The brain is a part of our body, so of course, it's connected and influenced by our body, you may think. And while this basic assumption is definitely at the heart of the findings we will discuss here, the ways in which our brains are interconnected with the other organs and systems of our body can be quite unexpected, with things like hydration level and specific foods having a profound influence on our mind. But it isn't only our gut or cardiovascular system that can influence how well our brains work: our experiences and habits are just as important to our mental health and cognitive performance. These 7 neuroscientific discoveries illustrate how our brain, our body, and our experiences are all meaningfully interconnected and have a strong effect on our health and well-being.
1. Your Brain’s Health and Functioning is Dependent on Your Gut Health
The idea of the gut-brain connection has been around for a while, but the more scientists learn about the specific ways our guts influence our brains, the more we get to understand the holistic importance of a healthy diet. More specifically, we now know that a poor diet is a contributor to mental illness, particularly anxiety and depression, but it may also alter our cognitive abilities.
2. Mental Tasks and New Experiences can Boost one’s Brain Health
One of the most significant neuroscience discoveries of the past decade is the idea that our brain is malleable and new experiences, training, and learning can improve its functioning. In neuroscience, this notion is known under the term 'neuroplasticity', and, as you might expect, the human brain is most pliable in childhood, but it continues being shaped by our experiences throughout our lives.
This is why reading, playing and listening to music, painting and many other types of mental training are all so beneficial for our cognitive health and help us maintain a sharp mind for longer. More interestingly, recent scientific research focusing on the ways we can use neuroplasticity to our advantage also showed that we can improve our memory by simply engaging in new enjoyable activities and trying new things. Learn more about this particular study by following this link.
3. Both Too Much and Not Enough Sleep Can Affect Your Cognition
Sleep is one of the favorite topics in neuroscience, with numerous studies suggesting that both too much and not enough sleep can impair our memory, creativity and cognitive tasks, such as concentration and problem-solving. The largest-ever sleep study was conducted in 2017, with over 10.000 participants tested, and it concluded that the previous hypothesis was true and sleep does affect our decision-making and concentration even in the short term.
However, the same study concluded that memory performance is NOT affected by sleep, although admittedly they did not look at the long-term effects of sleep. Still, it’s best to get an average of 7-8 hours of sleep every day to stay in top shape.
4. Healthy Body, Healthy Mind: the Effects of Exercise on Our Brain
Your brain needs exercise, we discussed that in the second point but turns out that regular old exercise, too, can boost your cognitive health and help retain a sharp mind in your senior years. One study even suggested that exercise helps delay dementia by 15 years!
Apart from being an excellent preventative measure of Alzheimer’s and dementia, however, exercise can help us boost our cognitive performance and thinking skills, too. As for the kind of exercise in question, experts suggest that a mixture of cardio, flexibility training, strength and resistance training will give you the greatest cognitive boost, but as long as you exercise regularly, any training you enjoy will benefit your brain as well.
5. Chronic Stress Can Shrink Your Brain
You probably heard that a little stress is useful for our brain from time to time, and it may be true, but most of us don’t get just a little stressed, don’t we? And that’s exactly the problem. When we are stressed out day after day, our prefrontal cortex, the steering wheel of our brain, gets affected, making us less alert and worse at performing cognitive tasks, all because of cortisol, the infamous stress hormone.
Another brain area affected by stress is the hippocampus, which helps us learn and remember things. Ultimately, chronic stress can even cause mood swings, irritability, mental illness (e.g. anxiety, depression, addiction) and was even found to contribute to Alzheimer’s disease. In extreme cases, constant stress was even shown to be able to shrink the brain volume, particularly the cortex. This video further explains how stress affects our brains.
6. Mindfulness May Help Keep Your Brain Younger for Longer
Mindfulness training is a hot topic both in psychology and neuroscience nowadays, but it’s not a new invention, as both yoga and meditation rely heavily on the idea of self-awareness and mindfulness. There’s a massive amount of research showing that mindfulness can make you more resistant to pain, help you deal with mental illness and even prevent cortical degeneration caused by dementia and aging.
7. Your Water Intake Affects your Brain
A dehydrated brain is a sluggish brain, one that can make it difficult for you to focus, maintain attention, and engage in problem-solving tasks. A 2018 study found that losing as little as 2% of body weight for adults can instantly affect all these mental faculties. Keep in mind that losing that much water is not uncommon, especially in the summer weather.
Also, kids and seniors are at a higher risk of suffering from dehydration. The conclusion is simple: always keep a full water bottle on hand, especially if you’re spending time in the sun, but don’t overindulge either. Why? This is because drinking too much water is as dangerous as dehydration, as it can dilute your blood and, in severe cases, can make your brain swell, which can be lethal.
How much water should you drink, then? Doctors generally recommend drinking around half a gallon (2 liters) of water a day for an average adult, which is about 8 glasses of water, but this may differ depending on your weight and diet.