9 Ways You Can Totally Transform Your Brain Starting Today
Although it weighs just three pounds, the human brain is a remarkable organ, carrying 100 billion neurons responsible for every thought, memory, emotion, and movement we make. However, with age, disease, or poor health, the brain can deteriorate, leading to memory loss, slower recall abilities, brain fog, and more. Fortunately, we now know that it’s possible to rewire parts of your brain. This means that even if your cognition is not in tip-top shape now, there are steps you can take to transform it by rewiring connections, growing new neurons, and changing the structure of your brain.
Neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to adapt, change its structure, and rewire synaptic connections in response to new experiences—is a key player in maintaining cognitive vitality and memory with age. A more adaptable brain not only has stronger cognition and critical thinking abilities, but it also can better repair itself after damage or injury.
Scientists once thought that neurogenesis—the creation of new neurons—stopped after the first few years of life. However, research has expanded in the last few decades to show that new brain cell synthesis extends into adulthood. The fact that adult neural cells can regenerate themselves provides exciting therapeutic options for the injured, inflamed, diseased, or simply sluggish brain.
There are two primary areas of the brain—known as “neurogenic niches”—where neurogenesis takes place: the subventricular zone of the lateral ventricles and the subgranular zone of the dentate gyrus in the hippocampus—a brain region that plays a crucial role in learning and short- and long-term memory consolidation.
This creation of new neurons is a subset of neuroplasticity characterized by the adult brain’s ability to adapt and change its structure and rewire synaptic connections, which is how neurons communicate with one another. Although a plastic brain doesn’t sound great, in this sense, greater plasticity means that a brain is better able to repair itself, leading to a reduced risk of neurodegenerative and mental health conditions and more robust cognitive function.
Neuroplasticity also allows the brain to acquire new skills, improve emotional control and memory consolidation, and continually enhance cognitive ability. One protein that plays a vital role in promoting brain plasticity and neurogenesis is BDNF. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a neurotrophin—a family of proteins that act as growth factors for neurons by promoting their survival, growth, and development.
BDNF is expressed in both neurogenic niches and is involved in the differentiation and maturation of neural stem cells into neurons or glial cells. Essentially, BDNF is necessary for neurogenesis to occur. Higher levels of BDNF are linked to improved cognition and brain health in both animals and humans, while low levels of BDNF are found in individuals with neurodegenerative conditions. Fortunately, many things can boost BDNF activity—let’s take a closer look at how you can transform your brain by increasing neuroplasticity.
9 Ways to Transform Your Brain
1. Get Moving
We know that exercise is good for promoting physical and mental health—but it’s also a critical factor in maintaining brain function. Research shows that exercise increases neuroplasticity by boosting the activity of BDNF and two other neurotrophic factors called GDNF (glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor) and NGF (nerve growth factor).
A meta-analysis combining data from 29 studies found that both acute (single-session) and regular exercise significantly increased BDNF levels. Each exercise session produces a “dose” of BDNF, which can be amplified over time by creating a habitual activity routine. In adults with neurodegenerative conditions, just one aerobic exercise session significantly boosted BDNF levels, and animal studies have found that as little as one week of exercise improves learning, memory, and cognition scores.
But which type is better—aerobic, strength training, or flexibility-focused? When it comes to neurogenesis, aerobic exercise might be more beneficial. In a randomized controlled trial, older adults in an aerobic walking program experienced a 2% increase in hippocampal volume after seven weeks. Not only did aerobic exercise thwart the typical age-related decline in hippocampal volume, it effectively reversed it by one to two years.
Aerobic exercise—especially running—boosts neurogenesis by increasing the growth and maturation of neural stem cells, which increases the number of stem cells that can become functioning brain cells. Lastly, aerobic exercise increases BDNF levels, which acts as a growth factor for neurons to develop and survive. But this is not to say that resistance training is not important—research also shows that strength training protects the hippocampus from degeneration.
2. Say “Om”
Meditation does more than just calm your nervous system—it has a myriad of benefits ranging from reduced anxiety and better sleep to improved heart health and cognitive function. Mindfulness meditation is linked to better executive functioning, short- and long-term memory, and attention span.
Neuroimaging studies show that the brain connectivity of meditators changes both during meditation and afterward, suggesting that the benefits can last even after you get off the mat. Research on habitual meditators found widespread, long-term changes in structural brain connectivity, suggesting that meditation can induce neuroplasticity.
In a study published in Psychiatry Research, researchers found that eight weeks of a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction training program increased the cortical thickness (gray matter concentration) of the hippocampus and decreased the volume of the amygdala—the part of the brain responsible for stress, fear, and anxiety.
Start your meditation practice today by searching online for guided meditations for beginners—many are as short as five minutes—and work your way up as you get more comfortable sitting with your thoughts.
