7 Worst Habits for Your Brain
Your brain is a hard-working machine. Consider the care you take for the other machines in your life. You change the oil in your car and would not dream of putting anything but motor oil in. You change the air filters in your air conditioner, but would you add a layer of dust to the filter before applying it? Some of these things are obvious, but we are humans and, on some occasions, pick the easy or more convenient way of doing things.
Maybe you turned off that smoke detector that was beeping in the night with plans to change the battery once you wake again in the morning. A few weeks go by, and you know you’ll get around to getting those new batteries in. You are much aware of how important smoke detectors are. Still, you are a busy and beautifully flawed human and life sometimes gets in your way.
Your brain likes good working conditions like any other machine. Just like knowing the smoke detector needs batteries to save your life, most of the poor habits we subject our brain to are obvious and we often instinctually know better. But what are the worst offenders? And how can you approach eliminating the toxins over the pure motor oil, keeping the dust from the filters, and making certain our brain batteries stay fresh?
After all, we expect tons from our brain machine including keeping us moving, finding memories and thoughts when we need them, and maintaining an acceptable mood and personality that help us to live pleasantly with those other brain machines out there.
Too much sitting
Sitting slows brain function. How? When you sit, you are not allowing your muscles to pump fresh blood, oxygen and good chemicals to and from your brain. This is not just about hitting the gym. Any form of exercise boosts these chemicals.
Studies have suggested that the more steps you take in a day, the lower your risk of dementia may be. Take breaks from sitting too long at your work desk. Catching up on a work or social phone call? Walk and talk around your office or home at the same time. Be mindful of how much time you are spending watching TV and scrolling through social media. Inactivity is linked to obesity which increases your risk for stroke.
Balance exercises can reduce the risk of falls which are a big cause of brain injury and bleeding. Getting out in nature can help calm the mood and reduce stress. Try making wearing sneakers a priority when you are at home as this can make it easier for you to bounce up and move. Happy feet can mean a happy brain.
Not enough brain exercise
It’s not just the rest of your body that needs to get moving. It could be use it or lose it for your brain. The good news is that brain exercises are fun. Reading, playing games with family, listening to music, dancing, and taking up new hobbies (think wood working, bird watching, star gazing) can all sharpen your thinking skills. Something as simple as socializing fires off a ton of good brain juices. Work to expand your spare time activities, pursue your personal interests, and enlarge your social circle so brain will reap in the benefits like your heart does when you take a brisk walk.
Most of us place our cell phone on the charger before bed at night because we need full battery power the next day. It’s the same with your brain and sleep. Better sleep means better thinking and better mood the next day. We all know around seven to eight hours is the sweet spot, yet the CDC says one-third of America adults fall short. No one likes lying in bed wishing for sleep to come any more than when the alarm clock goes off after not enough sleep.
You know what hygiene is. So, you brush your teeth, take a shower and comb your hair each day. Your brain needs SLEEP hygiene. This includes going to bed and waking at the same time every day, spending only seven and eight hours physically in the bed, avoiding electronics like TVs and smart phones 30 minutes before your bedtime, avoiding caffeine several hours before bed, and keeping the lights down to send your brain the signal that it’s bedtime.
Stressing too much
Simply put, stressed brain can’t always retain memories. The more stress you feel, the less peak performance you’ll get from your brain. Stress is like poison to a place in the brain known as the prefrontal cortex. Our highest order thinking occurs in this region of the brain which controls our thoughts, actions, and emotions. It takes effort and sometimes medication and therapy to treat mood and stress disorders. But you can take some action every day to pacify that prefrontal region.
First, make sure you can recognize the signs of stress including irritability, lack of energy, rapid heartbeat, decreased concentration and feeling overwhelmed. Then, make sure you take control of the stressful situation to the best of your ability while understanding which things are out of your control. Finally, destress with deep breathing, taking a walk, calling a friend, meditating or simply removing yourself from the situation for a while.
Your brain cares about when you eat, what you eat, and how much you eat. Have you ever skipped a meal and felt a tension headache? That your brain’s way of saying, “Feed me or I quit.” Never skip a meal and work to establish a mindset of eating when you are hungry. Remember what you eat will also be important.
Tons of research supports clean eating for optimum brain function long term. Junk food like chips, sodas, candy, and fast-food trick our reward centers in the brain into thinking we will feel good when we indulge, but those highly processed foods often have little or no nutritional value. Brain healthy foods are usually more natural foods like leafy greens, fish, whole grains, nuts, and berries.
Of course, overeating and certain foods makes our brain sluggish. Think of the way you feel after that large meal at Thanksgiving. That’s your brain on too much. The large consumption of complex carbs from stuffing and sweets like pies at that meal are more to blame for the after-dinner fatigue than the tryptophan in the turkey (which often unfairly takes all the blame). Keep in mind that restrictive diets are difficult to follow and can lead to frustration. Try planning your meals most of the time and be prepared to forgive yourself for any slip ups while quickly re-focusing on good eating most of the time.
Drinking too much alcohol, smoking and using illicit drugs
Since we are talking about habits, we need to address these offenders, which, sadly, hook too many and lead to premature deaths. Think mild to moderate drinking is no problem? Research may no longer support this assumption. Previously, studies have suggested that light to moderate alcohol could protect against dementia and stroke, but those studies have been what scientists consider weak and have shown inconsistent results. For now, its better to assume that less alcohol is best.
Smoking has no benefits and most smokers want to quit. If you smoke or vape and can’t kick the habit, please seek help from your doctor. It’s the same for illicit drugs. But what about marijuana and the brain? Cannabis impairs attention, concentration and coordination. In short, it makes the brain slow and forgetful. Although medical marijuana may have benefit in certain conditions like some childhood epilepsies and for nausea in patients taking chemotherapy, the risks of cannabis use to the brain needs to be weighed carefully against the benefits in each individual patient situation.
Not taking easy safety precautions
Your skull was designed to protect your brain, but it needs your help. Injured brains don’t function well. Protect yourself from loud noise exposure (including those ear buds), wear a helmet when riding a bike, always wear your seat belt, don’t drink and drive, stay extra hydrated when it’s hot out, take extra careful when climbing heights like ladders, and don’t use your smart phone while driving or walking in public. Your mom would not want you diving in shallow water and that’s solid advice to keep passing on to the little brains in your life.
Seems overwhelming? That’s because bad habits are notoriously difficult to kick and there is never a one size fits all approach to stopping them. Remember both good and bad habits come from repetition. Start small by picking one to two things you can reduce or change. Add good habits in the place of the bad ones. If you know a habit is harmful to your brain health and you are struggling to change it, seek the advice of your doctor. Your brain machine will reap the rewards of its new oil, filters, and batteries.
Learn more about neurologist Jamie Huddleston, MD.