Nigeria's foremost Online Energy News Platform

Brain Hygiene: Why it is Important

By Adaobi Rhema Oguejiofor

The human brain is a complex organ at the command centre of the nervous system. It enables thoughts, memories, movements, and emotions by a complex function that is the highest product of biological evolution.

It is the most important organ in the human body, as it controls everything a human does, from thinking and speaking to moving and breathing. It has about a hundred billion neurons also known as nerve cells, and if each neuron is to be counted per second, it would take about 3,200 years to do so.

The brain has at least three levels of functions that affect all aspects of a human’s daily life and they include the interpretation of senses and control of movement, as well as maintenance of cognitive, mental, and emotional processes, and the maintenance of normal behaviour and social cognition.

This organ works throughout a human’s life to control the body’s functions and help understand and interact with the world.  As a result of the importance and complex nature of the human brain, maintaining a healthy brain during one’s lifetime is an ultimate goal in pursuing health and longevity.

This is because, as people age, the burden of neurological disorders and challenges for the preservation of brain health increases. It is therefore very important to understand brain hygiene, why it is important and how to effectively achieve it. Also, maintaining a healthy brain helps the mind stay clear and active; so that it can continue to work, rest and carry out other functions it is required to.

Brain health and hygiene is primarily about reducing cognitive risk factors, keeping the human mind active and getting the very best out of the brain, even as one gets older.  This emphasizes the idea that maintaining mental health is not only about short-term treatments when things go wrong, but also about specific habits that can be incorporated into daily lifestyles in order to support the brain.

In difficult times, such as periods of high stress, brain hygiene is particularly important, and it is the necessary foundation for any mental health intervention.

A painful truth is that conditions that affect the brain and nervous system can cause more death and illnesses globally than cardiovascular disease, cancers and all other conditions. These disorders that affect the health of the brain continue to be the leading cause of disability worldwide. However, many of these disorders can be prevented by modifying the risk factors.

For instance, according to Professor Tissa Wijeratne of the University of Melbourne, there are more than 80 million people currently living, who have experienced stroke and around 90 per cent of those strokes could be prevented by addressing just ten modifiable risk factors which includes, treating hypertension, increasing physical activity and maintaining a healthy diet.

Some remarkable ways to maintain brain hygiene include exercising to create brain fertilizer. Exercises like walking, dancing, and swimming, among others are very good for a healthy brain. According to a physiotherapist and an Assistant Professor in the department of Rehabilitation Sciences at Katholieke Universiteit (KU) Leuven, Davy Vancampfort, exercise keeps the brain healthy and there is lots of evidence for the beneficial effects of exercise.

Vancampfort, while speaking about a ground-breaking study on sport and brain health, which appeared in a paper by the National Academy of Sciences in 2011, said that in the study, 120 elderly people were divided into two groups. One group did medium intensity aerobic training three times a week, while another group did stretching exercises three times a week. A year later, there was a remarkable difference in the hippocampus, a region of the brain that is important for information processing and memory, between both groups.

Professor Vancampfort noted that the hippocampus had increased in volume in the people who had aerobic training exercise three times a week. This group also scored better on memory tests. While for those in the stretching group, the hippocampus had shrunk.

In Vancampfort’s own words, “the growth of the hippocampus is partly due to the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), or abrineurin, during physical activity. This substance is important for the production of new brain cells and for the connections between brain cells.

It is therefore sometimes called ‘the fertilizer for the brain’. The production of BDNF during exercise also explains why regular exercise helps to prevent and reduce symptoms of depression. There is abundant evidence for the link between low levels of BDNF in the blood and depression.”

Another good brain hygiene practice is good sleep hygiene. Researchers have revealed that there is a clear link between sleep deprivation and the risk of dementia. This is evident from a large study of 8,000 Britons over age fifty. According to the study, those who slept less than six hours per night were 30 per cent more likely to suffer from dementia than those who slept seven hours a night. While experts cannot say for sure that sleep deprivation causes dementia, they do admit that the two often go together.

A psychiatrist and expert in neurodegenerative diseases at KU Leuven, Professor Mathieu Vandenbulcke, said that sleep is brain hygiene, as harmful substances are removed during deep sleep. These include the amyloid β protein, which plays an important role in Alzheimer’s, a type of dementia. He added that this does not mean a person has to sleep extra-long to give the brain cleaning crew more time to remove harmful substances. 

In fact, a recent study published in the renowned journal, Nature Aging, concludes that, seven hours of sleep is ideal for both middle-aged and older people and people who sleep for about seven hours have fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression, and they also score better on cognitive tests, while those who slept much shorter or longer scored worse.

Food is also essential to brain health. The brain needs energy to function properly and this energy comes from food. It is therefore important to provide the brain with a large variety of nutrients on a regular basis.

This implies that skipping meals, crash dieting, or a diet that is highly restrictive of what to eat might be doing the brain a disservice. It is important to eat healthy for brain health. Eating plenty of wholegrains such as oats and barley, plenty of leafy greens, brightly coloured vegetables, nuts, berries, especially strawberries and blueberries, beans and soybeans, poultry and oily fish at least once a week, and cooking with olive oil are healthy food steps to a healthy brain. Also avoiding or minimizing the consumption of red meat, processed food, salt, cheese, butter, and sugar are good as well.

It is also important to avoid loneliness and isolation by staying socially connected. Being socially engaged and supporting others is important for a healthy brain. When a person interacts with others, whether it is spending time with friends, volunteering or having a chat with a neighbour, parts of the brain are stimulated. Research shows that just one hour a week of social interaction is beneficial for people with dementia.

Mathieu Vandenbulcke revealed that prolonged loneliness is very stressful and persistent stress is toxic to the brain. According to him, with loneliness, the brain cells make fewer new contacts and substances are released that have a negative impact on the inflammatory response that plays a role in Alzheimer’s. Prolonged stress can also damage the brain by leading to the production of a lot of cortisol, an important stress hormone that then damages the hippocampus, a brain region important for storing memories.

“Loneliness causes inflammation in the brain and it damages brain areas that are important for the memory. Moreover, the brain is less stimulated if a person has little social contact. However, social contact protects the brain as one ages. Warmth and happiness within relationships seem to have a greater effect on the brain than genes, heart and blood vessels and other physical factors. Relationships turn out to be extremely important,” he explained.

The brain is the power house of the entire human body and it is important to pay extra attention to it, and paying attention to one’s brain hygiene helps to boost the brain function and improve brain, as well as overall body health, even as one gets older.