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Although we start life with roughly 100 billion neurons, we start to lose neurons the moment we are born due to the effects of stress, toxins, inflammation, aging, trauma, disease, and other factors.
So why can some people’s brains stay sharp and vital into old age?
The answer is not in the number of neurons, but in neuroplasticity, the ability of your brain to learn and adapt to change by creating additional links to neighboring neurons.
While strength in numbers is good, strength in connectivity is better when it comes to the brain.
Each neuron can send out thousands of connections to other neurons. As we age, even though we lose many neurons and the ones we retain become slower, neuroplasticity means cells become better over time at making more connections.
The resulting network of connection gives us the ability to complete complex tasks and even be that senior with a sharper mind than a PhD student.
However, neuroplasticity depends on two main factors: stimulation and the right chemical environment.
For example, a stroke patient who has smoked for 20 years (toxins and low oxygen), never exercises (low oxygen), and eats sweets and fast food every day (blood sugar issues) is going to have a different potential for recovery than someone who has a healthy diet, exercises regularly, and avoids environmental toxins. Their levels of plasticity are very different.
One way to gauge your brain’s potential for plasticity: Ask if it’s easier to learn new facts or skills than it was five years ago. If it’s easier, your brain has developed greater plasticity. If it’s harder, you have inefficient plasticity.
If you are in the second category, don’t despair. Given the right tools and environment, your brain can improve its plasticity.
How to support your brain’s plasticity
Our brains are incredibly adaptive, and given the right care — oxygen, fuel, and stimulation, they can stay healthy and sharp well into old age.
Anti-inflammatory diet. A diet that supports stable blood sugar and addresses inflammation and food sensitivities is the foundation to restoring and supporting your brain’s plasticity and health.
Eat plenty of healthy fats. Our brains are composed largely of fats,and we need to eat plenty of healthy fats to support them. Focus on fats such as cold-water fish, olive oil, avocado oil, nuts, and coconut oil. Supplementing with omega 3 fatty acids is a great way to support brain health.
Exercise daily. A body that moves has a brain that gets oxygen. Exercise also increases BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor), an anti-inflammatory brain chemical that helps eliminate brain fog and improve brain function.
Stress reduction. Chronic stress causes a cascade of physiological effects that reduces oxygen and increases brain inflammation. Try these time-tested ways to reduce your daily stress level:
- Deep breathing
- Chi Gong
Prioritize sleep. Without adequate sleep, the brain and body experience increased inflammation and cannot function at their best. To improve sleep, adopt these daily habits:
- Get 8 to 10 hours of sleep daily.
- Go to bed at the same time every night.
- Keep your bedroom cool and dark.
- Prioritize naps when you can.
- Avoid screen light in the evening. Instead, read a book or play a board game.
- If you must use screens before bed, use blue-blocker glasses, and install the F.lux app on your device.
- Keep your TV and home office outside your bedroom.
- If you suffer from low blood sugar have a small, high-protein, low sugar snack just before bed to help avoid 3 a.m. insomnia.
Address food sensitivities. Food reactivity can cause systemic inflammation that leads to brain inflammation and degeneration. Ask your functional medicine practitioner for help in determining your sensitivities.
Address hormonal imbalances. When hormones become imbalanced you lose neurotransmitter activity and brain function. PMS, perimenopause, menopause, and low or high estrogen in women as well as low testosterone in men can compromise brain health and function. Simple lab testing can help determine your next steps.
Learn something new. Challenging the brain to take on a new task encourages it to form new neural connections. If you haven’t done this in a few years, you may feel a bit dull or slow at it, don’t give up! Keep at it and you’ll be surprised at how soon those gears get greased and your brain starts firing faster. Suggestions: A new hobby, craft, language, or musical instrument.
While modern life can pose challenges to brain health and plasticity, it’s never too late to adopt measures to support yours. Your brain is highly adaptable and very responsive to supportive measures.