BY MAX CYNADER
Did you know that over the past 20 years, the global population has been sleeping 6.8 hours a night on average, which is 1.2 hours less than we did in 1942 and 0.2 – 2.2 hours less than is recommended? Or that fast food consumption has been increasing by 2.2% a year? Did you also know that every aspect of your lifestyle affects your brain health and risk of future cognitive decline?
Science is constantly evolving, but when it comes to our brain health, there are some elements that we know have a serious impact on the health and longevity of one of our most important organs. Your brain health depends on five major lifestyle pillars: sleep, nutrition, physical activity, cognitive training, and stress management.
There is a caveat though: the pillars work best in conjunction with one another, and if one falls, the rest can follow, creating a tricky domino effect that can (and will) wreak havoc on the long-term health of your brain.
Below, I offer some insight into what the pillars are and why they all need to work together, based on the emerging scientific consensus on factors governing healthy brain aging.
Domino 1: You Need More Sleep, and Here’s How to Get It
First and foremost, we need to spend more time outside with natural light, and the best time is in the morning, when the clock housed in the suprachiasmatic nucleus of the hypothalamus is calibrated and strengthened by light. That blue light, the most favourable, wakes us up and increases the strength of our circadian rhythm, which enables us to be more awake during the day and less awake at night.
This allows us to sleep better at night, one of the most important pillars to get right – and one of the most difficult in our society today. It’s reported that 51% of the global adult population doesn’t get enough sleep, an issue they often spend the weekend making up for (in general not a good idea, since one should strive for the same bedtime and waketime every day).
Not focussing on sleep as a top pillar can lead to the following:
When you don’t sleep well, your body craves quick energy in the form of sugars, unhealthy fats and carbs.
When you’re tired, you don’t work out as much. It’s that simple.
Your Mental Health Suffers
When you are underslept, your cognitive capacity is reduced, and you’re more impulsive, making it harder to deal with stress and more likely for you to experience anxiety, which further affects your sleep in a recurring and vicious cycle.
Your Immune System Is Weakened
Sleep deprivation weakens the immune system, which is once again further exacerbated by all of the other complications of not getting good sleep.
What You Can Do to Improve Sleep
In a nutshell, your sleep needs to be a priority. If you are having trouble with sleep, one of the ways we recommend improving in this area at Synaptitude Brain Health, a fitness app for the brain, is by starting the process in the first few hours in the day. Decide one day to get up with the sun by exposing yourself to that light, even if you’re tired, and kickstart your day so that you can relaunch a more effective cycle. Rinse. Repeat.
Conversely, when you expose yourself to lots of blue light at night, you create a weird sense of jet lag and wake your brain up in what’s called “social jet lag,” or in other words, you send your internal clock into a tizzy.
There are two big regulators of sleep: how tired you are and your 24-hour clock. When it says it’s night time and you add blue light at the wrong time, then you have your sleep drive fighting with your clock, reducing your quality of sleep.
The biggest driver of your internal clock is light, but, yet again, other pillars contribute, including: meal times, meal quality, exercise times, and the quality – and type – of those workouts.
Domino 2: Keeping Fit at the Best Times of the Day
Exercise makes your circadian rhythms deeper and stronger, but the times to do exercise are also relevant:
1. In the morning (it works in a similar way as blue light),
2. In the middle of the day when it causes a temporary increase in your core body temperature heading into the daily peak at around 5 PM.
Have you heard the advice to never work out too close to bedtime? That rule exists because exercise at night acts like blue light, stimulating your brain for a full day ahead, and raising your core temperature when it is naturally falling. At Synaptitude, we do not recommend working out within 2-3 hours of bedtime if you’re struggling with quality sleep.
Finally, exercise is great as a mood enhancer that improves sleep quality, food choices, muscle composition, biochemical reactions specific to mood, and increases stress management abilities. Once again, the interactions between all of the pillars need to be addressed to create a positive synergistic effect leading to short- and long-term brain health.
Domino 3: Poor Stress Management Is One of Our Biggest Challenges Today
Our world, for better or worse, has become a much more stressful place. People who are stressed have sleep disorders, then they don’t exercise, they make bad food choices, and so goes the vicious cycle of the five pillars.
Often, people don’t realize how much external factors can increase our inability to handle stress. The hypothalamus, the part of our brain that reacts to stress, was designed ages ago to respond to a different list of threats than we face today.
Today, our brains react in the exact same way only to very different elements: lIfe is much faster, demands on people are much greater, and the truth of the matter is that we’re not all built to handle 80-hour work weeks with a constant onslaught of increasing pressures.
We are constantly bombarded with extreme positions, and even mainstream news media lead with polarizing and stress-inducing, negative, scary news items. These stressors are then compounded and amplified via social media. We just don’t get a break.
We’re being asked to try harder in every area of life, and many people don’t take the time off that they need – not just mentally but physically – in order to keep the body and brain functioning at its highest capacity.
The domino effect of the five pillars is ever present here. A stressed mind can’t eat well, sleep well, be challenged effectively or relax in the way it needs to. This both creates and exacerbates disease.
Domino 4: Socializing and Brain Training
When some of the cultures who experience the highest rates of longevity were studied to determine why they are able to live such healthy lives, one of the strongest elements was a culture of family and community. They spend a lot of time together, on walks, doing social activities and enjoying life with the support of family and friends.
It sounds so simple, but in reality, many positive biochemical reactions are borne from these interactions. Raising oxytocin and endorphin levels increase our ability to handle stress through emotional regulation, lessening the threat of anxiety and allowing us to eat, sleep and play better.
Socialization, learning new things not related to work or our day to day, such as languages and brain teasers, all of these elements create new neurons or strengthen existing ones, training our brain in the same way that physical exercise trains the muscles.
It always comes back to the five pillars.
Domino 5: You Are What You Eat, So Eat the Rainbow!
In the global hotspots where people tend to live longest, not only do they have significantly better sleep, exercise routines and less stressful lives, they have notably similar diets. Many of them tend to eat a Mediterranean-like diet, with plenty of fish, healthy fats like olive oils, and lots of fibre, including sweet potatoes.
This means they aren’t spiking their cortisol, a biochemical response that has an adverse effect on the hormones that control your mood. It also means they can exercise more, sleep more and live longer with a healthier, higher-functioning brain.
In other words, an apple a day – plus a variety of other fresh rainbow-hued foods – can keep the doctor away. Yet again Nutrition is just one of the 5 pillars, all of which impact and need each other to function.
Optimizing your functioning on these pillars acts as the best preventive medication in the world when it comes to overall health and longevity.