It’s easy to write off cognitive issues like forgetfulness, brain fog, and difficulty concentrating as a normal part of aging. But just because these symptoms are more common as we get older, that doesn’t mean they’re normal — nor that you have to accept and live with them.
When you look at the forces that age the body and cause what we consider to be age-related symptoms, brain cells aren’t that different from any of your other cells. When any cell generates the energy it needs to function optimally, the process produces free radicals; they’re the byproducts of life itself. Free radicals cause inflammation, which sets the stage for the cell to age, a link that’s been dubbed inflammaging. It’s a natural, internal process that you can’t entirely stop — your brain will age over time.
But what you do have some control over are the external variables that help dictate how and how quickly the brain ages, and to what degree the process disrupts cognitive functioning. Those variables generally fall into two categories.
The first category is outside factors that accelerate, exacerbate, or amplify free radical damage and thus the aging process. The second category is behaviors that enhance cognitive function by actively and specifically supporting the brain’s cells and its processes and slowing the inevitable collateral damage of free radicals. Address both, and you’ll go a long way toward preserving a healthy, active mind.
Here’s what you need to know, and how to get started.
The 4 External Factors that Accelerate Brain Dysfunction and Aging
In any discussion of brain health, it’s worth first considering those external factors that hasten brain aging and contribute to cognitive symptoms. They include:
All four of these factors disrupt cellular communication and compromise the immune system. A diet high in simple carbohydrates (sugar and starch) and processed fats, for example, is particularly damaging to the brain. Simple carbs are highly reactive molecules that stick to your tissues, especially collagen, a protein that essentially holds your brain together. Processed fats, meanwhile, can directly generate free radical damage.
By interfering with how cells communicate, these four factors disrupt your immune system, which not only exacerbates inflammation, but also may allow potentially harmful microbes to flourish, further accelerating aging and cognitive symptoms. What’s remarkable is that these microbes don’t only live in our guts, as was once believed — new research has discovered them in our brain tissue, too.
When you are young and healthy, the microbes in your brain and throughout your body are kept in check by your immune system and are mostly harmless. However, as your immune system ages because of excess free radical damage, it takes the pressure off those microbes and they become more active. Pathogenic bacteria may be allowed to flourish, and even the friendly microbes will begin competing for resources.
As microbes begin taking more than their fair share, they rob cells of key nutrients and break them down, further contributing to inflammation and a cascade of problems. And all of this can affect how the brain functions.
You may also have heard about a connection between the buildup of amyloids, a type of protein in the brain, and cognitive conditions, particularly Alzheimer’s disease. Many experts focus on the amyloids and finding drugs to get rid of them, but what we really need to ask is, “Why are the amyloids here to begin with?”
Amyloids aren’t the cause of the cognitive problems, they’re part of the process. Cells produce amyloids as a defense mechanism against stressors. And, as with inflammation, amyloids can overwhelm the system and eventually become destructive.
Ultimately, for better cognitive functioning and healthier brain aging, you should first address the factors working against you:
- Clean up your diet by reducing your intake of processed carbs, sugars, and fats.
- Find ways to manage stress.
- Prioritize sleep and physical activity.
- Minimize your exposure to environmental toxins.
Next, look to the lifestyle changes and herbs we know actively promote and enhance brain cell health and cognitive function.
Natural Ways to Boost Brain Function
1. Exercise Your Body For Brain Gains
Exercise helps with everything, but its effects on brain function are especially significant — even apart from its ability to control inflammation, moderate the stress response, and encourage better sleep.
The brain is extraordinarily plastic, which means it can change, put down new pathways, and constantly create new ways to function. And one of the best ways to encourage that is through physical activity. Why?
Exercise triggers the release of growth factors and other chemicals in the brain that promote the production of new cells, blood vessels, and pathways, and help maintain them. In short, exercise helps your brain grow.
The results of studies truly are more than convincing. Research consistently shows that regularly moving your body improves memory, learning, and other cognitive function, as well as helps slow or reverse cognitive impairment.
