We only get one brain in this lifetime, and it weighs about 1,300 to 1,400 grams. That’s just slightly smaller than a bottlenose dolphin brain, which weighs 1,500 to 1,600 grams, and much larger than a cow’s brain weighing 430 grams. Our brains contain cells which are called “neurons”. Not to alarm you, but we lose about 85,000 neurons per day… that’s a loss of 31 million brain cells per year. It’s about 1 per second!
I imagine you’d lose even more neurons if you take mind-bending drugs or expose yourself to free radicals (think nicotine, alcohol, pesticides and MSG). It’s important for you to know how to grow new brain cells, termed neurogenesis. We (as humans) have about 90 to 100 billion neurons in our brain. Compare that with an octopus (which I used to have as a pet in my 250 gallon saltwater fish tank years ago) which has 500 million neurons, mostly in their arms (sometimes mistakenly called tentacles).
Without neurons, we couldn’t move or function, and we would cease to live within minutes.
Neurogenesis is the science of spurring the growth of neurons in your brain. Without neurogenesis, you’d be dead. In fact, we can grow as many as 700 new neurons a day. Scientists have found that several things actually help spur on neurogenesis; the bigger challenge, however, is keeping those new neurons.
Neurogenesis is a dynamic process that reduces risk of Alzheimer’s, insomnia, anxiety, dementia and other cognitive problems. Avoiding foods high in glutamate and MSG will help you, and so will eating a clean, fresh diet of foods filled with a lot of what I call “light foods”, meaning plant-based salads and veggies that contain light from the photosynthesis process. (Contrast that with “dead” foods.)
Additionally, there are foods that are particularly adept at growing brand new neurons in our brains, while also activating protective pathways to nurture them and keep them thriving. It’s hard to believe but it’s true: what we choose to eat impacts our mind to some degree.
The most potent neuron-loving foods include:
- Green tea, berries, citrus apples, and dark chocolate due to the flavonoids
- Blueberries (due to the flavonoids and anthocyanin)
- Red grapes (because the skin has resveratrol)
- Wild-caught salmon and other fatty fish due to the DHA fish oils
Oddly, researchers have found that eating chewy foods as opposed to soft, mushy foods are helpful to neuronal growth. As you eat a baked potato (vs. mashed potatoes) figure that one out! On the topic of food, well-designed trials show that intermittent fasting, caloric restriction and exercise promote the growth of new brain cells for you. So keep that up too.
Certain Lifestyle Choices Grow New Brain Cells & Protect Grey Matter
The following lifestyle choices and behaviors are known to enhance neurogenesis:
- Intermittent fasting
- Caloric restriction
These documented changes to your lifestyle have been proven to have impressive powers for prolonging one’s life, preventing certain disease and improving brain function. Can these banish our risk of neurodegenerative disease? I wouldn’t say with certainty, but our ancestors experienced periods of feast and famine and there was less obesity, fewer neurodegenerative diseases and less diabetes. It’s probably because they didn’t have processed foods laden with chemicals or 24-hour drive-thrus and “fries with that shake”.
Our ancestors had to rove and wander, find food, pray for a successful hunt and a long fall and spring before the trees would wither and animals would begin hibernating, because “what then?”
So as the working theory goes, there were times of caloric restriction and intermittent fasting and it put the body into a state of mild ketosis. We can do that today if we mimic ancestral eating patterns of feast and famine. There are plenty of books on this topic so I’m not going to delve any deeper.
The point is that both caloric restriction and intermittent fasting have proven to be both neuroprotective and neurogenic.
Research has shown that during brief fasts, and periods of caloric restriction (around 500 calories a day) there is:
- Enhanced cognitive performance
- Healing effects in the brain
- The release of ghrelin (the hunger hormone)
- Enhanced BDFN (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor)
Note: everyone talks about enhancing BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) as a method of growing new brain cells and while that is still important, there is some new research that suggests that the hormone that makes you feel hungry, called ghrelin, may be THE thing that triggers the whole birth of new neurons in the first place.
Exercise enhances cognitive performance and sets off cascades of healing effects in the brain of everyone, whether you’re 18 or 80, whether you’re at peak mental condition or already in the throes of Alzheimer’s.
Exercise has all kinds of brain-healthy effects such as:
- increasing the volume of neurons in the brain
- strengthening connections between neurons
- releasing nerve growth factor which strengthens the synapse (the connections between neurons) and also creates new connections with other neurons
- increasing blood flow to the brain, enhancing something called neuroplasticity
Neuroplasticity is a process we very much want happening in our brains. Neuroplasticity is what we call our brain’s ability to reorganize itself and form new neural connections as we learn and grow throughout life. For new neuron growth, although strength training is an important component of exercise, you must participate in aerobic exercise – at least 3 to 4, 30-60 minute sessions a week. It can be any kind of aerobic exercise from walking, to cycling, to running.
On the topic of exercise, I definitely want you to go to Body Pump and Zumba, but you should also be exercising your brain too. In fact, it might very well be more important than physical exercise for some of you reading this today. By exercising your brain I mean, for example, learn to read sheet music, learn another language, engage in puzzles, do math problems in your head and play spatial video games.
Yes, you read that right… how about playing Super Mario 3D? This particular video game (and also Super Mario 64) have been used in two important research studies on the brain, in which it was proven that spatial video games increase brain activity in the hippocampal region and help you create new neurons. This gives us a whole new perspective when it comes to healing the brain and growing new healthy brain cells.
So, my best advice to you is this: after an intense workout, crash on the couch with a big bowl of blueberries, have some fun video gaming, and just feel your mind ignite with newfound brainiac-ness.