In many ways, your brain is you. It coordinates your body’s function, helps you interact with the world, and is the source of all human creativity, intelligence, emotion, communication, and memory (1). While it is an incredible, intricate, and resilient organ, it can nonetheless be negatively affected by many factors. If your brain isn’t functioning well, it will impact every part of your body.
Some of these factors that occur in other parts of the body and affect brain health, such as hormonal imbalances, high blood sugar, leaky gut, and inflammation will be discussed in future articles. However, the most obvious and perhaps most important place to begin is by discussing how brain health can affect the function of the brain itself. Mild impairments such as brain fog and headaches, moderate problems with cognition, movement, mental wellness, and more severe problems such as memory disorders, neurodegenerative diseases, and mental health disorders can all arise when the brain isn’t healthy.
Is it brain fog or cognitive decline?
Brain fog and headaches can range in severity and both can become chronic problems when the brain isn’t healthy. While both have a variety of causes, they can create a feeling of lack of control, as though processes of thinking, memory, problem-solving, and ability to communicate are not working as well as they normally do or should (2, 3). Brain fog that increases in frequency and severity can also be classified as cognitive impairment or decline, which is an indication of more serious issues.
Cognitive Decline and Memory Disorders
Cognitive decline is a result of the degeneration of brain tissue, which often leads to memory disorders, including subjective or mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and different types of dementia. While some of these disorders have direct causes (viruses cause encephalitis, genetics cause Lewy body dementia, a lack of adequate blood flow to the brain causes vascular dementia), the majority of memory disorders have no main cause, or perhaps more accurately stated, many causes (4). Head injuries, heart disease, and unhealthy lifestyle habits such as poor diet, infrequent exercise, substance abuse, low-quality sleep, and a lack of regular social and mental stimulation can all contribute (4, 5).
Unfortunately, just as the causes are multifaceted, so are the effects of brain disorders. Of course, memory is affected, but problems with speech, personality, habits, hygiene, decision-making, motor movements, mood disorders, and confusion may manifest as well (4, 6). This is because the structure of the brain begins to change: protein structures malfunction and create tangles within neurons and decrease synaptic communication, chronic inflammation causes waste build-up, and neurons begin to die (6).
Similarly, other neurodegenerative disorders manifest because of damaged neurons. Since neurons don’t really reproduce or repair themselves, diseases that cause neuron degeneration can cause severe and permanent effects. Diseases like the dementias mentioned above, as well as those affecting movement like Huntington’s, Parkinson’s, and other motor neuron diseases, are all progressive (7). Additionally, similarly to the memory disorders mentioned above, while a few of these are genetic, environmental factors often play the largest role in their development (7).
Brain Health vs Mental Health
Another aspect of brain health is mental health. While most people generally think of these as separate entities, some health professionals are calling for the end of the demarcation between the two, believing that the distinction is counterproductive (8). Brain structure in those with mental disorders such as schizophrenia, posttraumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other disorders differ from healthy brains (8). Beyond that, brain imaging shows a distinction between abnormal emotion (i.e. extreme or illogical fear, anxiety, etc.) and normal emotion (8). As mental illness is increasingly associated with changes in brain chemistry, structure, and function, most scientists believe that the root of these mental illnesses is a problem in neuron communication, similarly to the root causes of disorders above (9).
However, poor brain health can cause mental health problems even for those without disorders. More mild symptoms like irritability, mood swings, anxiousness, general low mood, lack of energy, and/or mild depression can all indicate poor brain health (9). Depression and anxiety both increase the risk for dementia later in life, strengthening the link between the health, structure, and function of the physical brain and its influence on mental health (9). Interestingly, there is actually a strong correlation between mental illnesses and physical factors, such as head injuries, toxins, and poor nutrition (10).
How to Improve Brain Health
All of this information can be worrying, especially given that these disorders have so many origins, and indeed, sometimes seem to develop without a clear cause. While many of these brain disorders do not have cures, there are some treatment options, including medication, that can help reduce symptoms and stabilize cognitive decline (10). However, lifestyle changes and preventative measures can also bring better brain health to everyone, including those with the disorders listed above.
