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5 Simple Things a Neurologist Does to Protect Their Brain Health

24th April 2024

24th April 2024

Your brain is arguably the most important part of your body. Whether it’s ordering your morning latte, pushing through a sweaty workout, or flexing your focus and memory skills to deliver an important work presentation, everything you do is down to this amazing organ.

Here’s the catch though: very few of us know anything about how the brain actually works, let alone how to protect our brain health. Recent statistics from YouGov found that 98% of us could do more to keep our minds healthy, and with dementia rates set to increase to almost 1.6 million people in the UK by 2040, it’s never been more important to take brain health seriously.

So who better to ask for advice than someone who studies brains for a living? Dr. Faye Begeti is a leading neurology doctor and neuroscientist at Oxford University Hospitals, who has spent years researching this area of the body, learning what keeps it in peak condition and what causes it to deteriorate over time.

Having recently gathered her findings into a new book, ‘The Phone Fix’, we asked Begeti to share the golden rules for brain health that everyone should follow, from simple brain exercises to the best brain supplements.

1. Try fitness snacking

If your New Year resolution to stay fit fell woefully by the wayside months ago, here’s a good reason to set your alarm for an early morning sweat session.

"Exercising releases a chemical called 'BDNF' (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which plays a vital role in the growth and maintenance of our neurons," explains Begeti. As well as having a protective effect on our brains, studies have found that this nourishing protein could also slow the progression of conditions like Alzheimer’s Disease. Think of it like brain food.

While you might be smugly thinking that you’ve already done the hard yards by exercising in your 20s and 30s, research shows that the key to an ageless brain is being active in every decade of your life - not just the early ones.

“It doesn’t have to be an all-out intense effort,” Begeti assures. “I'm in my mid-to-late 30s with two young kids, so I find ways to regularly move throughout the day, like taking a quick run for 10 minutes between work meetings.”

This approach, known as 'exercise snacking,' can help you to stay active even if you're going through a busy period of back-to-back work deadlines.

While it may not feel as impressive as running a marathon, these small efforts can stack up over time. As Begeti notes: “It's about being consistent with exercise over years,” rather than training intensely for a short period and then slacking off after.

2. Don’t rely on Google Maps

Technology is great. It helps us to navigate, problem solve, and calculate large sums with relative ease, but it also offloads a lot of our important brain activity, making us lazy and reliant. One way to combat this is to build up what’s known as ‘cognitive reserve’.

“Certain types of dementia can occur when proteins in the brain misfold and damage brain cells. But fascinatingly, in post-mortem studies, some people with misfolded proteins show no signs of dementia during their lifetime. This protective phenomenon is thanks to cognitive reserve – having a dense network of brain cells that are rich in connections, serving as a buffer in case damage happens.”

Beefing up our cognitive reserve is as simple as giving our brains small challenges to overcome every day. For example, rather than blindly following Google Maps for directions, Begeti recommends testing your navigation skills without the internet to guide you. Just like physical exercise strengthens our muscles, daily brain exercises can keep our neurons firing on all cylinders.

3. Break up with your barista (after 12pm)

Whether you’re a fan of a fancy flat white or you’ve recently upgraded to Innermost’s mushroom-fuelled Wellness Blend coffee, a cup of Joe can be a helpful pick-me-up on long work afternoons when you’re flagging. But Begeti warns that drinking coffee too late in the day can wreak havoc on your sleep, which is an essential function for brain regeneration.

“I recommend having a cutoff time of 1pm for coffee,” she stresses. “A large 2023 study found that drinking caffeine in the afternoon reduces sleep efficiency by as much as 7%, and overall sleep time roughly 45 minutes - which can have a negative effect on brain health if it becomes chronic and long-term.”

If you’re struggling with brain fog and don’t want to sacrifice the 3pm energy hit, you could try switching out the espresso for Innermost’s Focus brain health supplement, which contains research-backed nootropic ingredients that naturally boost cognitive performance and processing speed.

“Watch out for pre-workout drinks too,” Begeti warns, “as they often have a really large caffeine content. The authors of the same study found that the cutoff time for drinking these is roughly 9am, so they’re only really suitable for morning workouts.”

4. Simulate a commute on WFH days

When you’re working from home, it can be tempting to roll straight from your duvet to your laptop screen, but skipping a proper commute means you miss out on a brain-healthy dose of natural daylight.

As Begeti explains: “Sleep is really important for our brains, as it’s during this process that the body clears away misfolded proteins that can cause certain types of dementia. People often fail to realise that a good night's kip actually begins in the morning, by exposing yourself to natural light, as this allows the brain to regulate its sleep-wake cycle.”

On WFH days, she recommends everyone wake up earlier to simulate a short commute in a local green space, as surrounding ourselves in nature can amp up the brain-boosting benefits.

“Studies have found that an hour-long walk in nature reduces activity in the amygdala, a region of the brain primarily associated with emotional processing. Protecting our mental health is a key part of any long-term brain health strategy, as people who suffer from mood disorders have a higher risk of cognitive decline.”

5. Get sober curious

Many people lean on a tipple or two to take the edge off a hectic day, and that’s no surprise really, considering 74% of us feel so stressed we’re often unable to cope. Needless to say though, all that extra boozing isn’t great for our health, and it’s not just our liver that bears the brunt.

“Binge drinking has negative effects on the cerebellum, a tiny part of the brain that’s responsible for balance and coordination,” explains Begeti. “Repeated toxicity of alcohol, over years and decades, can actually shrink this part of the brain."

It’s not just hedonistic weekend revellers that are at risk though. “Even just moderately drinking one or two glasses of wine every night, if done over several years and decades, can have negative consequences for brain health,” stresses Begeti. “My advice would be to treat drinking alcohol as a special occasion activity, and not a daily habit.”

Finally, because we're living longer as a society, Begeti underscores that we’re statistically more likely to experience brain-related conditions in the future, so our brain health is not something to gamble lightly.

“Yes, the brain controls basic survival actions like walking, running, and breathing, but let’s not forget that it’s also the architect of our entire consciousness,” she notes. It’s thanks to the brain that we can think, feel, and ideate – all the things that make us uniquely human.

“So, we should do all we can to exercise and protect our youthful brain while we can,” she stresses, “as it’s the very essence of who we are.”

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