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Why You Should Keep Your Brain Healthy by Giulia Melchiorre

By Guilia Melchiorre

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I have owned a brain for 23 years and although I have struggled to understand its mysterious workings for all this time, I only started studying it in detail 6 years ago. That’s when I decided to embark on a degree in Neuroscience, despite not having a clue about Biology. I still don’t, but at least now when someone mentions mitochondria, I know they are talking about the bit that produces energy in a cell, and not swearing at me in Latin.

I think the brain is easily the most amazing part of any animal. It is also ridiculously complex. There are approximately 100 billion neurons in the human brain. They make a lot (trust me the number is really big) of connections with each other, essentially creating an enormous network- the result of which is (debatably) your consciousness, i.e. you. Its complexity is part of the reason why we don’t really understand how the brain works and why neuroscientists tend to use sea slugs (they “only” have 20,000 neurons) to work stuff out. However, there are some basic things that we do know about the brain. In fact, I would argue that most of us already know what I am about to say. We have probably just chosen to ignore it.

Often in medicine researchers talk of the interaction between genetic and environmental factors that affect the way our brain works. The good news is that both can actually be influenced by some simple lifestyle choices. The lifestyles many of us lead are inherently unhealthy, and conducive to causing damage to both the body and the brain.

These poor lifestyle choices have resulted in the current epidemic of obesity that we are experiencing in Europe, the United States, and many other places all over the world. For example, in 2015 in Scotland 65% of adults over the age of 16 were considered overweight, 29% of which were obese. This means 2 out of 3 people in Scotland are overweight or obese!

It is common knowledge that in most cases too little exercise, and a bad diet are to blame, yet many of us choose to go to McDonalds or KFC for dinner. We know of the detrimental effects that an unhealthy lifestyle can have on our cardiovascular health, yet we choose to smoke, drink alcohol in excess and ride the magic carpet travellator through the airport to save ourselves that perilous 50 metre walk.

Choosing an unhealthy lifestyle means that you are not just risking your physical health, and increasing your chances of developing heart disease or diabetes, but you are also risking your mental health. For instance, it has been shown that midlife obesity doubles the risk of getting dementia later in life. Nonetheless, people seem to be willing to continue to live without any regard for their future. How can it be that in an arguably well-educated society, so many people ignore the obvious?

Maybe it’s because too often we see the brain (and hence our mental health) as a separate entity from the rest of our body. But trust me, this is not the case! Just as your way of thinking and your attitude (i.e. mental health) affect your physical health, having an unhealthy, unbalanced diet can affect your brain.

There is evidence that Multiple Sclerosis, an inflammatory neurological disease that can affect many different parts of your body, is linked to the bacteria that live in your gut, i.e. your diet. This makes sense, since our stomachs (sometimes called our “second brain”) can directly communicate with the brain via the nervous system, hormones and the immune system. So, what you eat will influence how your brain works!

There are some easy things you can do to make sure you are keeping your body and hence your brain healthy:

1. Don’t smoke. Smoking isn’t only a risk factor for lung cancer, it also has a very negative effect on your cardiovascular health, and your brain. The World Health Organisation estimates that smokers have a 45% higher risk of developing dementia than non-smokers!

2. Exercise regularly. This includes both physical and mental exercise. Go for a walk or a swim, complete a sudoku, learn a new language, meditate, or read a book. There are many different things you can do, so I am sure you can find something you enjoy! I’m not saying you should run a marathon or try to learn Mandarin, but try to challenge yourself by learning or doing one new thing every day.

3. Eat a healthy and balanced diet. I have found that often in biology trends are described by a “U-shape”. What I mean by that is that there is always an optimal amount, with too much and too little being bad for you. So don’t go and cut out all carbohydrates, your body needs some to survive, but also don’t eat a large pizza followed by an entire chocolate cake. Be sensible. And try to eat food that you have prepared from scratch rather than buying processed, ready-made meals.

4. Too often people don’t sleep enough or if they do, their sleeping patterns aren’t regular. One day you’re up until 1am, the next you’re in bed by 7pm. Some people (probably workaholics) will proudly tell you that they can survive on 4 hours sleep. While everyone’s sleep requirements are different and change as you age, let me tell you that 4 hours are definitely not enough.

It is also not a competition- sleeping less won’t win you any prizes. On the contrary, sleep deprivation is detrimental. It has for example been shown that after 32 days of total sleep deprivations rats will die – this means sleep is as essential to survival as food and water. So what happens during sleep that is so important for our health? Dr Maiken Nedergaard, a Danish neuroscientist, recently proposed a system, whereby the brain essentially “cleans itself” during sleep, clearing away all the debris that accumulates during the day.

The important thing to remember is that all of the above suggestions require you to change your attitudes. You won’t be able to transform your lifestyle in a single day, but it’s certainly possible to make small changes step-by-step, in a sustainable and reasonable manner.

Having a healthy lifestyle is no guarantee for avoiding disease, but what you can do is decrease your risk of getting untreatable conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. You have to live with your brain for the rest of your life, so treat it well.

 

Psst… Now that you are here. Read our Speaker Ian’s recent blog post on ‘The Sunday Fear’. Discussing mindset and choices, Ian explains why it’s important to think more positively about the week ahead. Who knows what good could happen?

The Sunday Fear…