Can you change your brain? In a word, YES!
In the last few decades, scientists have shown that we can change both the structure and function of our brains. We can positively affect our brain health through common-sense habits such as adequate sleep, good nutrition, exercise, avoiding excessive alcohol, and getting sunlight. We can also positively affect our brain health- both in structure and function- by changing our thought patterns.
First let’s consider some of the common-sense habits.
SLEEP: Most people need 6 to 8 hours of sleep per night. Growing children and adolescents need more. Sleep is important to a number of brain functions, including how neurons (nerve cells) communicate with each other. Research has shown that chronic sleep deprivation can lead to depression, irritability, poor concentration, and can increase the risk for seizures. Sleep deprivation is also associated with increased risk for obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.
NUTRITION: There is evidence that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, and fatty fish (example: salmon, tuna) is associated with improved brain health. These foods are all a part of the “Mediterranean diet”. Nuts, seeds, and fatty fish are all good sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to reduce irritability, mood dysregulation, and impulsivity in some people. In addition, some of these foods contain vitamin D, which will be discussed later in this article.
AVOID EXCESSIVE ALCOHOL: In general, men should drink no more than 2 drinks per day and women no more than one drink per day. Research has shown that people who drink excessively for extended periods of time have increased risk for cognitive impairment, which may be irreversible.
EXERCISE: Regular exercise is associated with a decreased risk for dementia, anxiety and depression. A combination of strength training and aerobic exercise is an excellent choice, and 30 minutes of vigorous exercise 3 or more days per week is recommended. It is important to increase the duration and intensity gradually and carefully, especially for older individuals.
SUNLIGHT: Exposure to sunlight is thought to increase the brain’s release of serotonin, a hormone that helps improve mood and helps keep a person feeling calm. In addition, when a person is exposed to sunlight, their skin can produce vitamin D. We now know that low vitamin D levels, especially in older adults, are associated with cognitive impairment. For most people that don’t get a lot of sunlight, it is advisable to take 600-800 IU of vitamin D daily.
Next, let’s consider how we can change our brain by changing our thought patterns. The brain is not a static organ. Rather, it is constantly changing. Just like we can change our brain by learning a new skill, such as playing the piano, we can change our brain by changing our thought patterns—with practice and repetition. As people learn to change their thought patterns, through cognitive behavioral therapy, meditating, or other therapeutic techniques, they can form new neural connections and strengthen new neural pathways in their brains. The actual structure of the brain is altered. While the results of more positive and optimistic thought patterns are powerful, accomplishing this can be challenging. If you have noticed the need for change but have difficulty due to other factors (past trauma, anxiety or depression, other situations or influences), it may be a good idea to contact a counselor to help with the process. The expertise and accountability found through counseling could lead to more extensive and long-term benefits.
Changing our brains through healthy habits and thought patterns is hard work and takes time, but it is achievable.
“That which we persist in doing becomes easier to do, not that the nature of the thing has changed but that our power to do has increased.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson