Brain health—it’s not exactly sexy, but it’s basically the boss when it comes to your overall health. After all, without a healthy brain, you wouldn’t be able to enjoy the activities you love the most, whether it be a solo run, a competitive trivia game with friends, or rolling-on-the-floor giggles with your little one.
Having a healthy mind is crucial, which is why you’ll want to listen up as Ajeet Sodhi, MD, a neurologist and the director of neurocritical care at the California Institute of Neuroscience, shares the habits and activities he does to promote and improve brain function every single day. It’s advice you—and your brain—simply can’t miss.
1. Regularly exercise your mind
Just like the rest of your body, Dr. Sodhi says keeping your brain active and engaged is key to optimal brain health. “My brain is busy all the time,” he says. And no, he doesn’t mean thinking about work. “I love puzzles and doing the crossword or Sudoku, as well as reading the paper and challenging my brain to learn and do new and different things constantly.”
And the benefits have been proven: In a recent study conducted by the University of Exeter, researchers found people who regularly completed word puzzles were found to have a brain that clocked in 10 years younger than their actual age. If puzzles aren’t really your thing, don’t sweat—learning new skills or languages, regularly reading, and otherwise engaging your brain in different ways can help.
2. Munch on brain food
Dr. Sodhi says he would be remiss if he didn’t include healthy foods in his recipe for total brain health. He sticks to foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients that help to boost brain health, like fatty fish (think salmon or mackerel), eggs, yogurt, and fresh juice. “I also eat a lot of nuts and whole grains which are rich in vitamin E,” he says, pointing to the antioxidant known for its reputation for supporting healthy brain function.
Dr. Sodhi also makes sure to incorporate lutein-rich foods, like dark, leafy green vegetables (e.g. kale, spinach, collard and turnip greens), as well as peas and eggs, into his overall diet. In a 2017 study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, lutein was shown to potentially have a protective effect against cognitive decline.
Rounding out Dr. Sodhi’s list are foods that contain polyphenols, like red grapes, cranberries, blueberries and tomatoes. “Polyphenols help decrease inflammation—the enemy of good brain health,” he says.
Looking for another ingredient good for brain health? Here’s why you shouldn’t turn up your nose at fish oil:
3. Sweat it out
Breaking a sweat is also a daily part of Dr. Sodhi’s routine. “I get some kind of exercise every day for 30 minutes,” he says. “Walking, riding a bike, running—whatever. It’s crucial.” It’s true: Recent research presented by the Cognitive Neuroscience Society (CNS) showed that regular exercise not only has long-term effects but also immediate ones for brain and mental health—just one sweat session can lead to an instant cognitive boost.
The American Heart Association recommends adults get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (like brisk walking or dancing) or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity (such as running, cycling, or swimming laps). You can also do a combination of both to make sure you clock in your weekly recommendation.
4. Live with purpose
Sound far out? Think again. Dr. Sodhi says one of the things that helps keep his brain healthy is moving through his day with a purpose. “As a physician, I have a built-in purpose—my patients,” he says. “However, my purpose goes far beyond that—it’s my family, my community and my colleagues, too. And, if I wasn’t involved in this way, I’d volunteer to help others, maybe through a local nonprofit or outreach organization.”
This isn’t just a Dr. Sodhi thing—living with purpose is one of the nine tentpoles of Blue Zones communities (you know, the areas that have some of the healthiest and longest-living populations on the planet), as it’s often associated with happiness and better mood. Additionally, a 2014 study showed that participants who volunteered reported “significantly better physical and mental health” than those who didn’t volunteer. All the more reason to get out there and lend a hand, right?
5. Drink up
Whether it’s a cup of coffee or drinking water, Dr. Sodhi they both make his list for better brain health. Not only does he enjoy the benefits of caffeine in terms of maintaining energy levels and staying more alert, but Dr. Sodhi says research shows there are compounds in coffee that impact the brain proteins connected to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. “Research is ongoing, but we may discover that these compounds also help slow cognitive decline and the onset of certain brain diseases,” he says.
As for water, Dr. Sodhi says he refills as much as possible. “Drinking water helps the skin look hydrated and healthy, helps keep hunger at bay and, most importantly, prevents dehydration,” he says. “Dehydration negatively affects the brain—it affects concentration, coordination and mood, too.” For some people, drinking plenty of water can help ward off headaches, he adds.
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