We are at the cusp of a new era of the power to heal. Scientific progress has allowed us to decode the human genome, map out the many variations in that code that may confer disease risk, explore gene-environment interactions, and our relationship with the collection of bacteria hosted within us. We are now discovering the dynamic nature of our brain and the powerful bi-directional cross talk between mind-gene and mind-body that shapes our health and longevity. Yes- the power to change your brain and live your best life lies within us. It is indeed a time of both enlightenment and empowerment.
Genetics and Disease Risk
On the wings of the extraordinary work of the Human Genome Project, which when it concluded 15 years ago had decoded about 20,000 coding genes, comes the study of our genetic differences. Genomic Variation involving mismatch errors (known as single nucleotide polymorphisms or SNPs) affects approximately 0.5% of the human genome. Though many SNPs occur in non-coding regions and are of unknown clinical significance, when SNPs affect genes coding for proteins, they may translate into important differences; such as eye colour, behavior, lifestyle risks and disease risk. Genome wide association studies evaluate the role that SNPs play in contributing to a person’s risk for diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and Crohn’s disease.
The Role of Environment
Gene-environment interactions add an additional layer of complexity in shaping risk. While single genetic risks or SNPs may account for a few disease states, it is clear that more often, it is combinations of SNPs that determine risk and often require environmental triggers. Epigenetics is the study of these complex gene-environment connections and their impact on health and disease. The notion that we can bathe our genes in a favourable environment to get the most of our healthspan and lifespan is not new- it dates back to the storied “Fountain of Youth” believed to have offered mystical rejuvenating powers to those who bathed in its waters. Similarly, matching a person’s genetic risk profile with a precisely designed optimal lifestyle, diet and environment can help them optimize health and reduce the burden of disease.
The mind-gene connection is a powerful two-way signal that adds yet another dimension to shaping human health. Genetics, environment and epigenetics all contribute to the health and vitality of the brain. But it is the mind itself that ultimately can lead us to make the key life choices for success. Replacing bad habits with good ones takes will power, motivation and self-awareness. The ability to listen to the body’s signals is an essential skill to connect the mind and body.
Mind over Matter
Our brains are more adaptive than we ever imagined. Neuroplasticity describes the amazing ability of our brains to reorganize and adapt itself to form new neural connections throughout life in response to interactions with our environment. Scientists have shown that brain maps are adaptive and malleable and can be “re-wired” in response to environmental triggers so that one area can assume the function of another. Re-organizing of our brain maps, though, is not the only brain super-power. Recent research has shown that certain areas of our brains retain the ability to regenerate throughout adult life. Neurogenesis, the regeneration of brain cells, plays a vital role in the recovery from brain injury.
Through precision medicine, we can now harness our mind-gene connections and the concept of neuroplasticity to build a better brain. Here is a ten-step plan to get started.
Establishing a stronger mind-body connection requires that we stop to listen to our body– its needs, rhythms and signals. Evaluating responses to subtle changes in lifestyle–such as diet and exercise–can give clues to underlying genetic or metabolic risks. Practicing self-care with regular appointments for alone time to check in with yourself while engaging in calming and enjoyable activities can help you to turn up the volume on the mind-body channel.
- Exercise your Brain
If you don’t use it, you risk losing it! Brain exercise does not require, however, a membership in a “Brain Gym” or downloading the latest “Brain Game App”. Instead, you can challenge your brain often with novel and engaging activities. Learning to play a musical instrument, speak a new language or taking on a new hobby can provide ongoing learning and mental challenge. Podcasts offer highly portable access to diverse content and can provide hours of brain building stimulation.
- Shift your Habits
It takes 30 days to entrench a new habit and can take even longer to break old ones. But swapping healthy habits such as a daily nighttime walk for unhealthy ones such as a nightly glass of wine can have an enormous impact on your health. Persistence even in the face of adversity can be the key to break through the barrier to positive change or keep you on the health wagon.
- Practice Positivity and Action-oriented Thinking
Optimism works like a buffer to protect the brain from stress. On the other hand, ruminating, negativity and self-doubt can actually kill neurons and prevent the creation of new ones. A morning ritual of inscribing in a gratitude journal can stimulate positive thinking. When optimism becomes automatic and habitual, the brain is more likely to be ready to plan for an actionable future. In fact, action-oriented thinking is an effective brain building habit. When the brain thinks about an activity, the learning and networking that occurs nearly matches the mental memory laid down by actually performing the action. As the Canadian psychiatrist, scientist, and acclaimed author of “The Brain that Changes Itself”, Dr. Norman Doidge has said; “imaging an act engages the same motor and sensory programs that are involved in doing it.” In other words, merely thinking about an action is almost as good for your brain as doing it. Both hope and concrete actionable thinking can help you build a more balanced and vibrant brain.
