Our Brains Deserve More

March 15, 2010 in Blog Recipes, Diabetic Menu Item, Food and the Brain, Mediterranean by Victor Bunderson

Guest blog by Dr. Grandpa.  Note from Dr. Grandma: If you’re new to Dr. Grandma’s Blog, I want to mention that C. Victor Bunderson (Dr. Grandpa) has a PhD in psychology from Princeton University and is a distinguished author and emeritus professor.

This year International Brain Awareness Week is March 15 - 21.  Our brains just don’t get their due consideration. It is not enough once a year to spend some moment during a single week to pause and reflect about all our brain has to accomplish. After all, it has to do its remarkable feats of decision, communication, and control in real-time speed just to keep us going from moment to moment.  Our brains have a whole lot more to do with our success, health, and happiness than our abs or buns or face or hair or midriff – features we may fuss about and spend a fortune to tune up, touch up or slim down.  What have we done for our brains lately?

The subject of maintaining and improving our highly plastic, modifiable brains is a favorite of this author. Before becoming “Dr Grandpa” I spent many years studying and seeking ways to improve thinking and learning. One area I investigated is how mental exercises and games can tune-up and improve our brains.  Many others are now involved in this work, and the availability of Brain exercises has developed rapidly in the last 10 years.  Research on the brain has, after a long battle with old-guard scientists, resulted in the wide acceptance of new findings that the brain is highly plastic and can change itself.  The old guard believed that the brain was “hard wired” from early years and could not change – damage was irreversible but compensations could be developed after brain injuries. Brain plasticity scientists are proving that the brain can repurpose different regions of the brain’s cortex.  For example, if you lose your eyesight, that large cortical area previously used to map vision can be re-used to enhance the maps for hearing and touch. An interesting read that summarizes how the brain plasticity researchers are winning the day is Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself. Two companies whose brain practice products are based on some of this work are Scientific Learning, with products for children, and Posit Science, with products to help keep our brains sharp, as we get older.  There are a variety of sites that provide free exercises as well, including Lumosity.

After years of studying the mental exercise angle, imagine my surprise to learn that physical exercise may be a more rapid and direct approach to brain improvement than mental exercise, although both are important. Dr. John Ratey wrote the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain which recounts evidence and enlightening life stories of people, young and old, who overcame poor school performance, depression, ADHD, addictions, reduced the effects of aging, and improved other conditions through physical exercise.  It turns out that aerobic exercise actually promotes the growth of new neurons in the brain.  We keep growing new ones until we die, and exercise greatly facilitates this growth.  It also releases molecules that act as “super grow” for neurons, and also facilitate connecting them together in new circuits that can be used both for physical movements and later for thinking better. Skilled exercises like dancing, yoga, skilled sports, or playing musical instruments facilitate building these new circuits. So does effortful life-long learning like learning a new language, or tutoring others – mental exercise is important too, but it appears that physical exercise may be the foundation.

Brain health requires increasing effort, as we get older.  The section on aging in the Spark book is most informative, so is a recent article on Brain Health in the AARP magazine.  It gives advice similar to that found in this blog post, with physical exercise in social situations listed first, followed by keeping your mind active, rest and stress avoidance, eating right, and keeping your numbers in order (blood sugar, blood pressure, weight, cholesterol).

At Doctor Grandma’s we see exercise and an active life-style as a part of the Mediterranean style of living / eating. A healthy brain depends on having good nutrition, good "brain food", as well as physical exercise, rest, plenty of water, and rewarding social relationships (including eating meals together!).  The brain works hard, and must repair worn-out cells, grow new neurons and link them up in new ways in order to learn and adapt to new situations. A healthy brain needs a whole host of nutrients, and fortunately, the Mediterranean style of eating featured in the Doctor Grandma's blogs and website fits the profile both for healthy brain-food and better social relationships.

We recommend an excellent summary of desirable "Brain Food" found in the Lumosity web site; certainly these foods fit well with the Mediterranean-style that we recommend.  This site also offers brain exercises. If you want to go deeper, this link also provides 36 references to credible scientific studies, generally featuring some aspect of the Mediterranean eating style, exercise, and rest.

Our own small contribution to brain health is to blog about these true principles, share what we have learned from our studies, and provide you with access to whole grain products, and zero-calorie sweetener to replace sugar. Whole grains provide protein and carbohydrate-rich energy, fiber, and numerous other nutrients. It is digested more slowly than processed grains.

By now I hope you will be thinking about doing some nice things for your brain. While Doctor Grandma and I are not going to give medical advice, we will give life-style and nutrition suggestions. In order of importance for helping your brain, I would list physical exercise first, ideally done in the company of others, because social interaction is so important to keeping our brains alert.  Next comes good nutrition, which I would list before mental exercises, especially if these are done all by yourself.  Whole grains are one of the best kinds of brain foods because they are digested more slowly and provide an uninterrupted flow of energy without spikes and dips in blood sugar. These spikes can become conditioned to a “snack attack” about the time your unhealthy breakfast or lunch runs out of steam. Unhealthy snacks and soft drinks in turn lead to obesity, poor self image, and lesser motivation to get that physical and mental exercise your brain, poised on top of what is often an exercise-starved body, so desperately needs.

Dr. Grandma's Roasted Mediterranean Vegetables, Shrimp and Wheat Berries provides the nutrients your brain needs and it really is YUMMY too! A recipe for a happy healthy brain in honor of International Brain Awareness Week.