the chemicals that trigger various types of behavior including thoughts and emotions, and interconnect the cells of the nervous system to each other.


The seven major neurotransmitters are:


Dopamine – Our “reward chemical” produced during goal-oriented behavior in anticipation of a reward. It’s the feeling of joy and accomplishment from defeating a particularly tough boss fight in a video game, or being recognized for hard work.
Serotonin – Best known as the “happiness chemical” for its role in regulating moods, serotonin has a very complex and multifaceted job description.
Norepinephrine – This chemical is related to attentiveness and alertness. It gets the brain focused on a particular issue or problem. 
GABA – The Gamma-Amino Butyric Acid has a calming and relaxing effect. Consequently, this chemical also plays a role in sleep function and attention span. 
Glutamate – This GABA’s opposite. Glutamate is an excitatory chemical that helps the brain to create new signals between neurons and strengthens existing signals. Thus, it plays a crucial role in cognition and memory.
Endorphins – These chemicals are typically produced to relieve stress and pain. The effect is similar to an alcohol buzz.   
BDNF – While the Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor is not technically a neurotransmitter, it does act as one, facilitating communication and connection between neurons. 

Positive emotions can form and solidify neural pathways. But negative feelings and long-term stress can actively harm them.  


Stress on the Brain


Stress can manifest as physical symptoms throughout the body—illness, inflammation, back pain, headaches, and an overwhelming sense of fatigue. 


When the brain is faced with stress, it reacts in a number of ways in order to protect itself. Periodic short-term stress could even work to sharpen your mental reflexes and improve sensory memory. Chronic long-term stress, however, can do serious harm. 


Chronic stress could lead to shrinkage in areas of the brain associated with the regulation of emotions, metabolism, and memory, resulting in long-term changes. These changes can make you more likely to have anxiety and mood problems. And in extreme cases, stress can kill brain cells. 


So how do we keep our brains healthy and functioning?


Brain health


There is no universal definition of brain health. According to WHO, it is “an emerging and growing concept,” that aims to map out very complicated territory. Because no two brains are the same, and our brains continue to change as we age, socialize, and react to different challenges, the study of brain health is consequently an evolving field. 


But while definitive brain research is still ongoing, it’s clear that brain health is fueled by individual lifestyle. And there is strong evidence that exercise, relaxation, and good nutrition can reduce cognitive decline. 


Exercise 


Regular physical exercise increases BDNF and serotonin and supports neurogenesis, creating and strengthening more neuron connections. One study also found that regular exercise in animals increased the number of tiny blood vessels that bring oxygen-rich blood to the brain, improving overall cognition and deep-thought. 


Regular mental exercise promotes new cell growth and neural pathways, too. So be sure to include mentally stimulating activities alongside your physical workouts. No need to download the latest “cognitive enhancement” game to your phone. Everyday activities, like completing a jigsaw puzzle, reading a book, and playing cards all give your brain a workout. Activities that require manual dexterity, like drawing, painting, knitting, or playing an instrument, are also great. And when in doubt, there’s always Sudoku. 

 

Relax 


Sleep, relaxation, and meditation all improve mood, increase energy, slow aging, and may reduce an abnormal protein known as beta-amyloid plaque found in Alzheimer’s patients. 


Schedule some “Me Time” once a week where you can just chill. Join a meditation course online. Stick to a regular sleep schedule (preferable one that gives you at least 7 hours of consecutive sleep). And otherwise look for ways to reduce daily stress. Rest and sleep is when your brain recovers from damage and stores information. This is why staying up all night cramming for a test the next day almost never actually helps. Without sleep, your brain can’t process and store the information you just studied. And you’re left “blanking” on the test questions.


Eat well 


A diet rich in anti-oxidants can prevent oxidation, protecting brain cells from damage. Omega 3’s, and certain vitamins, minerals, and amino acids will also enrich and protect the brain, giving it an added layer of security and vitality. 


Don’t worry, good nutrition does not require you to abandon good taste. The Mediterranean diet, for example, is both neurologist-approved and delicious. It emphasizes eating more plants, grains, fish, and healthy fats like those found in olive oil, avocados, and nuts. Eggplant parmesan, fish tacos, smoothie bowls, dark chocolate, and sushi are also included. 


Commit 


We tend to associate psychological disorders with serious traumatic events or circumstances. And while they are major factors, the truth is that small everyday stress can cause just as much damage. Ensuring the long-term happiness and health of our “little gray cells”—as Detective Poirot likes to say—requires long-term commitment.

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Comments

03/03/2021 by John

This is awesome! It totally helped me out.

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