Some people obsess over celebrities, and others swoon over athletes or politicians, but I geek out over health professionals like Dr. Daniel Amen. As the author of 10 New York Times bestsellers, a top psychiatrist, and the founder of Amen Clinics (where he’s scanned the brains of more than 210,000 patients), Dr. Amen is the expert on how to keep your brain healthy. Why should we care about our brain health? Some of the most common diseases in the world are directly linked to your brain, including Alzheimers, PTSD, depression, and anxiety, yet the brain is not often looked at during routine medical check-ups. It’s only when more serious symptoms occur that the brain is finally addressed.
Dr. Amen is working to change that process and shed light on why maintaining a healthy brain is just as important as maintaining a healthy body. By ensuring our brain is healthy, we may be able to avoid detrimental diseases and live a long and healthy life. Ahead, tips on how to maintain optimal brain health Dr. Amen recommends to every patient.
1. Get 7-9 quality hours of sleep per night
We all know what it’s like to wake up from a bad sleep versus a good one, but how exactly does sleep affect our brain? When we’re sleeping, we enhance cognitive function. Getting high-quality sleep every night fosters attention, memory, problem-solving, creativity, and numerous other aspects of thinking. On the other hand, recurring poor sleep can lead to a higher risk of cognitive decline and dementia. One study even looked at the connection between sleep, memory, and aging and discovered that as we age, our quality of sleep deteriorates, which then leads to a decline in establishing long-term memory. Dr. Amen emphasizes the importance of prioritizing sleep for good brain health by eliminating anything that might interfere with your sleep, such as caffeine or alcohol. If you are still struggling, he recommends looking into supplements such as magnesium, L-theanine, and 5-HTP, or trying hypnosis.
2. Eat a brain-healthy diet
Fun fact: Certain foods are better for your brain than others. In his cookbook Change Your Brain, Change Your Body, Amen provides recipes and details on how to cook for your brain. Dr. Amen emphasizes increasing omega-3 fatty acids by eating fish or fish oil as recent research has revealed that diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids may promote a healthy emotional balance. He also recommends drinking lots of water since your brain is 80% water and even slight dehydration can raise stress hormones, which can damage your brain over time. Lastly, he suggests loading up on antioxidants as they significantly reduce the risk of cognitive impairment. Some fruits and vegetables high in antioxidants include blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, spinach, raspberries, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, beets, avocado, and kiwis.
3. Exercise your brain for 15 minutes a day
Einstein said that if a person studies a subject for 15 minutes a day, every day for a year, they will be an expert. Dr. Amen repeatedly uses this quote as the brain is a muscle, and the more you use it, the better it will work. Learning enhances blood flow and activity in the brain, and if you go long periods without learning, you start to lose some of the connections in the brain and can struggle more with learning and memory. But learning doesn’t mean you have to sign up for a course (although that’s an option too). It can also mean reading, playing a musical instrument, speaking a new language, taking up a new hobby, practicing meditation, and playing games like Scrabble or chess.
4. Maintain good blood flow throughout the body
On a recent episode of The Diary Of A CEO with Steven Bartlett podcast, Dr. Amen discussed the effects of blood flow on the brain. Healthy blood flow throughout the body is how we stay alive, and Dr. Amen shared that certain factors can affect your blood flow, including caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, marijuana, and a sedentary lifestyle. It’s probably not top of mind to think about healthy blood flow, but reducing your intake of certain substances and ensuring you get thirty minutes of exercise daily means you are already on the right path to getting there. If you sit at a desk most of the day, try taking short breaks for walks or investing in a desk treadmill.
5. Stay socially connected
As human beings, we are biologically social. Our survival is inherent in our connection to other people, so it’s no surprise that a lack of social connection can be a detriment to our brain health. A new study from the Journal of Gerontology showed that socialization in older adults can have an impact on healthy cognitive aging and be protective against dementia. We are constantly activating our brains when we are social through talking, listening, and learning. Loneliness, on the other hand, can lead to depression, anxiety, and even addictions. According to social-connectedness expert Julianne Holt-Lunstad, the damage associated with being lonely was found to be equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. While having some alone time is beneficial for our health, the feeling of constant loneliness is not.
6. Maintain healthy oral care
It turns out that regularly flossing and brushing your teeth is good for a lot more than just oral care. Studies have recently shown that gum disease, missing teeth, and other signs of poor oral health can contribute to your brain health, particularly the risk of stroke. An analysis done by the American Stroke Foundation found that those with poor oral care (cavities, missing teeth, needing dentures) represented a 24% increase in white matter hyperintensities visible on MRI images. In other words, those with overall poor oral health had increased damage to the architecture of the brain. So if your dental hygienist can’t convince you to floss, do it for the health of your brain.
7. Protect your head from injury
If you’ve seen the movie Concussion, you know why protecting your brain from injury is crucial. While the skull is thick and hard, the brain is soft, and just one injury can cause severe damage, Dr. Amen shared. There are simple steps you can take to protect your head from an injury such as wearing a helmet, wearing a seatbelt, and staying away from contact-heavy sports, but there are also other ways to avoid injury that might not be as obvious. Injuring your brain doesn’t just mean causing damage physically; emotional trauma also affects the brain and can leave long-lasting effects, so speaking with a licensed therapist to work through trauma can help to heal the brain over time.
8. Love your brain
Dr. Amen shared that he first started caring about his brain when he did a scan of it and saw it for the first time. It took actually seeing his brain for him to finally start taking care of it. Of course, most of us aren’t going to have that same experience of seeing our brains (as much as I would like to), but that doesn’t mean we can’t start caring for them. Asking yourself the question, “Is this healthy for my brain?” in your day-to-day life will make following the above tips easier until one day they just become a part of your natural routine.