For example, a study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that both aerobic and resistance exercise produced significant cognitive benefit in people over 50, regardless of whether they had begun noticing age-related brain changes. More specifically, aerobic activity seemed to boost cognitive ability, while resistance training targeted memory and executive functioning. But even gentle activity like tai chi was reported to improve cognition.
Exercise can even help your brain stand up to your genes, reports a study published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association. Among people with a genetic predisposition for Alzheimer’s disease (who typically develop the disease at a younger age), those who got as little as 2.5 hours of activity a week in the form of walking, swimming, or aerobics had a delay in Alzheimer’s-related brain changes and symptoms.
2. Exercise Your Brain, Too
When it comes to the brain, the term “use it or lose it” couldn’t be more appropriate. The best way to take advantage of the brain’s amazing plasticity and ability to form new connections and pathways is simply through, well, using your brain.
Even better, “using it” can mean an infinite number of different things, as long as it involves staying intellectually stimulated or engaged. Reading, learning new hobbies or taking a course, doing crossword puzzles or playing games, maintaining an active social life, volunteering, working — they all count if you’re challenging or keeping your brain active, even to a mild degree.
This is one of the most important things for people to understand, especially seniors. It’s easy to get complacent and just go along with the same old, same old as you head into retirement. But that won’t train new pathways, and as the old ones die, you get used to the dysfunction and it can snowball.
An extraordinary example of the alternative is Mother Teresa. After she died, it was discovered that her brain was loaded with amyloid, the protein found in high levels in patients with Alzheimer’s. She had so much, people wondered how she was able to think at all. And yet she was said to be as sharp as a tack up until the end of her life.
You don’t have to be Mother Teresa to realize the benefits of using your brain. Plenty of research proves the brain-boosting effects of simply staying mentally and socially stimulated in mere mortals. For example, people who are intellectually active report being happier and show better cognitive performance.
Seniors aren’t the only ones who can benefit. A study in BMJ found that the more intellectually engaged people reported they were throughout their life, the more they tended to stay engaged, and the better their cognitive performance (memory, processing speed, etc.) as they got older. People who engaged in activities that required problem solving showed the best cognitive gains. In other words, the more you use your brain at any age, the better you’ll be throughout your life — so it pays to start now.
3. Give Your Brain 8 Hours a Night to Recharge
Poor sleep accelerates aging in a number of ways, but it can have an especially profound effect on your brain, cognitive functioning, and mood. That’s because sleep is when conscious thought shuts off, allowing your brain the time and space to deal with everything its taken in and reset.
Indeed, while you snooze, your brain goes to work strengthening connections between brain cells, organizing information, pulling together ideas to create new ideas and understand concepts, solidifying memories and learned skills, and removing cellular garbage.
Loads of research proves the importance of sleep — often by showing just how damaging poor sleep can be. Even partial sleep deprivation has been shown to impair attention, concentration, working and long-term memory, decision-making, and more, reports a paper in the journal Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment. Another review reveals sleep is key to mood because it helps the brain process emotional experiences.
4. Hack Your Brain with Smart Herbs
Most herbs indirectly support brain health and slow the aging process by helping to regulate your immune system and cellular communication, by balancing your system’s microbes, or both. But specific herbs known as nootropics exhibit direct effects on the brain that enhance cognitive function and/or mood. Here are some of the best:
This well-studied restorative herb from India is at the top of my list, because it has a number of useful properties and has been shown to help a variety of different people. It increases the learning capacity of students, helps kids with ADD focus, and improves cognition in dementia patients. It’s also known to enhance memory, repair damaged brain cells, and improve brain cell communication.
One of the ways bacopa works is by increasing choline, a neurotransmitter essential to the thought process. Bacopa has antioxidant properties, helps decrease inflammation pathways in the brain, increases cerebral blood flow, regulates other neurotransmitters, and has been shown to reduce amyloids, according to a review in the journal Rejuvenation Research.
