By Dr. Austin Perlmutter
In the wake of the global spread of the 2019 coronavirus (COVID-19), many of us have started to think more carefully about our health. How can we reduce our risk of infection and of infecting others? How can we improve our immune function? What might the virus do to our lungs, heart and blood vessels? But while these questions are very important, it’s also critical to consider how a pandemic affects our brains and how to guard them against this damage. Specifically, we need to be considering strategies to protect our mental and cognitive health.
We’ve long known that mental health suffers in periods of high stress. So it’s no surprise that the current pandemic has been linked to a spike in feelings of anxiety and depression. A troubling May 2020 survey reported that over 34% of Americans are now experiencing these symptoms. This comes at a time when the world is already experiencing an epidemic of mental illness.
We also understand that people’s thinking can be compromised when they are under stress. Though mild stresses can help us to focus, higher levels over longer periods of time may damage our brains and lead us to make bad choices. Unfortunately, as others have pointed out, COVID-19 is likely to create high levels of stress around the world.
Despite this, there’s plenty of good news. That’s because we each have the ability to improve our brain health with simple lifestyle interventions. In doing so, we may be able to lower our risk for developing stress-related brain damage. These tactics may also help to lower our chances of developing long-term health issues.
Eat for a resilient brain
COVID-19 has been a powerful teacher for us all. As it relates to our wellness, we now understand the importance of resilience. Resiliency means that we’re able to handle a variety of different challenges and still stand strong. A resilient brain helps us make good choices under pressure. It also helps us fend off symptoms of anxiety and depression. One of the best ways to build this type of brain is through our diet.
To help create a resilient brain, we want to be thinking about ways to increase our defenses against environmental challenges. Our brains are mostly made of fats. Of these, omega-3 fatty acids are key, because they may help fight damaging oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is a natural result of living, but it is increased when we are under significant psychological strain, as is the case during a pandemic. We get omega-3 fatty acids when we eat fish like mackerel, sardines, salmon, anchovies and herring. These healthy fats can also be found in fish or algae-derived supplements.
We can additionally increase brain resilience using polyphenols. Polyphenols are chemicals that are naturally made by plants. When we eat plants, we consume polyphenols and benefit from their properties. These molecules are thought to help protect our brain cells against toxins. Plant products with high levels of polyphenols include berries, grapes, green tea and dark chocolate.
Finally, as it relates to food, we want to be eating to improve our brain resilience to mental health issues. To this end, it’s important to try to avoid ultra-processed food products (both plant and animal) and anything with added sugars or refined carbohydrates.
Get Tough on Stress
As mentioned above, a bit of stress is a good thing. At high levels, and when it becomes chronic, stress damages our physical and mental health. It’s obviously much easier to talk about de-stressing than making it happen. With that said, there are several powerful ways of protecting your body and brain against too much stress. These techniques will work anytime, but are especially relevant during a pandemic
First, you want to cut out as much unnecessary stress as you can. For the average American, much of our psychological stress comes in the form of news exposure. And while it is important to be informed, it’s also essential that we ask ourselves how much news is necessary to reach this goal. Much of the content on the airwaves has been purposely designed to activate fear and anxiety centers in our brains. This sets off the stress response, flooding our bodies with cortisol and other chemicals that can worsen our brain health. Try setting a limit for your daily news exposure, and consider restricting your consumption to a few high-quality sources.
Next, think about ways to defuse the unhelpful stress in your life. Meditation, mindfulness and nature exposure all seem to help lower levels of stress. Moderate exercise can also be of benefit. The key is to experiment with various methods of de-stressing until you find those that work best for you. Consider starting with a deep breathing exercise. You might also experiment with a walk around your neighborhood. Try to pay extra attention to the trees, bushes and wildlife. You might be surprised by how much it helps!
Maintain a Healthy System
The final tip for sustaining a healthy brain in tough times (and in general) is to ensure you’re doing the necessary maintenance. Our brains require an incredible about of energy to function, and this means they need lots and lots of fresh blood flow. In fact, our 3-pound brains receive up to 20% of the output from our hearts! With all this work, the brain also generates a lot of metabolic waste. This needs to be cleared out for it to continue to function optimally. We have two major tools available to help our brains get fuel and clear out waste.
People are always talking about exercise for general health. But we often forget that it supercharges the brain. During intense physical activity, blood flow and oxygen use are increased in parts of the brain. One area that appears to get more blood flow during exercise is the prefrontal cortex. This region of the brain is absolutely key to making good decisions, and also plays a central role in mental health.
Exercise has also been shown to increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This powerful protein helps our brains learn and adapt to changing environments. Any exercise is great, but if you can, shoot for 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity each day. If you’re looking for a quarantine-friendly routine, try a home workout or even a walk around the neighborhood.
Lastly, we need to talk about the critical importance of sleep. Prior to the pandemic, Americans were already struggling to get the recommended 7-8 hours a night. Poor sleep has been linked to a wide range of health effects including cardiovascular disease and worse immune function. It’s also related to a higher risk for mental health issues as well as Alzheimer’s disease.
On a day-to-day basis, getting more sleep is one of the quickest ways to improve your wellbeing. It’s also a major way to reset your brain for better choices and better mental health, helping provide us with psychological strength to weather the stressors of the modern day. Getting good sleep is easier said than done. But, as with de-stressing, we can gain a lot from experimenting with a few tactics. Consider trying out the following:
- Cut out caffeine after 12PM
- Limit blue light exposure in the hour before bed
- Try a hot bath or shower before bed
- Read a relaxing book before bed
- Keep your cell phone in outside your bedroom
- Turn the room temperature down between 65-70 degrees at night
Preserving good brain health in the modern day is challenging. It’s even more difficult during a pandemic. However, I hope you now see that we have many tools at our disposal to support our brains, even during the more trying times. To recap:
- Eat more omega-3 fatty acids
- Eat plant foods with high levels of polyphenols
- Avoid ultra-processed foods, added sugar and refined carbohydrates
- Consider modifying/cutting back on your news exposure
- Try out a few stress-reduction techniques
- Try to get some exercise each day
- Try a few sleep-improving techniques and aim for 7-8 hours of sleep each night