3. Prioritize Sleep
Sleep is one of the quickest ways to transform your brain—for better or worse. If you’ve ever skipped out on a night of sleep, you know how rapidly it can affect your cognition and mood. Conversely, high-quality, deep sleep can completely transform how your brain functions overnight.
But it’s not only our next-day performance and emotional states that are impacted by how we sleep—long-term cognitive health is also affected when we chronically get poor sleep. One way that sleep impacts our brain is through the glymphatic system—a series of channels that carry fresh cerebrospinal fluid into the brain and flush out waste- and toxin-filled fluid, effectively “cleaning the brain.” However, this primarily occurs during deep sleep. One toxin that gets removed by the glymphatic system is beta-amyloid—a protein that is commonly associated with neurodegenerative conditions.
Most adults require 7-9 hours of high-quality sleep per night. Start sleeping better tonight by keeping your bedroom dark, quiet, and cool, having a caffeine cut-off time in the afternoon, and avoiding large meals and alcohol in the hours before bed. Over time, maintaining bedtime and wake times within the same hour each day (even on weekends) can also help to support overall sleep quality.
4. Focus on Fermented Foods
Fermented foods like sauerkraut, yogurt, kefir, and kimchi are known to benefit digestive health—but they also support cognition. Many fermented foods contain nutrients, phytochemicals, bioactive compounds, and healthy microbes that provide anti-inflammatory and immunomodulatory functions that impact the gut-brain axis.
Research has found that dysbiosis—an imbalance of unhealthy bacteria in the gut—is linked to poor cognition and mental health and a reduced expression of hippocampal BDNF. Consuming probiotics also leads to the production of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which are fermented products formed by intestinal bacteria. SCFAs have been found to influence the production of neurotrophic factors and neurotransmitters like serotonin, leading to improved mood and cognition.
5. Eat the Antioxidant Rainbow
Antioxidants help to fight oxidative stress—a buildup of harmful compounds called reactive oxygen species that contribute to accelerated aging and disease development. Plant-based compounds called polyphenols act as antioxidants and fight oxidative stress in the body to protect DNA, slow brain aging, and enhance neuroplasticity.
Some antioxidants and the foods they’re found in include resveratrol (red grapes and wine), curcumin (turmeric), quercetin (apples and onions), anthocyanins (berries), sulforaphane (broccoli), ellagic acid (berries and pomegranate) and catechins (green tea and cocoa).
Antioxidant supplements like trans-resveratrol, pterostilbene, fisetin, green tea extract (EGCG), and hydroxytyrosol can also help to bridge the gap and provide higher concentrations than can be found in food. Herbs and spices are also loaded with health-supporting compounds, like curcumin in turmeric, carnosic acid in rosemary, allicin in garlic, and gingerol in ginger.
A study of Italian adults found that a flavonoid-rich diet reduced the risk of cognitive impairment, especially the consumption of catechins, anthocyanins, flavan-3-ols (found in tea, apples, berries, and coffee), and flavanols like quercetin. Plus, research with older adults shows that blueberry extract improves memory, while garlic has been studied for its role in preserving cognitive and immune function with age.
6. Go Fish
Omega-3 fatty acids from marine sources have been well-studied for their role in supporting cognition and brain health. Both EPA and DHA are abundant in the cell membranes of neurons, helping to preserve cell membrane integrity and regulate communication between brain cells. These omega-3 fats also promote healthier inflammatory responses throughout the entire body—and the brain is no exception.
In research with healthy adults, those who consumed more fish had greater Memory Performance Index scores and better brain structural integrity, as seen by neuroimaging of the fractional anisotropy of white matter—a measure of connectivity in the brain. Specifically, eating fish twice a week or more was associated with these beneficial changes.
In older adults, lower blood levels of DHA are linked to smaller brain sizes, indicating accelerated brain aging. In a clinical study of people with declining cognitive health, those who took 900 mg of DHA for 24 weeks performed better on learning and memory tests.
While you can undoubtedly get ample omega-3s from consuming fish like salmon and sardines, most Americans don’t consume the recommended amount of fatty seafood. Therefore, adding marine omega-3 supplements can be a simpler solution if you’re not a fan of seafood.
7. Supplement Smart
While supplements are not miracle pills, many can support cognition, memory, and brain health. In addition to the omega-3s mentioned above, some of the most promising supplements for supporting healthy brain function include:
- Curcumin: The primary bioactive compound of turmeric, curcumin increases the production of BDNF and reduces inflammatory markers and oxidative stress in the brain. In one study that combined data from six large trials, curcumin supplementation was found to significantly improve scores of memory and cognitive function in healthy adults.
- Choline: This B-vitamin-like molecule is needed to synthesize phospholipids, the fats that comprise the majority of our cell membranes. As a vital component of cell membranes, choline is involved with cell signaling, fat transport, and synthesis of neurotransmitters. Choline is a precursor to acetylcholine—a neurotransmitter responsible for muscle contractions, pain responses, and regulating memory and our body’s internal clocks (the circadian rhythm). There are many forms of supplemental choline, including CDP-choline (also known as citicoline) and Alpha-GPC, which can cross the blood-brain barrier.
