(Jonathon Benson) Prior to about 20 years ago, it was believed that the human brain was incapable of producing new brain cells after reaching maturity. But scientists now widely accept the fact that the human brain can undergo neurogenesis, in which new neurons are born, even into adulthood, and that this process can be helped along through certain dietary and lifestyle changes.
Two specific regions of the brain, the subventricular zone and the hippocampus, both show evidence of neurogenesis post-maturity. The latter region is responsible for learning and memory, and when it’s not functioning as it should, neurodegenerative conditions like depression, anxiety and Parkinson’s can ensue. But you can help reduce your risk while simultaneously promoting adult-stage brain cell formation by following these five steps:
1) Exercise. It might sound cliche, but the single most effective way to promote neurogenesis in your brain is to exercise regularly. Getting your heart pumping and your blood flowing by running, biking, or swimming is a great way to increase levels of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and glial cell line-derived trophic factor (GDNF), two key growth factors that promote neurogenesis.
The endorphins released through cardiovascular exercise also help minimize levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, while increasing levels of the hormone testosterone, which like BDNF and GDNF helps promote neurogenesis. These exercise-induced hormones and growth factors are especially critical as a person ages, since they act as anti-aging, cognition-boosting nutrients.
2) Meditation. The scientific benefits of meditation are well-established, and you don’t necessarily have to be religious to derive benefits from it. A growing body of evidence suggests that meditation can help increase the gray matter density of various regions of the brain, including the hippocampus.
By helping individuals to focus more on the now rather than the past and future, meditation clears the mind and helps balance brain chemicals, including those that regulate neurogenesis. At least one study determined that meditation helps activate certain integrative functions in the brain, promoting both short- and long-term neural changes.
Night meditation can also help up-regulate the body’s production of melatonin, a sleep hormone directly linked to neurogenesis. Amishi Jha from the University of Miami recommends “mindfulness-based mind-fitness training,” a method that involves focusing on a specific object, such as a particular body sensation, in order to improve brain structure and function, and ultimately one’s intelligence.
3) Diet. Eating right might seem obvious, but many people still don’t know what this means. Your brain is made up of about 60 percent fat, which necessitates that fat plays an important role in everyday nutrition. But many people still view fat as bad, seeking to avoid it in favor of fat-free or low-fat food options packed with chemical sweeteners and other artificial flavor additives.
Omega-3 fatty acids are an important fat to consume regularly for improved brain health, as are healthy saturated fats like coconut and palm oil. Docosahexaenoic acid in particular is a critical fat component that, as it pertains to neurogenesis, is absolutely necessary for the brain to manufacture new brain cells.
4) Sleep, sunlight and sex. It doesn’t get nearly the credit it deserves, but sleep is critical for healthy brain function. Sleep deprivation, it turns out, reduces hippocampal neurogenesis, throwing hormone balance out of whack and cluttering the brain. A recent study published in the journal Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences found that sleep disruptions exceeding 24 hours inhibit cell proliferation, and in some cases neurogenesis.
Natural exposure to sunlight is another factor in neurogenesis, as vitamin D, which is produced when unblocked skin is exposed to the sun’s rays, increases levels of both serotonin (a brain neurotransmitter) and GDNF expression in the brain. Optimal exposure to beneficial ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun ranges between 10 and 15 minutes during the summer months.
And then there’s sex, which helps reduce stress while boosting levels of certain “feel-good” transmitters in the brain. A 2010 study published in the journal PLoS ONE found that sex helps minimize both anxiety and corticosterone levels while promoting adult neurogenesis and stimulating the growth of dendritic spines and architecture in the hippocampus.
5) Psilocybin and cannabis. Various psychoactive compounds, including those found in “magic” mushrooms (psilocybin) and cannabis (THC and CBD), have also been shown to aid in the development of new brain cells. Psilocybin, it turns out, both increases hippocampal neurogenesis and increases the ability of the brain to “unlearn” certain negative fear responses, hence why sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often report benefits from supplementing with psilocybin.
And cannabis, which is increasingly legal throughout the U.S., possesses compounds like tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) that match with receptors in the brains to reduce anxiety and promote neurogenesis.
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