Cognitive health is a crucial component to overall vitality, wellbeing, and quality of life.
Luckily, you can do plenty of things to improve cognitive function, regardless of your age and health status.
Perhaps you struggle with memory issues, focus, or brain fog. Or maybe you’re healthy, but you’re looking to take your cognitive health to the next level.
Whatever your motivation, plenty of strategies can help you get to optimal brain function. Diet, lifestyle, and gut health are the foundational areas for supporting healthy brain function.
Once you’ve created a strong foundation, you can give your brain an extra boost with supplements and other strategies like brain training apps.
In this article, we’ll discuss how to build a foundation of cognitive health.
Addressing the Root of Cognitive Issues
A handful of lifestyle and dietary factors are often at the root of brain fog, impaired memory function, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating. And research suggests that these same factors can contribute to neurological decline. The good news is, many people find that once they’ve dialed in their sleep, exercise, diet, stress management, and gut health, their cognitive function bounces back.
Let’s go a little deeper:
A healthy gut is so important to cognitive functioning. The two-way communication channel, known as your gut-brain connection, plays an essential role in cognitive performance.
Neurotransmitters produced in your gut like dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine are sent to your brain and affect your mood and memory [1 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Dysregulation of your microbiome can impair the communication pathways between your gut and your brain [3 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
And this is just the tip of the iceberg, as we’re just beginning to learn about the gut-brain connection.
What’s more, the health of your gut also impacts your liver, which in turn may affect cognitive function.
Research shows that hepatic encephalopathy (HE), a type of cognitive impairment associated with liver disease, may be linked to small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) [4 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. Studies show that Rifaximin, an antibiotic often used to treat SIBO, may help to prevent and treat HE [5 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. This suggests that when you treat issues in your gut, it can impact cognitive impairments associated with liver disease.
The likely mechanism here is that an imbalanced gut microbiome affects liver function, which in turn impairs its ability to detoxify your body. As a result, toxins can get to your brain, leading to cognitive issues.
The first step when it comes to improving your gut health is to set up a lifestyle that supports your microbiome.
This is why beginning with lifestyle factors that influence gut health like diet, exercise, stress management, and sleep are your first steps for improving cognitive function.
Getting enough sleep is crucial for cognitive health. While you sleep, your brain removes waste and restores synapses via your glymphatic system. Similar to your lymphatic system, which helps to remove wastes and bacteria from your body, the glymphatic system works primarily in your brain and central nervous system (CNS) while you sleep. This is why restful sleep is so vital for protecting your brain. Some research even suggests that poor sleep can lead to disruptions in your lymphatic system, which could then set the stage for neurological disease [6 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Research shows that getting enough sleep can improve learning outcomes and solidify memories. Furthermore, lack of sleep can lead to increased intestinal permeability (leaky gut), which can contribute to systemic inflammation, including neuroinflammation [7 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 8 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Unfortunately, you may not even know if your sleep cycle is disrupted. If you’ve experienced poor sleep quality for years, waking up tired and groggy may feel like the status quo. If you’re unsure about the quality of your sleep, you can try sleep trackers like the Oura Ring or home sleep tests like WatchPAT ONE.
If you suspect that your sleep quality isn’t where it should be, here are some tips to help you get a restful nights sleep:
Reduce your exposure to blue light before bed. This means turning off your computer, putting away your phone, and avoiding any other electronic devices. Blue light can inhibit melatonin production [9 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Avoid caffeine in the afternoon, and watch your alcohol intake. Many people find that alcohol can help them fall asleep but results in poor sleep quality [10 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Set a regular sleep schedule. This trains your brain and body to start shutting down at the same time every night.
Keep the temperature in your bedroom low. Your body temperature can impact your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the night.
Due to the gut-brain connection, a healthy diet is key for cognitive function.
Research shows that avoiding sugar, processed foods, and other foods that increase inflammation can make a significant difference in brain health [11 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
The ideal diet for brain function might look a little different depending on your unique makeup and what’s currently happening in your body.
For instance, research suggests that an anti-inflammatory diet like the Mediterranean diet may protect against cognitive decline in older adults. The Mediterranean diet is rich in poly and mono-unsaturated fats and low in processed foods and added sugars [12 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
On the other hand, a low-carb or ketogenic diet shows promising results for those with neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s. The ketones produced when you consume a keto diet have anti-inflammatory properties and may be neuroprotective, helping to combat inflammation and oxidative stress in the brain [13 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Deciding the best diet for you may be a process of trial and error, but avoiding processed foods and opting for more whole foods is always a good idea. A great place to start is with a Paleo diet, which prioritizes a variety of whole foods and eliminates common triggers and intolerances.
Physical activity is another crucial lifestyle factor that contributes to cognitive health.
When you work out, it increases something called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is a molecule that assists in your brain’s ability to process new information and create lasting changes related to learning and memory [14 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
In a randomized controlled trial, researchers found that exercise significantly impacted several markers for cognitive health in adolescents. After just one bout of exercise, they saw improvements in [17 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]:
Inhibition related to academic performance
What’s more, when the investigators looked at the benefits of regular exercise, they found significant improvements in:
Other research shows that exercise may improve mild cognitive impairment in older generations, enhancing cognitive function and executive function [18 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Stress can be a silent contributor to poor cognitive function especially as, more often than not, you don’t even realize how stressed you are. On the surface, some obvious issues come with a stressed mind — distraction, worry, inability to focus on one thing at a time, to name a few.