Another recent review reports additional benefits for Alzheimer’s: Bacopa was shown to help reduce stress-induced damage to the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for memory and emotion. It also increased levels of glutathione, one of your body’s essential superantioxidants that also helps regulate the immune system.
This mushroom, which grows on the sides of trees, got its name from its shaggy, hair-like appearance. Along with antimicrobial and immune-modulating properties, Lion’s Mane has been shown in animal studies to stimulate the production of nerve growth factor, protect against Alzheimer’s-related brain changes, and stimulate neurogenesis, which is the growth and development of nerve tissue in the hippocampus.
Scientists think that may be one reason animal research has also shown the mushroom can reduce anxiety and depression. In humans, meanwhile, people with mild cognitive impairment who took Lion’s Mane for 16 weeks showed significant cognitive improvement compared to those given a placebo, according to a study in Phytotherapy Research.
This herb native to the Amazon has been used for centuries to support the immune system and for other benefits, and now it’s getting more attention as a nootropic. Cat’s claw contains compounds called alkaloids that were shown to increase the neurologic growth factor BDNF and moderate other neurological changes associated with stroke, according to a study in Molecules. Its compounds have also been shown to inhibit and reduce brain plaque and “tangles” — changes associated with cognitive disease and decline.
A native of China, this tree has been studied extensively, and the research often points to brain- and circulation-related benefits. For instance, ginkgo biloba is high in antioxidants, according to findings in the journal Aging and Disease, which help temper the effects of damaging free radicals.
Other research suggests compounds in the plant help ease inflammation and improve circulation to the brain and heart, which may help reduce the risk of stroke. Plus, supplementing with gingko biloba has been associated with reduced risk of symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s and age-related cognitive decline, such as anxiety and stress.
Rhodiola and Ashwagandha
Both of these herbs are known as adaptogens, meaning they help balance your body’s hormones and systems and better manage your stress response. Rhodiola, in particular, is often used after periods of stress to calm anxiety, enhance work performance, and fight fatigue, reports a review in Frontiers in Pharmacology. Researchers also concluded that the herb helps improve memory and learning, likely by a variety of mechanisms: It’s anti-inflammatory, it improves cerebral metabolism, it increases blood flow, and it helps regulate choline.
Ashwagandha is likewise known as a revitalizer that helps provide balance and control stress, as well as improve cognitive performance and memory. A recent review of five different studies found that, compared to placebo, ashwagandha significantly reduced anxiety and perceived stress by as much as 56% and 44%, respectively.
Another study looked at people with mild cognitive impairment. It found that after 8 weeks, those who took ashwagandha showed significant improvement in memory, attention, executive function, and information-processing speed compared to a placebo group.
A staple in traditional Chinese medicine, gotu kola has been called a potential herbal cure-all, but it’s often used for brain benefits. Research suggests it may help improve learning, memory, and executive function, as well as protect brain cells from damage associated with Alzheimer’s. Other studies have found gotu kola can increase alertness while also exhibiting calming properties that reduce anxiety.
An incredibly potent antioxidant, this staple spice of India is a boon for brain health. Just consider that people in India have one of the lowest rates of Alzheimer’s (as well as cancer) in the world despite exposure to high levels of pollution and toxins, and one of the reasons may be that they routinely consume about a gram of turmeric a day.
Beyond protecting the brain from disease, turmeric can enhance cognitive function, especially as people age, according to a study on curry consumption and cognition in the American Journal of Epidemiology. Research also suggests the herb may have positive, estrogen-like effects in the brain, which scientists believe could help boost memory and cognitive function in post-menopausal women.
In one animal study, both turmeric and estrogen were found to prevent memory impairment associated with menopause, and the higher the dose of turmeric, the better the effects. Worth noting: Unlike estrogen, turmeric is safe at high levels and for long periods of time.
There’s no such thing as a fountain of youth, of course, but the smartest things you can do is treat your body and brain well, feed them exercise, sleep and the right foods, and take advantage of the power of plants.
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