Many avoidable risk factors can compromise the health of our brain and nervous system. In particular, it’s worth paying attention to these risk factors if you have a family history of neurological disorders, mood disorders or autoimmune conditions.
The brain is like the operating system on your computer. It will start to act up when there are too many tabs open, and you haven’t shut it down for a while. Sleep is a daily shutdown and restart function for the brain. It is essential to a proper working memory and the brain’s internal cleansing processes. Sleep also adds to the bank balance of energy and concentration reserves to draw from in the waking hours.
Without adequate, refreshing sleep, the brain can become rapidly compromised.
Gluten can disrupt the gut microbiome, trigger inflammation and contribute to a leaky gut. Compromised gut barrier function puts brain health at risk through the gut-brain connection. In addition, for people who produce antibodies to gluten (NB: this is not just those with coeliac disease), gluten can cause immune dysfunction and initiate neurodegeneration that causes atrophy to some areas of the brain as well as the protective coating of nerves (myelin).
Removing gluten from the diet benefits your mind and body in the long term.
Glucose is the primary fuel used by the brain. Due to the brain’s high energy demands, it can use up to half of the body’s glucose supply to function. So it goes without saying that blood sugar control is an important factor in regulating brain energy and well-being.
In modern diets, sugar is consumed in a much higher volume than the human body has adapted to need. Consequently, high sugar intake leads to a ‘wearing out’ of the key glucose storage hormone, insulin. When insulin supply dwindles, it’s called insulin resistance, and it means that proper glucose utilisation, including how the brain uses it, becomes problematic. Insulin resistance puts the brain at risk for circulation and oxygenation problems, inflammation, plaque deposits, oxidative stress, fatigue and immune dysfunction.
Significant, long-term stress can put you at a much greater risk of developing neurological dysfunction and mental health problems. Research shows that stress can damage the hippocampus area of the brain. The hippocampus is central to the regulation of memory, emotion, and learning. It is also one of the two areas of the brain responsible for the formation of new brain cells (neurogenesis). In this way, stress has the ability to change the shape of, or contribute to shrinking the brain over time.
In addition, the high circulating levels of the stress hormone cortisol can lead to other downstream effects that impact brain function, such as interrupting hormonal pathways, affecting blood sugar control, and compromising circulatory health.
Making stress reduction a priority benefits many areas of brain and body well-being. Furthermore, many techniques for stress reduction, such as exercise, fresh air, and time with loved ones – all have positive effects on brain well-being.
The brain is typically protected from many toxic substances thanks to the strict regulatory controls of the blood-brain barrier. Unfortunately, alcohol (ethanol) is one substance that is able to readily cross the blood-brain barrier, which is why it can affect motor functions like speech, balance and impulse control.
Over time, alcohol can damage the structure of the blood-brain barrier, making the brain more susceptible to assault from other toxic substances. It can also induce inflammation and oxidative stress, which can further impair brain function. Regular alcohol consumption has been connected to lower brain volume and structural changes to white and grey matter in the brain and can also interfere with the capabilities of the hippocampus. The process of metabolising alcohol also robs the brain of essential nutrients such as zinc and vitamin B1, which are essential to neurological health.
Bottom line is, alcohol is no friend to the brain and nervous system.
If you’re serious about preserving or optimising your brain health, avoiding these five things will go a long way to protecting you from the damaging effects.