Lifestyle changes to improve brain health include:
Improving sleep quality
Adopting a healthier diet
Managing stress and improving emotional health
Investing in strong relationships and social support
Increasing cognitively stimulating activities
Reducing toxin exposure
Avoiding head injury
Focusing on the 5 Pillars of Health and Other Lifestyle Changes
The 5 pillars of health, discussed in more detail in this article, include the first five points above. These aspects of your lifestyle are the basis of all health. Improving these five pillars will help not only enhance your general health and immune system, but will also strengthen your brain health, and can prevent the disorders listed above.
Good sleep is critical to good health. In fact, sleep deprivation can harm memory, concentration, response time, neuron communication, and even your brain’s natural detoxification processes (11). Creating a regular sleep schedule, getting sun in the morning, avoiding alcohol, caffeine, and screens at night, as well as treating any underlying sleep disorders such as sleep apnea can all improve sleep hygiene and lead to better brain health (10, 11).
Exercise helps improve heart health and blood circulation, which is directly linked to brain health. Your brain actually uses 20% of the oxygen and blood flow in the body, so the increase in circulation that comes from exercise and a healthy heart is incredibly beneficial for your brain (12). Moderate exercise at least three times a week is associated with a decreased risk for cognitive decline (13). On the other end of the spectrum of heart health, cardiovascular disorders and disease are linked to poor brain health, which includes memory disorders (5). Exercise also has a powerful effect on increasing BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) levels (14). BDNF is a key growth factor that is central to neuron survival and regeneration (14). Many of the strategies to improve brain health focus on ways to increase BDNF levels.
Adopting a healthy diet full of vegetables, especially leafy greens, as well as berries, nuts, healthy fats, and lean protein such as clean-sourced fish is key to brain health (15). A healthy diet can delay the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s and can even lower the risk of developing dementia and cognitive decline in the first place (15). Because the brain is actually 60% fat, high-fat, low-carb diets like the ketogenic diet can also improve brain health for some people, and reduce symptoms such as brain fog, fatigue, and memory loss.
Managing stress is not only good for your cardiovascular system, which will improve brain health as mentioned above, but it is critical for overall mental wellbeing. Finding healthy ways to manage stress, such as time in nature, grounding techniques, deep breathing, journaling, and meditation and prayer, can all improve mental health.
Investing in strong relationships and social support is great for mental and brain health. Not only do they help you feel more supported and connected to the people around you, but relational support can also relieve stress, improving your cardiovascular system, gut function, immunity to viruses, and overall cognitive health (16). Social interactions also provide cognitive stimulation, which is important to prevent and reverse cognitive decline.
Reducing toxin exposure can improve normal cognitive and physiological function (17). Toxins such as heavy metals, flame retardants, pesticides, molds, and air pollution are all neurodegenerative and can cause cognitive decline in people of all ages (17). Reducing exposure to toxins will not only lead to overall improved health but can also reduce brain fog and even some symptoms of dementia and mental health problems (10).
Lastly, avoiding head injury through simple actions such as wearing seatbelts and helmets when appropriate and being mindful while walking, running, and exercising is important. Not only can head injuries create any number of complications, but they have been linked to neurodegenerative diseases, memory disorders, and mental health disorders (10).
If this article has brought up any questions or concerns for you about your brain health, please reach out to us. We can help you discover what changes are most beneficial for you by talking through your health history, determining whether any testing may provide additional insight, finding the right supplements or medicines, and partnering together to create sustainable lifestyle changes for you. It would be our joy to help you improve your brain and overall health!
Jonathan Vellinga, M.D. is an Internal Medicine practitioner with a broad interest in medicine. He graduated Summa cum laude from Weber State University in Clinical Laboratory Sciences and completed his medical degree from the Medical College of Wisconsin.
Upon graduation from medical school, he completed his Internal Medicine residency at the University of Michigan. Dr. Vellinga is board-certified with the American Board of Internal Medicine and a member of the Institute for Functional Medicine.
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