What if I told you that our brains have the ability to change and adapt? Would you believe me if I told you that our brains are capable of rewiring and reshaping themselves throughout our lives in response to life experiences and memories?
In recent years, this concept of the brain’s malleability, known as neuroplasticity, has gained significant attention in the field of neuroscience. But what exactly is neuroplasticity? Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change and reorganize its structure and function in response to experiences, learning, and environmental stimuli. It involves the creation of new neural connections, the strengthening or weakening of existing connections, and even the generation of new neurons. This gives our brains the power to learn new skills, adapt to changes, and recover from injuries or trauma, leading to enhanced cognitive abilities and resilience throughout life. It enables the brain to rewire itself, supporting memory formation, rehabilitation after neurological conditions, and overall brain health and longevity.
Our brains are incredibly adaptable organs! Understanding and harnessing the power of neuroplasticity can have profound implications for optimizing cognitive function, improving mental health, and promoting overall well-being.
Let’s explore how a functional medicine approach can help increase neuroplasticity and how you can unlock your brain’s full potential:
Lay a Good Nutrition Foundation
As we always say, food is medicine! A nutrient-rich diet forms the foundation for a healthy brain and can improve cognitive function. Embrace foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids (found in fatty fish, walnuts, and flaxseeds), antioxidants (found in colorful fruits and vegetables), B vitamins (found in leafy greens, legumes, and whole grains) and incorporate more polyphenols (berries, beans, nuts, and red onions) into your diet to enhance neuroprotection. Minimize processed foods, refined sugars, and trans fats, as they can have detrimental effects on brain health and neuroplasticity.
Engage in Regular Physical Activity
Physical exercise not only benefits your body but also has a profound impact on brain health and neuroplasticity. Engaging in aerobic activities like walking, jogging, dancing, or cycling increases blood flow to the brain, stimulates the production of BDNF, and enhances the formation of new neurons and connections. The production of BDNF has been associated with slower cognitive decline, improvements in learning and memory, decreased feelings of anxiety/depression, and may be protective against Alzheimer’s Disease.
Have I convinced you to start exercising yet? Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week, and consider incorporating activities that challenge your coordination and balance for additional brain benefits!
Manage Stress Effectively
Have you ever noticed that during times of stress you feel like your memory has gone out the window? You are not alone – chronic stress affects many of us and can impede neuroplasticity and hinder cognitive function. When we experience chronic stress we produce excess cortisol which impacts the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory making, and our ability to produce new brain cells and repair existing cells becomes impaired.
To combat this, try incorporating stress-management techniques into your daily routine, such as mindfulness meditation, deep breathing exercises, yoga, or engaging in hobbies that promote relaxation. Better yet, try unfocusing the mind – the mental downtime and rest can actually increase neuroplasticity and may help you find new solutions to problems you may have not thought about before.
You may also benefit from targeted supplementation with adaptogenic herbs to help support the body’s stress response and calm the mind. Speak with a functional medicine provider to determine what supplements and/or relaxation strategies may be best for you.
Prioritize Quality Sleep – get those Zzzz’s!
Sleep is crucial for brain health and neuroplasticity. Aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night to allow your brain to consolidate memories, repair and regenerate cells, and promote optimal neural connections. Create a conducive sleep environment by keeping the room cool, dark, and quiet. Establish a regular sleep schedule and engage in a relaxing bedtime routine to signal to your brain that it’s time to rest and rejuvenate.
Check out Dr. Lipman’s Blog “9 Tips for Better Sleep” for more sleep advice!
Cultivate Mental Stimulation and Novelty
Engaging in mentally stimulating activities and seeking out new experiences can enhance neuroplasticity. Challenge your brain by learning new skills, solving puzzles, reading, learning a new language, playing musical instruments, or engaging in artistic endeavors. Consider exploring new hobbies, visiting unfamiliar places, or engaging in social activities that expose you to different perspectives and stimulate your cognitive abilities.
Learning Language and Structural Brain Plasticity
A 2012 research study explored the impact of learning a new language on the brain. The study followed 10 English speaking exchange students who were learning German over a 5 month period. The study found that not only did the students’ proficiency in speaking German increase but the actual gray matter in the brain also increased! This study demonstrated the structural plasticity of the brain as a result of secondary language proficiency. More recently in a 2017 study, learning a second language was shown to increase white brain matter in adult learners. Increase in white matter helps to facilitate communication between different parts of the brain and promotes overall brain connectivity and function. Who’s ready to start learning a second language? I’m signing up for Rosetta Stone tomorrow.
Foster Meaningful Social Connections
My personal favorite recommendation. Social interactions have a significant impact on brain health and neuroplasticity. Cultivate meaningful relationships, spend time with loved ones, and engage in activities that promote social connections. Join community groups, volunteer, or participate in group classes or clubs that align with your interests. Positive social interactions and support can reduce stress, boost mood, and stimulate brain plasticity. Meaningful connections simply improve overall quality of life and enhance the human experience in a positive way.
The scientific community previously believed that after age 25, the brain was fully wired, mature, and could no longer change. We now understand that this is not the case and that we can absolutely rewire our brains to alleviate mental health struggles and slow cognitive decline.
Please remember that increasing neuroplasticity takes time and consistency. Don’t let this deter you from getting outside your comfort zone – this is where true change begins! By incorporating the discussed strategies into your lifestyle, you can create an environment that supports brain health and fosters the brain’s wonderful ability to adapt and change. Happy rewiring!