With restaurant food delivered right to your door 24-hours-a-day, never-ending dings and digital screens, 70-hour work weeks spent mostly sitting at a desk, air, noise, and light pollution everywhere, and known toxins in food, clothes, and everyday items, our modern living environments are far from healthy for your brain. In Why You Need to Give Your Brain a Break, I write:
Over millions of years of evolution, human life moved at a much slower pace, in rhythm with the sun and nature. In the societies of our ancestors, hunting and gathering food and tending to the other necessities of life would have only consumed a few hours a day. That left a lot of time for a person’s brain and body to relax, socialize, or be in a state of rest.
Now, most Americans sprint through life, working 10 hours a day, doing the same thing all day long. Then, they come home and spend hours on the computer doing more work, playing on their phone, watching TV, or engaging in some other mind stimulating activity. After getting too little sleep, they jump out of bed only to do it over again. This modern lifestyle produces chronic stress which shows up as all kinds of mental and physical health problems.
Your Lifestyle Controls Your Genes
It was once believed that your genes were the blueprint for your biological destiny. Not so. The primary purpose of the Human Genome Project was to decipher the code of these plans. It found that the genetic differences between individuals were actually quite insignificant and accounted for less than one percent of the total variation. So, why then do some people live to old age with a healthy mind and body while others do not?
The answer is epigenetics.
Epigenetics research is proving that who you are is the product of your life experiences which cause changes in how your genes operate. Genes switch on or off depending on what happens in your life. In other words, you are born with certain genes, but your life experiences determine which genes get expressed and which genes don’t.
In the book, Genius Foods, Max Lugavere writes:
If our genes are akin to the keys on a grand piano with twenty-three thousand notes, we now understand that our choices are able to influence the song that is played. This is because while our choices can’t change our hard-coded genetics, they can impact the layer of chemicals that sit atop our DNA, telling it what to do.
The 7 Worst Brain “Bad Guys”
The primary lifestyle factors which influence your cognitive health through epigenetics are explained below. Each component overlaps many of the others – meaning that if you improve one, it can make it easier to make healthy gains in the other areas. The opposite is also true.
Inflammation is an immune system response that evolved to protect your body from infection and injury. It was originally designed to kick in when needed to anticipate, intercept, and destroy bacteria and viruses. The inflammation response was meant to be a short-term response with localized effects. However, today, our immune systems stay chronically activated because of our lifestyles and diets.
Chronic inflammation can have long-term, whole-body effects and plays a role many diseases, including diabetes, arthritis, lupus, MS, allergies, COPD, inflammatory bowel disease, cardiovascular diseases, and more. In the brain, inflammation has been linked to brain fog, Alzheimer’s and dementia, and depression.
For the first time in the history of the Earth, there are more overweight than underweight human beings. While being overweight can cause a multitude of health problems, it’s especially bad for your brain. Numerous studies show that as a person’s weight and BMI (body mass index) increases, their brain shrinks in size. Excess weight often leads to obesity and diabetes. These conditions destroy synapses, wither blood vessels in your brain, batter neural pathways, and kill neurons. The result is a smaller brain.
In Your Brain Shrinks As Your Waist Expands, I write:
One study found that the brains of obese people looked 16 years older than their healthy counterparts while the brains of overweight people looked 8 years older. Researchers classified this as ‘severe’ brain degeneration with serious implications for aging, including a heightened risk of Alzheimer’s.
Obesity also increases inflammation caused by excess fatty tissue. This can lead to difficulty in blood flow and an increased risk of blockage, both of which can cause strokes.
Despite eating an overabundance of food, numerous studies indicate that over 90 percent of Americans do not get the recommended daily vitamins and minerals from their diets. According to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, across almost every age and sex group, U.S. eating patterns are too low in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, dairy, seafood, and oil and too high in refined grains, added sugars, saturated fats, sodium.
This kind of diet primes the body for disease and illness – especially the brain. A nutrient-poor diet affects brain and mental health at every age. Unhealthy diets increase the risk for psychiatric and neurologic conditions, such as depression and dementia.
You eat and are surrounded by known neurotoxins every day. Studies show that neurotoxins shorten the lifespan of nerve cells and cause various health problems. The symptoms of neurotoxicity range from temporary, minor, and reversible to chronic, serious, and potentially permanent brain or nervous system damage.
Minor symptoms can include headache, memory loss, impaired vision, fatigue, flu-like symptoms, sexual dysfunction, impaired motor skills, and tingling, numbness, or weakness of the limbs. Neurotoxicity can also manifest as psychological problems including anxiety, depression, mental confusion, compulsive behaviors, hallucinations, and changes in personality.
The availability of neurotoxins has increased dramatically in the last few decades as our food has become more processed, and we rely heavily on synthetic, manufactured products and live in chemically treated environments. Most restaurant and junk food contain high amounts of neurotoxic additives because they make the food taste good and make you crave more.
On a biological level, stress is a normal physical response which originally evolved to keep you safe. It was necessary for human survival. Like inflammation, stress was meant to be a short-lived response to a life-threatening situation. The problem is that, in today’s world, too many of us have a stress reaction to almost everything that happens and live our lives in a constant state of stress.
The long-term activation of your stress-response system and the overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones that results can disrupt almost all your body’s processes. Chronic stress literally damages your brain and body increasing your risk of many health problems, including:
- Digestive problems
- Heart disease
- Sleep problems
- Weight gain
- Memory and concentration impairment
Humans evolved to move — hunting, foraging, running, climbing, — and that movement promotes brain growth. This growth takes place especially in the prefrontal cortex, which is essentially your humanness. In Spark, The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Dr. John Ratey explains it this way:
The real reason we feel so good when we get our blood pumping is that it makes the brain function at its best. The point of exercise is to build and condition the brain.” The reverse is also true, however: “What virtually no one recognizes is that inactivity is killing our brains… If your brain isn’t actively growing, then it’s dying.”
The studies are overwhelming. In 2011, The Mayo Clinic went through 1,600 papers on exercise and there was no disputing that exercise had a definite positive effect on memory, learning, performance, and motivation while reducing depression, age-related decline, and the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Exercise also promotes neurogenesis and neuroplasticity, the production of new neurons and connections between neurons which helps keep your brain healthy and aids mental health. Ratey declares that “Exercise is the single most powerful tool you have to optimize your brain function.”
In Genius Foods, Lugavere says:
[G]ood quality sleep is a precondition for optimal brain quality and health. ….(you get) Costco-size gains for dollar store effort, and yet our collective sleep debt is rising.”
Insufficient sleep is a huge problem – so much so that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declared it a public health epidemic similar to the warnings issued about smoking cigarettes decades ago. Sleep deprivation can have serious short-term and long-term consequences. After just one night of skimping on sleep, the results can be seen in delayed reaction times, glucose levels, mood, headache, impaired memory, and hormone imbalances. Not getting enough sleep can literally make you sick, fat, and stupid.
Lack of sleep slows down your thinking, impairs your memory, concentration, judgment, and decision-making, impedes learning, and contributes to depression. Sleep is absolutely essential for your brain to work properly because during sleep your brain is busy processing information, consolidating memories, making connections, and clearing out toxins. When asleep, your brain does its housekeeping and not having adequate time to do this could potentially accelerate neurodegenerative diseases. Recent research shows that not getting enough sleep may actually shrink your brain.