Even though your brain affects everything you do, you probably don’t give it — literally — much thought. Clever pun aside, how often do you actually consider what your brain may need to stay healthy? Given the fact your brain impacts all aspects of your life — from happiness and health, to relationships and rest — it’s important you understand how to take care of it.
While aging and genes have some effect, they may not have the final word about the fate of your brain. Your brain’s lifelong neuroplasticity enables you to have continual influence over its health based on how you eat, sleep, exercise, express yourself, manage stress and more. The actions, attitudes and thoughts you have today, as well as the daily lifestyle choices you make, all play a meaningful role in your brain’s health.
With more than 5 million Americans currently living with Alzheimer’s disease and as many as 16 million expected to suffer with it by 2050,1 brain care is not a subject you can afford to ignore. Start today by reviewing the following 10 actions you can take daily to positively impact the health of your brain.2
1. Get Proper Sleep
About 1 in 3 Americans gets less than seven hours of sleep a night, and an estimated 83.6 million adults in the U.S. are sleep-deprived.3,4 You may be suffering from sleep deprivation if you work the night shift, have a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea or spend a lot of time in front of electronic gadgets at night. Particularly if your habit is to sleep five or fewer hours a night, you may be putting yourself at risk of cognitive decline and memory issues that will only accelerate as you age.
Dr. Paul Mathew, neurologist and assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, underscores the value of sleep to your overall health and well-being. He says:5
“Sleep is a critically important component of human existence. On average, humans spend about 25 to 35 percent of their lives sleeping. Sleep allows both the body and brain to rest and recover from the stress of daily life. As such, trouble sleeping can cause a range of health problems, and, if left untreated, dire consequences.
Even if sleep duration is good, sleep quality can be quite poor. People who wake up many times during the night can have some nights with zero hours of deep, restful sleep. Poor sleep quantity and/or quality can cause excessive daytime drowsiness … chronic fatigue, headaches, mood issues, irritability, poor memory and cognitive dysfunction.”
The National Sleep Foundation offers three tips to support your body’s need for quality sleep:6
- Vary your wake-up time on the weekends no more than an hour from your weekday schedule to better support a consistent sleep-wake schedule, also known as your body’s circadian rhythm
- Take a 20-to-30-minute nap on weekend afternoons, ideally between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m.
- Keep your naps on the shorter side to avoid feeling groggy or cranky after them, and especially to prevent feeling too awake at bedtime
Whatever your approach, research suggests adults need right around eight hours of sleep a night. The sleep needs of seniors, young adults, teenagers and children vary. If you are not sure how much sleep you should be getting, review the sleep needs according to your age. Using a wearable fitness tracker at night may help you gain more insight into your sleep patterns.
2. Train Your Unconscious Mind
According to the documentary “Automatic Brain: The Magic of the Unconscious Mind,” your subconscious mind manages about 90 percent of everything you do whether you are asleep or awake. You may be surprised to learn your conscious mind plays only a minor role in guiding your life. In reality, most of what you think, say and do every day is a function of your “automatic,” or unconscious brain (also known as your subconscious). Without you fully realizing it, your brain essentially is running your life on autopilot.
Because your subconscious plays such a big role, you will benefit from a better understanding of it, which will help you leverage it to your full advantage. Writing in Psychology Today, Matt James, Ph.D., president of The Empowerment Partnership and master trainer of neuro linguistic programming, assigns several qualities to your unconscious brain. Among them, states James, your unconscious brain:7
•Acts like a young child: Similar to a young child, your unconscious mind needs clear, detailed directions and lots of reminders. It takes instructions literally, so be sure to give it specific (and positive) guidance.
•Communicates through emotion and symbols: To get your attention quickly, your unconscious mind uses feelings, imagery and symbols. It’s your job to discern what they mean.
•Deals with positives only: Negative words like “don’t,” “no” or “not” are largely ignored by your unconscious mind. For this reason, it is better to say, “I am going to improve my health by avoiding smoking” as opposed to “I don’t want to smoke.” You can also use creative imaging to center your mind on positive thoughts.
Because your unconscious mind has a pervasive influence on your life, you can actively harness its power and direct its influence in positive, life-giving ways by:8
•Expressing yourself artistically: Artistic endeavors such as coloring, drawing or painting make use of your subconscious by allowing your creativity to surface and making space for the expression of your true feelings. Because the goal is to tap into your unconscious mind, you don’t need to be a great artist, just open to the creative process.
•Rehearsing desired outcomes: A great way to program a new activity, skill or thought into your unconscious mind is to rehearse it and repeat it until it takes root. Similar to the countless songs and jingles lodged in your subconscious, you can rehearse new attitudes, ideas, outcomes and thoughts that you want to become reality. By frequently repeating out loud what you want, you aid your subconscious mind in catching on and helping you achieve your desired outcomes.