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7 Best Habits to Boost Your Brain Health

Nov 9 2022
By Laura Roe Stevens
11 min read
A young man and woman sitting at a table together laughing.

Discover unexpected ways to improve brain health and help decrease the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Did you know that walking backward reinforces neural pathways within your brain—increasing cognitive function and bolstering memory? Experts have found many ways to nourish brain health as we age, decreasing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease risks. Here, Canyon Ranch experts chime in on the best and latest findings, sharing wisdom and strategies to empower your choices.

Walking Backward

Ever lost your keys and searched in vain? Walking backward may jog your memory, says a recent study published in the Harvard University Journal, Cognition. The research found that people who walked backward, imagined they were walking backward, or even watched a video stimulating backward motion had better recall of past events than those who walked forward or sat still. Why is walking backward good for your brain power? When the brain is challenged to make new neural connections, it increases neuroplasticity—the brain's ability to modify and re-wire itself.

“It’s important to not only exercise the body but to exercise the brain—and learning something new is a great way to do this,” explains Diane Downing, MD, family practitioner at Canyon Ranch Tucson. “Whether learning an instrument, or a new language, it creates stronger neural pathways. Walking backward does this, too—though it may be jarring at first. But sometimes the most frustrating things we attempt to learn are of most benefit.”

Additional perks with walking backward: it increases balance and coordination, stretches different muscle groups, burns more calories (than forward motion), and is a metabolism booster. Before starting, experts emphasize the importance of finding a safe space—free of tripping hazards—and walking with a partner.

A Good Night’s Sleep

According to multiple studies, having seven hours of sleep helps you think more clearly and improves memory. Sleeping well has many benefits—reducing stress and cortisol in the body, lowering depression and anxiety, and reducing the risk of accidents. Those who sleep well tend to maintain a healthy weight, reducing the likelihood of heart disease and diabetes. So, if you have difficulty falling asleep, examine your lifestyle choices—from what you eat to the stressors in your life, says Dr. Downing.

In addition, the half-life of caffeine is between seven and 11 hours, so you want to “be thoughtful about caffeine and alcohol consumption, particularly in the evening,” explains Dr. Downing. “Every alcoholic beverage takes two hours to be metabolized. If you drink right before bed, it isn't fully metabolized potentially for several hours, and can affect sleep.”

Other sleep-affecting no-nos: a diet filled with sugar, fats, and processed foods; late-night snacking; bright lights; excessive computer time; and late-night TV watching. “I used to work with a sleep expert, and he recommended patients dim lights in their houses and use blue-blocker glasses in the evening to reduce blue light exposure from the blue light emitted from TVs and computers, and cell phones, as it may affect our body’s ability to produce sufficient melatonin,” shares Dr. Downing.

Experts suggest establishing relaxing evening routines that restrict social media, TV, and work emails. “Create a ritual that helps you wind down, like a warm bath with Epsom salts and lavender oil, or do a meditation and a breathing practice before bed, to help relax the body as well as the mind,” says Dr. Downing. Some medications, such as blood pressure medication, can decrease one's natural melatonin production, she adds. So ask your physician if any of your medications decrease melatonin production. You may want to consider taking a melatonin supplement, says Dr. Downing.

Meditation

Meditation is known to lower anxiety and depression while boosting a sense of well-being and the ability to get a good night’s sleep. It does this through relaxing areas of the brain affiliated with reactivity. But meditation also has neurological benefits by improving connectivity between brain regions. A recent study showed meditators had more grey matter volume throughout their brain. And it doesn’t take too much time to feel the effects. Eight weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) meditation increased participants’ cortical thickness in the hippocampus, which governs learning and memory, and in the brain areas that regulate emotion and self-referential processing. A Yale University study found meditation decreases the default mode network (DMN)—the brain network responsible for mind-wandering.

Having a hard time getting started? Those new to meditation are urged to go easy. “Be kind to yourself. There is no perfect way to meditate, and you can’t get it wrong,” says Adam Smith, MA, Spiritual Wellness Provider at Canyon Ranch Tucson. Adam teaches walking meditations weekly and finds that movement, when aligned with the flow of the natural breath or mantra, helps guests have a direct experience of life in the present.

“I love getting people in touch with their breath. It’s a practice of surrender—surrendering things that are not serving you or surrendering to something bigger than you. And it lowers stress,” Adam says. But don’t treat meditation as an item on your to-do list. Approach your ability to meditate with compassion, as the need to do it perfectly can be the root of anxiety. “A lot of guests say, ‘I’m bad at meditation.’ I say lose that mentality. Be a friend to yourself. Allow whatever it is to be. It’s okay. If you’ve got a wandering mind, integrate it (into the meditation). Think to yourself, okay, I’ve got a wandering mind, but that’s not the only thing going on. I can feel my steps, the sun on my face, the cool air, hear the wind blowing through the leaves.” Eventually, Adam says, this mindful exercise will calm and relax most people and help them feel at ease with meditation.