However, beyond these symptoms, chronic stress can lead to inflammation and may set you up for a leaky gut. This creates more long-term issues with brain health, as increased inflammation will negatively impact cognitive function [19 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. This underlines the intimate relationship between mental health and cognitive health.
Regardless of whether you’re targeting your brain or your gut for healing, stress management must be a part of the overall game plan.
Some excellent ways to assist in stress management and increase feelings of calm and wellness include:
Once you’ve got your sleep, stress, exercise, and diet taken care of, it’s time to address your microbiome more directly. As previously mentioned, the gut-brain connection is a crucial aspect of cognitive health. If your microbiome is not in balance, it can directly impact your brain health.
In a randomized controlled clinical trial, researchers examined the impact of the probiotic strain Lactobacillus Plantarum on cognitive and emotional health by comparing it against a control group. After 12 weeks, the probiotic group experienced [20 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]:
Improvements in memory
Enhanced social-emotional cognition
Improved verbal learning and memory
In another study, researchers examined probiotic supplementation in people with mild cognitive impairment. After 12 weeks, the probiotic group showed significantly improved cognitive performance, with particular gains in the ability to hold attention [21 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Cognitive Health Enhancers
Once you’ve covered the basics by making sure your diet and lifestyle are supporting cognitive health, there are supplements and protocols that you can engage to enhance your cognitive function further.
If you want to enhance your cognitive capabilities, there are a few research-backed options.
Brain Boosting Supplements
Cognitive health supplements, commonly referred to as “nootropics” or “smart drugs”, can help improve memory, learning, and overall cognition. While there are hundreds of these supplements on the market, only a handful of nutrients have been well studied. Below are a few of the most well-researched nutrients that may improve cognitive abilities.
Omega-3s are one of the most well-studied nutrients for brain health. From an anatomical perspective, the human brain is 60% fat, which means the type of fat you introduce into your body can significantly impact your brain structure.
Research shows that supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids like DHA and EPA can improve cognition and memory, especially in people with mild cognitive impairment [22 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Furthermore, just one serving of fatty fish per week (a rich source of omega-3s) is associated with a lower risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease [23 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Lion’s mane is a medicinal mushroom that’s been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years and has recently been popularized as a natural nootropic [24 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
In a 2020 randomized controlled trial, researchers gave two groups of participants over 50 years old either lion’s mane or a placebo. After 12 weeks, the lion’s mane group exhibited significantly better cognitive function and less short-term memory loss than those who took the placebo [24 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Turmeric is a spice that’s medicinal use dates back 5,000 years to the traditional medicine of India, Ayurveda.
Among the many benefits associated with turmeric is its potential to enhance cognitive health and prevent neurological dysfunction.
Research shows that turmeric supplementation, with a focus on the bioactive compound curcumin, may enhance cognitive function in adults over 50 years old with dementia. Compared to a placebo, turmeric was moderately successful at improving long-term memory, visual memory, and attention [25 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Choline is a nutrient that plays a crucial role in the function of your brain and nervous system by regulating the synthesis of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.
Observational studies show that choline supplementation during pregnancy is associated with improved neurological development of the baby [26 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
In a 2020 systematic review, investigators found that choline supplementation helped limit the progression and reverse adverse effects of dementia. Its effects included improved memory and cognitive function in healthy people, along with improved stroke prognosis [27 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Brain Training Apps
In addition to supplements, another interesting way to improve brain function is through cognitive training apps. These apps offer interactive mental games to induce brain changes that help to stimulate your cognitive skills.
The developers of brain training apps leverage neuroscience and the understanding that our brains have plasticity, which allows for cognitive changes. This means that we can change our neural pathways by reinforcing specific behaviors over and over again — which is exactly what the training app accomplishes.
While engaged in a brain training app, you’re giving your brain the inputs it needs to become better at processing information. As a result, over time, your brain will start to work faster and sharper.
Young people and older people alike can benefit from training apps.
Observational studies have found that those who spend more time in a sauna have a lower risk of developing dementia. After 90 minutes of sauna therapy, participants’ brains are more relaxed and more efficient at performing auditory and visual tasks [30 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 31 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Infrared saunas, in particular, may be beneficial for neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, as animal studies have shown that infrared radiation may reduce brain inflammation and promote cell growth [30 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 32 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
If you or one of your loved ones is struggling with cognitive health, the root cause is often simpler than you might think, and can be addressed with changes to your diet or lifestyle.
There are risk factors that come with an aging brain, but cognitive decline is never set in stone. You can enhance cognitive tasks like problem-solving, decision making, memory, thinking skills, and overall quality of life and brain power by taking care of your sleep habits, physical activity, diet, stress levels, and gut health.
And the side benefit to this is that while you build the foundation of cognitive health, these healthy lifestyle habits will also be protecting your body against other health conditions while supporting overall wellbeing. For more guidance, become a patient at our functional medicine center, or check out my book, Healthy Gut, Healthy You.
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