- Keep your Body Active
Sitting is the new smoking. In addition to the many physical benefits of exercise, being active is critical to mental and cognitive health. Exercise has been shown to increase the production of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that signals growth and differentiation of nerve cells and synapses as well as promoting survival. BDNF is essential for learning, memory, and recovery from injury and protects from aging and senescence. Exercise induced increases in BDNF have been associated with improved concentration in school-aged children and in adults both improved cognitive performance and reduced risk of anxiety, depression and dementia. Not all exercise is created equal. Outdoor activity like a nature walk has been shown to have stress reducing powers and provide mood benefits comparable to anti-depressant medication for moderately depressed adults.
Emerging evidence suggests that weight resistance training may be as beneficial, if not more, for the brain as is aerobic activity. Weight training is an effective method of preventing from age-related loss of bone and muscle, osteoporosis and sarcopenia respectively. The frailty syndrome describes the unfavourable combination of these two diseases when weak, demineralized bone is accompanied by loss of muscle bulk and function. Frailty in old age can increase the risk of cognitive impairment or dementia. However, by engaging in regular weight resistance exercises, we can maintain a strong frame for a healthy brain.
A nutrient enriched diet high in healthy fats may improve mood, memory and brain performance. The omega 3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) earns top rating as a brain superfood. DHA is found in the flesh of cold-water fish like salmon, sardines, mackerel, cod liver and tuna. Populations with shore-based diets and increased dietary intake of DHA have been shown to have lower rates of depression and better memory. Other brain super-nutrients include the anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients found in blueberries (anthocyanins), broccoli (vitamin K), turmeric, pumpkin seeds (zinc), dark chocolate (flavonoids), green tea (L-theanine, polyphenols), and coffee (caffeine and anti-oxidants).
A good night’s sleep is vital to brain health. During sleep, the brain is actively remodeling and recovering from its daytime tasks. Important brain functions that occur while we sleep include cementing memory and learning, detoxifying and flushing out the day’s accumulated metabolic waste (like beta-amyloid, the hallmark protein of Alzheimer’s) and rebalancing for emotional, psychological and hormonal wellbeing. While the ideal sleep duration is about 7.5 hours –there may be night to night and individual variation. After 18 hours of sleeplessness, it is estimated that the degree of associated cognitive impairment is equivalent to a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.05%, the maximum allowed. A landmark study showed that after 6 days of sleep deprivation in which subjects slept only 4 hours per night, there were serious health effects with increased blood pressure, cortisol, insulin resistance and lower immunity. After 2 weeks of sleeping only 4 hours, subjects in another study were found to perform as poorly as subjects who had not slept at all for 24 hours with plummeting scores in memory, reaction time and cognitive performance. Even lesser degrees of sleep deprivation can have similar adverse effects on brain performance. In the same study, even subjects who slept 6 hours nightly for 2 weeks performed as if they had not slept at all on tests of memory and reaction time. Clearly, a good night’s sleep is not only critical for energy, but for brain health and performance.
Stress serves as a common denominator in aging the brain and body. The toll of sleeplessness and depression on the brain is similar to that of chronic stress; with shrinkage in the key areas of the brain; the hippocampus, amygdala and prefrontal cortex responsible for memory, learning and biofeedback. While small amounts of stress at the time of learning may be critical to encode new information in the first place, excessive stress acutely or extreme stress chronically can greatly impair memory and learning. While we are not always in control of the stress burden we face, we can proactively improve our ability to cope with and manage stress. Evidence-based stress reducing techniques include mindfulness, meditation, visualization and deep breathing and the practices of tai chi and yoga. Biofeedback with self-monitoring can improve performance on stress management techniques such as measurement of the preload (i.e., your thought patterns) with a brain sensing headband available in a device called MUSE and the measurement of the afterload (i.e., effects on heart rate) as seen with monitoring of heart-rate variability (HRV).
- Boost your Social Network
Spending time enjoying the company of friends can be good for your brain. Social interactions have been shown to boost brain function as much as intellectual stimulation. To maintain your mental vitality as you age, it is important to cultivate your social network and enjoy stimulating friendships. So cherish your friends and spend time laughing together. It’s good for your brain!
The new science that underpins the mind-gene connection can help us better listen to our body, overcome our genetic risks and shape our lifestyle to build a better brain. These ten science-based brain tips can be incorporated into your lifestyle to improve memory and cognitive performance. Brain vitality is well within your reach!
By Dr. Jennifer Pearlman, MD CCFP NCMP FAARM ABAARM
Dr. Pearlman is a physician focused on Women’s health, hormones, and beauty. She is owner and Medical Director of PearlMD Rejuvenation, a state-of-the-art Women’s health and wellness facility and a nationally recognized medical expert on healthy aging.