After a year of lockdown, with all the routine, stress, boredom and reduced physical activity that it’s entailed, a lot of brains are showing signs of covid cognitive flab and are in need of a mental health workout.
So here at Laughology, we've done all the research for you and created a simple, six-step plan to improve your brain health - keeping it younger, fitter and more powerful.
But first, why is brain health so important?
Brain health and mental fitness
Just as physical workouts and eating the right things are good for keeping your body fit and healthy, we need to do the same for our brains so we are mentally fit. Research shows that there are many ways you can hone your mental sharpness and help your brain stay healthy.
Remember Nintendo’s Brain Age game, hosted by the avatar of real-life neuroscientist Dr Ryuta Kawashima? The puzzle-based series launched in 2005, was a massive hit and is still running today. It enabled millions of players to sharpen their cognitive abilities by completing a range of brainteasers, giving them a new ‘brain age’ upon completion.
But a session with Dr Kawashima on the DS won’t cut it. There’s more to brain power than sudoku and word puzzles. Increasingly, studies have shown that our cognitive ability is dictated by a range of factors; some of which are surprising.
It’s commonly believed that cognitive decline is an unavoidable part of ageing and that the years will inevitably rob us of memory function and mental agility. Increasingly however, studies reveal this isn’t the case.
75 percent of changes to cognitive ability across a lifetime are determined by lifestyle factors, rather than DNA. The brain can also continue to grow new neurons into your nineties, so by adopting brain-boosting habits, we can slow decline and, in some cases, even reverse it.
Our 6 steps to a healthier brain
Drawing on the latest neuroscience research, here’s Laughology’s six-step, post-Covid, cognitive brain-boosting boot camp.
Step 1: Diet
Countless studies have shown direct connections between gut bacteria – your microbiome - and mental health, which may sound surprising until you realise that 90 percent of the happy hormone serotonin is produced in the gut. The contents of your colon have a direct correlation to the health of your brain. Shit for brains may not be such a bad thing after all.
Aim to improve lifestyle factors that affect healthy microbiomes. Factors that harm your microbiome include high BMI, sedentary lifestyles, poor eating habits, stress, dehydration and poor dental hygiene. To maintain a healthy gut, eat a varied, mainly plant-based diet.
Certain foods have also been found to directly benefit the brain. These include foods high in omega-3, such as oily fish, spinach and flax seed. Vitamin D is also essential. Try to avoid processed foods.
Eating habits also play a role. Working from home means many of us have been constantly snacking throughout the day, consuming far more calories than we need. Not only does this increase the chances of piling on the pounds, it’s also bad for your brain, which evolved to function optimally through times of food scarcity.
Studies in animals show that brain cell generation increases with fasting and there are theories that ketosis (the process by which the body switches from burning glucose for energy to burning stored fat) benefits brain function. The suggestion is that intermittent fasting may well help boost brain development.
Step 2: Exercise
Exercise is one of the most important things you can do to build brain power. Scientists have discovered that in the areas of the world with the highest concentrations of centenarians, aerobic activity is a way of life.
It improves mood and thinking skills, reduces inflammation and promotes the growth of new brain cells. Unfortunately for many office and home workers chained to the keyboard, one of the worst things you can do for your brain is to spend hours sitting down. Even if you spend an hour each day doing vigorous exercise, the benefits are wiped out by prolonged sedentary behaviour.
To increase brain cell production, you need at least 30 minutes of daily exercise, such as brisk walking or cycling. To supercharge the cognitive effects, you should do more vigorous activity such as running or HIIT workouts.
If you’re deskbound at work, invest in a standing desk or set a timer to get up and move around for ten minutes every hour. That’s not a move around to the biscuit tin though!
Step 3: Social
Studies have repeatedly illustrated the damaging mental health effects of lockdown and the isolation it caused. Humans are social animals and thrive on social contact. Loneliness increases the risk of poor health and can lead to high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, heart attack and stroke.
Conversely, social interaction improves memory formation and recall, and helps protect against neurodegenerative diseases.
Even small social boosts, such as the brief daily interactions we have with shopkeepers or neighbours, can help alleviate loneliness and boost brain power. So, reimagine your commute or do the same small walk everyday at the same time. You’ll bump into the same people and create those much-needed social connections to boost your positive neurotransmitters.
Step 4: Learn
Learning a new skill, such as an instrument, a language or a dance, has a positive impact on brain health. A recent study of 60- to 79-year-olds found that those in the cohort who undertook dancing classes showed structural improvement in the hippocampus - the region of the brain responsible for memory storage.
Learning doesn’t have to be something big either. Do something you enjoy; it can be as simple as learning to bake or cook something new. If you want a double brain boost, set up a learning group with your friends. Set each other mini challenges to learn something new each month and get together and share your experiences. A double whammy with that much-needed social interaction.
Step 5: Sleep
The coronavirus crisis made getting a good night’s rest significantly harder for many. Some experts called it ‘coronasomnia’ or ‘Covid-somnia’. In the UK, an August 2020 study from the University of Southampton showed that the number of people experiencing insomnia rose from one in six to one in four.
Chronic lack of sleep harms health and adversely affects cognitive functions such as learning, memory and decision-making. Anyone who has tried to do a day’s work while exhausted will appreciate just how difficult it is to concentrate when you’re knackered.
As we get older it gets harder to fall asleep. Yet people over 60 still need seven to nine hours sleep in every 24-hour period.
The best way to try and improve sleep is to keep to a pattern during the day. Regular activity, fresh air, drinking water and developing healthy sleep hygiene is essential. This means a regular bedtime, no caffeine late in the day, no TV or screen time half an hour before bed and sleeping in a quiet, cool, dark room.
Step 6: Happiness
Emotional wellbeing, i.e. happiness, is crucial to brain health. At Laughology, our happiness matrix identifies the five elements that create happiness. These are: confidence, personal development, support, positive relationships and coping skills.
Happiness is a much more nuanced emotional state than just being content and pleased with life. No one can be happy all the time. Real happiness – or realistic happiness as we call it - is a complex mix of mindsets and emotional states which combine to create positivity, resilience and robust mental health.
Try developing a happiness habit. Each day thinking of three things you are grateful for and one thing that has made you laugh or smile. Practise this new habit while doing something else that you have a habit of doing everyday, like brushing your teeth. Habit stacking is the best way to create new behaviours.
There are active steps everyone can take to improve happiness. The Global Council on Brain Health, for example, recommends we develop personal and work-related goals. We can strive to control negative thoughts, perhaps by using Laughology’s FLIP-it model. We can also embrace a growth mindset to increase positivity.
In doing all of these things, not only will you increase your happiness levels, you’ll also boost your brain power. And who wouldn’t want to be happier, healthier and smarter?