Exercise

Dr. Downing says that lack of physical activity is one of the biggest risk factors for cognitive decline. “There is an increase in brain volume [with exercise],” says Dr. Downing. “Keeping fit is also great for improving mood and lowering the risk of depression, too.” Of course, a plethora of health benefits come from an exercise regime, including lowering blood sugar levels and inflammation (which is good for the brain and all organs), increasing bone density, and lowering the risk for heart disease and diabetes. All forms of exercise benefit the brain, but aim for aerobic exercise, resistance training, and explore yoga, Tai Chi, and especially dancing for additional brain health. “Dancing is a great form of exercise,” Dr. Downing shares. “Taking classes, like ballroom dancing, has additional elements to strengthen our brains. There is choreography and pattern to it. It requires that you be present and pay attention visually. Then there is the balance aspect of it. It keeps us mentally engaged to create stronger neural pathways.”

Eating Berries—Blueberries, Especially

Many berries naturally contain flavonoid antioxidants that positively affect the brain, says Jenny Flora, a Canyon Ranch nutritionist who gives weekly brain health lectures. “Research suggests antioxidants help by reducing inflammation and oxidative stress. The antioxidants in berries like strawberries and blueberries include anthocyanin, caffeic acid, catechin, and quercetin that boost cognitive function,” says Jenny. In fact, a study conducted by the National Institutes of Health found “neuroprotective” qualities in berries that can delay the onset of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. Specifically, blueberries, blackberries, and strawberries were found to:

  • Improve communication between brain cells
  • Reduce inflammation throughout the body
  • Increase plasticity to help brain cells form new connections, boost learning and memory
  • Reduce or delay age-related neurodegenerative diseases and cognitive decline

Dark, Leafy Greens

After epidemiologists from Rush University altered the eating habits of 1,000 Chicago-based senior living community residents, the research found those who followed a mind-boosting diet consisting of dark, leafy greens, improved cognition and memory. Study participants who regularly ate about 1.3 servings of leafy greens a day showed the cognitive abilities of people 11 years younger.

“Eat some kind of dark, leafy green every day, such as spinach or kale," recommends Jenny. “They contain the nutrient Lutein, which crosses the blood/brain barrier and creates an anti-inflammatory environment.” If you are not a big salad eater, Jenny suggests adding a small amount of leafy greens to smoothies, omelets, or even sandwiches, as the goal is to eat a little every day.

Managing Emotional Triggers

It’s easy to hum along to Bob Marley’s iconic lyrics—“Don’t worry about a thing/Cause every little thing’s, gonna be alright”—but how do we follow his advice? All Canyon Ranch experts interviewed for this story say we do this by reducing anxiety. Meditation, yoga, exercising in nature, and breath work can all help to naturally lower anxiety and stress levels while improving mood and sleep patterns. Better sleep, in and of itself, can reduce reactivity that may spur emotional and/or binge eating. All experts suggest reaching out to a therapist to discuss ways to manage any chronic signs of emotional triggers.

All experts suggest reaching out to a therapist to discuss ways to manage any chronic signs of emotional triggers. Mindfully (and with compassion) explore what is triggering you. Adam helps guests at our Tucson resort identify root causes of stress through a practice to ease attachments. He encourages guests to get to the root of the issue by asking themselves this question: “What is it that is actually causing stress?” I mean, we often blame other people or ourselves and struggle with control and frustration. A favorite teacher, Anthony de Mello, said, “You can try to put carpet over the Earth or slippers on your feet.” Adam incorporates a practice from de Mello that involves speaking to attachments to minimize its effect. This is a way to challenge the illusion that happiness is caused by something outside of ourselves and begin easing away from external attachments varying from compulsive shopping and getting likes on social media to, even, expectations around the holidays. He recommends saying to the attachment or addiction: “I don’t need you to be happy.”

In general, Canyon Ranch experts suggest the following:

  • Reduce your time spent watching the news.
  • Limit social media.
  • Listen to music that relaxes or lifts your spirit.
  • Find time for playful moments.
  • Embrace creativity and consider taking an art or dance class.
  • Laugh more. Perhaps watch more comedies. Being playful and laughing more increases serotonin levels and reduces anxiety.
  • Keep a gratitude journal. When you focus on what you're grateful for, that becomes bigger that what triggers an upset.

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Headshot of Diane Downing, MD at Canyon Ranch Tucson

About the Expert

Headshot of Diane Downing, MD at Canyon Ranch Tucson

Dr. Diane Downing

MD, Physician

Dr. Downing is a board-certified family physician with professional interests that include women’s health, with an emphasis on helping navigate the transition through menopause, preventive medicine, cardiovascular health, and integrative medicine.

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