IIt was once long believed – by the average person and brain health experts – that every person had a finite number of brain cells that decreased over time. You lose enough, and it can lead to neurological damage or disease, including dementia. It is a school of thought that can lead someone to become obsessed with every football they have ever headed or drank too many alcoholic beverages during the night.
That mindset isn’t exactly right, however, based on what researchers have learned about brain health over the past decade. A plethora of scientific studies links certain diet and lifestyle habits to neurogenesis, the process by which new neurons grow in the brain. It’s a topic that psychiatrist Drew Ramsey, MD, talks about in his new book Eat to Beat Depression and Anxiety ($ 22), and that means we can – at least in part – actively protect ourselves from cognitive decline. Encouraging right? The key, of course, is knowing how to do it.
How are brain cells destroyed?
Before we get into brain cell growth, it’s helpful to know what exactly kills them in the first place. Dr. Ramsey says this is due to high levels of chronic inflammation. While small doses of short-term inflammation can actually be beneficial, experiencing high levels of inflammation over long periods of time can damage the brain (and the entire body, TBH).
“Research has made it very clear that excessive inflammation affects the circuits in the brain,” says Dr. Ramsey. Inflammation not only disrupts brain circulation, but also actively kills brain cells. He explains that an inflamed brain leads to brain fog, anxiety, depression, low energy, and (over a long period of time) cognitive decline and illness. What causes long-term inflammation? Chronic stress, eating high levels of processed sugars, eating processed meats and refined carbohydrates, and not getting enough sleep are some of the leading causes.
Another chronic inflammation prohibits neurogenesis, the key process in making new brain cells, says neurologist Faye Begeti, MD, PhD. “The brain is protected by a blood-brain barrier. This barrier can leak, but this would only happen with prolonged systemic inflammatory conditions and not with a simple cough or cold, ”she says.
Watch the video below to learn more about the relationship between diet and inflammation:
How new brain cells grow
Okay, we can blame excessive inflammation for killing brain cells. How do we get it back? Actively work against inflammation. Not only does this prevent neurons from dying, but, according to Dr. Ramsey also active in brain cell growth.
However, when it comes to brain cell growth, it’s important to understand the relationship between neurogenesis and neuroplasticity – two words that sound similar but have different meanings – says Dr. Begeti. While neurogenesis refers to the growth of new brain cells, it explains that in neuroplasticity, existing neurons grow and form different connections with each other. “Kind of like weaving branches from nearby trees,” she says. “Neuroplasticity is critical to shaping our brains for who we are, learning, and recovering from illnesses like a stroke.” Neuroplasticity is how existing and new brain cells communicate with each other. That’s why both are important, adds Dr. Begeti added. (However, since most of the scientific studies of neuroplasticity have been done in mice – very few have been done in humans – knowledge of the process of rewiring the brain is still limited, she says.)
From what doctors can tell, neurogenesis only appears to take place in two parts of the brain, the hippocampus being one of them. (The other is the olfactory bulb associated with the smell.) Dr. Ramsey explains that the hippocampus is the part of the brain responsible for emotional health as well as memory function. He remembers old memories and creates new ones. Because of this, neurogenesis is key to staying mentally sharp and emotionally balanced. And this is where your eating habits and your daily habits come into play.
Diet and lifestyle habits that promote neurogenesis
Eating a healthy diet, consistent sleep, and regular exercise are beneficial for the hippocampus, studies have shown. “Exercise, socialization, and environmental enrichment – which means that there is a lot of stimulating activity – increase neurogenesis. However, these studies were only done in mice because they are difficult to study [brain cell growth] in humans, ”says Dr. Begeti. This means that while there is likely to be a strong link, more human studies will need to be done to confirm this.
According to Dr. Ramsey, however, some nutrients have been linked to the benefits of the brain through neurogenesis in humans: omega-3 fatty acids (found in foods such as fish, nuts and seeds, and soybeans), phytonutrients (natural compounds found in plants such as vegetables, fruits , Whole grains and legumes), B vitamins (found in meat, dairy products, whole grains, dark leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, avocado, banana, nuts and seeds, and legumes), zinc (found in lean meat, eggs, seafood, lentils, nuts and seeds as well as soy) and magnesium (contained in whole grain products, soy, nuts and seeds, legumes and dark chocolate). This is one reason why so many doctors are interested in the Mediterranean Diet highlighting all of the foods mentioned here.
To learn more about the Mediterranean Diet, which is rich in nutrients linked to neurogenesis, watch the video below:
In addition to all of the above nutrients, according to Dr. Ramsey describes a specific brain chemical that plays a role in neuroplasticity and brain cell growth: BDNF, a neurotrophin, also known as a type of protein that helps brain cells grow and survive. “Some say that BDNF is very similar to ‘Miracle-Gro for the Brain’ – a fertilizing biomolecule that aids in the birth of new brain cells and synapses during development,” he says in his book. He also says that BNDF not only helps brain cells grow, but also protects the mind from toxins.
Do you want to increase your BDNF production? Dr. Ramsey says that eating foods rich in omega-3s on a regular basis is key. (Yes, the nutrient is doubly good for brain health.) He says flavonoids, a type of antioxidant found in green tea, berries, kale, tomatoes, dark chocolate, and nuts (other than macadamia nuts and Brazil nuts), too are linked to stimulate more BDNF production in the brain.
Incorporating all of the above foods into your diet will likely benefit your hippocampus, but Dr. Ramsey says doing whatever you can to keep excessive inflammation away in general is also important as it kills valuable neurons. When it comes to food, cooking with anti-inflammatory spices like turmeric, rosemary, and ginger can help. So getting enough fiber can be prioritized. When it comes to lifestyle, Dr. Ramsey stated that managing stress, getting good sleep, and getting regular exercise are all keys.
And when it comes to prioritizing these healthy practices, keep in mind that adopting a mind-over-matter mentality can help keep new habits in place. “Knowing that we can actively increase the size of our brains empowers me personally,” says Dr. Ramsey. “It motivates me to make choices about eating nutritious foods, meditating, and exercising. It’s not always easy to do these things consistently, but knowing how it affects your brain is very motivating. “After all, a ghost is a terrible thing to be wasted.
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