- Trans-resveratrol: Resveratrol is a compound found in several plant foods, including red grapes, cocoa, peanuts, raspberries, blueberries, and cranberries, and trans-resveratrol is its most bioavailable form. In a study of adults aged 40 to 80 with metabolic concerns, single doses of resveratrol led to cognitive benefits, including improved cognitive performance, neural activity, and cerebral blood flow. In a 24-month trial, postmenopausal women who took 150 mg of trans-resveratrol per day had a 33% improvement in overall cognitive performance and memory compared to when they took the placebo.
- Phosphatidylserine: Phosphatidylserine is a fatty substance known as a phospholipid, an essential part of the cell membranes in our brain and nervous system. It benefits the brain by supporting communication and transmission between neurons, protecting the coating around nerves known as myelin, and facilitating neurotransmitter release. With these vital functions, phosphatidylserine is thought to positively impact cognition, communication, problem-solving, language skills, and short- and long-term memory. In a study of elderly adults with memory loss, consuming as little as 100 mg of phosphatidylserine for six months improved memory function, especially delayed recall.
- Lion’s mane: Lion’s mane is a functional mushroom with antioxidant-rich compounds called erinacines that support nerve growth factors, cognition, and neurogenesis. A clinical study found that older Japanese adults who took lion’s mane for 16 weeks had significantly improved cognitive function scores.
- Bacopa monnieri: Bacopa monnieri (also known as Brahmi or water hyssop) is an Ayurvedic herb used for supporting memory and mood. Bacopa contains the compounds bacosides A and B, which support neuronal health by providing antioxidant activity, increasing blood flow in the brain, and modulating essential neurotransmitters. In a 3-month study, healthy adults who took 300 mg of Bacopa per day had significantly increased visual information processing, learning, and memory recall.
- L-theanine: L-theanine is an amino acid found primarily in green tea and matcha that promotes a state of calm relaxation—the kind of peaceful brain state you experience during meditation, creative work, or anything that puts you in a flow state. It enhances alpha brain waves (associated with calmness, relaxation, and contentment), increases BDNF production and neurogenesis, and reduces inflammatory signaling pathways. In a study of older adults aged 50 to 69, taking a single dose of 100 mg of L-theanine reduced the reaction time to attention tasks, increased the number of correct answers, and decreased the number of errors in working memory tasks.
8. Train Your Brain
Just like you want to exercise your muscles, mental stimulation can help exercise the vital muscles of your brain. Brain training activities—like puzzles, Sudoku, word games, scrabble, trivia, chess, and even some video games—can increase neuroplasticity and strengthen neural connections.
Similarly, learning a second language activates new neural pathways that can help to rewire your brain. Researchers have found that learning a second language increases gray matter density and white matter integrity. Gray matter processes cognition, learning, sensation, perception, voluntary movement, and speech, while white matter's role is to connect different regions of grey matter, which determines the speed of information processing and memory recall.
9. Try Going Dry
If you’ve ever imbibed a bit too much, you know that the next-day effects on your concentration and brainpower are very noticeable. But what about when you drink small amounts over time? We hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it turns out that even moderate amounts of alcohol can negatively impact your brain.
In a study published in BMJ, moderate drinking was associated with hippocampal shrinkage over a 30-year period. While heavy drinkers had six times the amount of brain shrinkage, moderate drinkers (one drink per day for women and two for men) still had three times greater odds of hippocampal loss than non-drinkers.
Higher alcohol use was also linked to a faster decline in lexical fluency tests (the ability to name as many words beginning with a specific letter as possible within a minute) and changes in the structure of the corpus callosum—a bundle of nerve fibers that connects the brain’s two hemispheres and facilitates higher-level neurological functions.
Another study published in Nature Communications looked at neuroimaging data of over 36,000 adults in the UK, finding that moderate alcohol intake (one to two drinks per day) was associated with reductions in global brain volume measures, regional gray matter volumes, and white matter microstructure. Although it may not be realistic to eliminate alcohol altogether, reducing your overall intake—and striving for more dry days per week than not—can help to protect your brain.
Our brains can be transformed by many things—for better or for worse. Adding in things that boost neurogenesis or neuroplasticity can positively reshape our brains. Activities like aerobic exercise, meditation, deep sleep, brain games, and learning a new language can rewire neural connections, boost BDNF activity, and improve the structure of the brain itself. When it comes to what we eat and drink, consuming more fermented foods, antioxidant-rich compounds, omega-3s, and brain-boosting supplements (like curcumin, lion’s mane, choline, and more), and avoiding alcohol can all reduce neuroinflammation and support brain health at any age.
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