Whether you’re looking to reduce your risk of dementia, address depression or brain fog, heal from a head injury, perform at a higher level day-to-day, or any other aspect of brain health, you have to start with whether your brain’s neurons are getting enough of the three things every neuron needs: oxygen, glucose and stimulation. Brain degeneration happens when any one of these three is compromised.
At about 3 pounds, your brain is one of your heaviest organs and the most oxygen-demanding. Just because you breathe doesn’t mean your brain is getting enough oxygen. Anemia for instance can rob the brain of oxygen, as red blood cells aren’t healthy enough to deliver sufficient oxygen to it. People with blood sugar disorders including hypoglycemia, insulin resistance or diabetes can also deprive their brains of oxygen, as these create a state of chronic stress in the body that inhibits blood flow to the brain. Mental-emotional stress further contributes to under-oxygenation of the brain, sending it instead to the organs and limbs that prepare you for fight or flight. Lifestyle choices such as smoking and being sedentary dramatically reduce blood flow to the brain. Addressing even simple things like getting your heart rate up and doing an inversion every day (where your head is closer to the ground than your feet, and if possible, your core), or improving posture as you sit at your desk, can improve the flow of oxygen to your brain.
Whenever overall blood flow in the body is reduced, the tissues that are farthest from the heart are hardest hit. These are the hands, feet and brain. Unfortunately, your brain doesn’t have gravity working for it as do your hands and feet. (People with chronically cold hands and feet tend to suffer from poor circulation.) If you want to get a sense of your overall circulation, test your capillary refill by pushing on one of your fingernails. It should instantly return to its pink color once the pressure is taken off. In the case of poor blood flow that pink color returns slowly or the nail beds were never pink to begin with.
If your brain isn’t working properly you need to focus on improving blood flow, among other things. Remember, your blood carries everything neurons need to work – oxygen, glucose, nutrients, hormones and neurotransmitters.
Up to one third of your body’s glucose supply fuels your brain. If you are hypoglycemic (low blood glucose levels) and you’ve gone too long without eating, you know the effects of low glucose in the brain, such as feeling spacey or dull. Perhaps your hands shook because there was not enough glucose for the brain to support good muscle control. If you give a hypoglycemic person a math quiz after breakfast and then six hours after their last meal, they will perform much better on the after breakfast quiz because their brain is sufficiently fueled.
On the other hand, give a person who is prediabetic or has insulin resistance (high blood glucose levels) a math quiz after breakfast, and they’re likely to perform better on the quiz given several hours after a meal, as they’ll be too sleepy to think straight right after eating. In insulin resistance, glucose can’t get into the body’s cells, including the brain cells, and one feels sleepy and slow as a result. Insulin resistance, which is a precursor to diabetes, keeps too much glucose and insulin circulating in the brain, which is extremely damaging to the brain’s tissue and circulatory system (to the point where neurologist have dubbed Alzheimer’s disease Type III diabetes).
One of the most essential things you can do for the health and performance of the brain is keep your blood sugar balanced. If you tend towards hypoglycemia, this means eating frequently enough to avoid glucose crashes. And for both hypoglycemia and insulin resistance, it means scaling back carb consumption so that blood sugar levels stay on an even keel.
When a properly nourished neuron is stimulated with mental challenges and physical activity, the internal machinery in it produces energy for function, maintenance and repair. In an improperly nourished neuron, this machinery falters and energy production slows. The neuron becomes fatigued and easily overwhelmed by constant input, eventually causing it to burn out.
A good example of this is a 35 year old who is bored by his job, doesn’t exercise, always follows the same routine, and watches several hours of TV a day. One day he decides to go back to school and is surprised to find studying isn’t as easy as it used to be. He becomes fatigued and can’t focus after only 20 minutes. This could be because the neurons responsible for reading and learning have poor energy production thanks to years of insufficient stimulation, and if the brain fatigues the body fatigues.
Just as you wouldn’t want to suddenly run 10 miles after years of being sedentary, neither would you want to overwhelm a neglected brain with too much activity, or you risk burning out neurons of poor endurance. In this example, our student should take frequent breaks to avoid fatigue during the first few weeks. As time goes on, the repeated stimulation of reading will improve the internal machinery of his neurons and they’ll produce more energy, leading to greater endurance for learning without fatigue. If instead of taking breaks he pushes on through headaches, he may overwhelm the poorly functioning neurons, causing many of them to fail, and wind up experiencing poor concentration and focus the next day. Also, he can better his chances of rehabilitating those neglected neurons with a brain healthy diet that won’t spike his blood sugar and regular exercise to improve blood flow to his brain.