Updated: Jun 20
Science-backed tactics to quickly improve cognitive and mental health.
Simple lifestyle changes can have a big impact on our brain health.
Prioritizing good sleep is an excellent way to help look after mental and cognitive health.
Physical activity helps activate a number of pathways linked to better brain health.
There’s just no way around it: our brain health is about the most valuable thing we own. When our brains are unhealthy, we can’t think straight. Our mental health is poor. We simply can’t enjoy life as well. With this in mind, finding ways to prioritize brain health every day is vital. So what are some of the most scientifically sound, easy ways to make sure you’re helping care for your brain? Here are three of the best:
1. Prioritize Good Sleep
Why it’s key: You’ve probably heard people diminish the importance of sleep by saying things like, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” But if you don’t prioritize sleep, you’re doing your body and especially your brain a great disservice. Pick just about any disease and you’ll find that it’s more prevalent or more severe in people who don’t get good sleep. For example, we now know that people with Alzheimer’s tend to have issues sleeping. Poor sleep may also increase the risk of developing dementia. When it comes to mental health, these same trends hold. Sleep issues are very common in people with mental health issues, and are also thought to increase one’s risk for developing these conditions.
Tips for better sleep: Many are seeking quick fixes for sleep issues, especially insomnia. But while some people may benefit from short-term use of drugs, there are mounting concerns about the side effects and efficacy of prescription sleep aids. To this end, finding non-pharmaceutical methods of promoting healthy sleep are likely a better long-term solution for most people. Simple strategies to facilitate better sleep include winding down with a regular routine that minimizes blue light/screen exposure in the hours before bed. Also, consider sleeping with your room a bit cooler, as this may promote better sleep. Try cutting out caffeine after 2 p.m. (or earlier) and consider avoiding alcohol before bed, as this throws off sleep quality. Lastly, consider speaking to your physician about an evaluation for sleep apnea, especially if you are male, overweight, or someone who snores. Sleep apnea is a very common condition that majorly compromises sleep quality and is often missed.
2. Move Your Body
Why it’s key: Study after study shows that regular exercise is linked to better brain health. People who move more tend to think better and have better mental health. In fact, a recent review in JAMA showed that exercise may act as an antidepressant. So why is exercise such a brain booster? It may lower inflammation (which damages brain function), increase molecules like BDNF (which promotes healthier brain function and growth of new brain cells), and it does great things for our blood sugar (higher blood sugar may damage brain health).
Tips for physical activity: You don’t need to train for a marathon or become a professional athlete to get the brain benefits of exercise. This is all about sustainability, and if you hate or get injured when you’re exercising, it’s unlikely you’ll stick to it. Instead, look for ways to make physical activity enjoyable. A walk with a friend, some yoga, lifting some weights, or going for a swim—it’s all great stuff. The best exercise is the one you enjoy because it’s what you’re most likely to keep doing. So, find something you can look forward to.
3. Clean Up Your Diet
Why it’s key: The foods you eat are the literal building blocks for your brain. Food is also what turns into neurotransmitters. Your diet significantly influences your immune and endocrine (hormone) systems that play key roles in your brain health. Food is also one of the best opportunities we have to influence our health on a day-to-day basis because we absolutely have to eat, but we get to choose whether that food is a vote for a healthier or a less healthy brain.
Tips on diet: Many popular conversations on diet for brain health tend to focus on restrictive eating, “breakthrough” science, or “superfoods.” However, recommendations that stem from these types of pitches tend to be heavy on claims and light on scientific backing. Instead of buying into overpromising quick-fix diets and supplements, it probably makes more sense to consider large population datasets that compare decades of eating patterns with brain health. By and large, these are dietary patterns that are plant-focused (especially on plants rich in polyphenols—plant nutrients that may positively influence brain health). When meat is eaten, there’s an emphasis on fish rather than red meat—a good example is the Mediterranean diet. One note here for vegans and some vegetarians: specific omega-3 fats linked to brain health (DHA and EPA) tend to be missing from plant foods, so it may be worth considering a supplement.
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