Pop quiz: Which of these habits can hurt your brain health: Skipping brekky, smoking, checking your phone on repeat, or not getting enough sleep?
If you answered “all of the above,” give yourself a gold star! According to neuropsychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez, director of Comprehend the Mind in New York City, there are a number of daily habits that can actually lead to a variety of health issues for our delicate brains. The good news is: Making basic lifestyle changes can mitigate those risks, he says. And, honestly, when we hear people we know suddenly dealing with brain issues, like Bruce Willis for instance, it reminds us that breaking bad habits for a healthier brain is always a good idea.
Here are 5 habits to break—and the secrets to breaking them for better brain health
Bad Habit #1: Skipping breakfast
People who pass on porridge (or fruit, yogurt and eggs) will have a lower blood sugar level. As Dr. Hafeez explains, “This leads to an insufficient supply of nutrients to the brain causing brain degeneration over time. Getting the nutrients your body and brain need is important for memory.” According to the Italian Journal of Pediatrics, people who eat breakfast are more likely to meet their daily recommended nutrient needs than those who don’t, helping ensure that the brain and neurotransmitters have all the elements they need to function properly, which may help in memory and other cognitive functions.
BREAKING BAD: If you’re not a morning person, try prepping breakfast before you go to bed. A yogurt parfait or overnight oats are easy and nutritious and ready when you get up. Or, grab a healthy breakfast bar and eat it on the way to work. No excuses!
Bad Habit #2: Smoking
“Nicotine stimulates areas of the brain to release neurotransmitters that influence mood, appetite and feelings of pleasure,” says Dr. Hafeez. “People who smoke are used to the response of nicotine in the brain and suffer withdrawal symptoms when they try to quit. Withdrawing from smoking causes symptoms of restlessness, shakiness, headaches and hunger.” Smoking increases blood pressure, putting the brain at risk of stroke which can cause permanent neurological damage including paralysis, muscle weakness, difficulty speaking or eating, confusion and lack of coordination.
BREAKING BAD: It’s a tough habit to quit, for sure. But there’s more help today than ever. Talk to your healthcare provider or check out Canada.ca for smoking cessation tips that include counselling and nicotine replacements, such as gums, inhalers and patches.
Bad Habit #3: Not getting enough ZZZs
“Sleep allows our brain to rest,” says Dr. Hafeez. “Long-term deprivation from sleep will accelerate the death of brain cells.” The first known study about the negative effects of sleeplessness was published back in the 1800s. Since then, hundreds more have established that sleep loss impairs cognitive functions and behaviour, including attention, memory, emotional intelligence, and decision making. These symptoms can start as soon as 16 hours without sleep, and they get worse with time.
BREAKING BAD: Setting a sleep schedule can be a great start – go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, no excuses. Also ear plugs and sleep masks can help those who are easily stimulated by light and sounds. Meditation, sleep apps, even light exercise can promote better sleep, too.
Bad Habit #4: Mindless scrolling
“A hurtful habit practiced all day long by most of us is the automatic viewing of our phone, without any allowing ourselves to sit with our thoughts,” says Dr. Hafeez. “Mindless checking of our screens promotes the expectation of immediate gratification and a difficulty handling negative states of mind, organically.” More evidence comes from a recent study by De Montfort University in the UK that found checking your phone constantly can make you more distracted and forget things more easily. The adage, use it or lose it, also comes into play here. A lack of brain stimulation may cause brain shrinkage, especially as we age.
BREAKING BAD: Challenge yourself to a schedule: Set an alarm on your phone (yes, we see the irony) and only check your SM feeds when it signals. Start slowly, set the alarm for 20-minute increments, and increase as necessary.
Bad Habit # 5: Being a couch potato
Spending all day inside may increase your risk for depression. “Lack of sunlight and vitamin D can contribute to depressive symptoms,” says Dr. Hafeez. Along with light, outdoor exercise, even walking, has been linked to better mental health. It can also prevent memory loss as we age, according to a study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study sought to determine whether exercise could modify the volume of our hippocampus. “Neurotransmitters in the brain play an integral role in your mood and state of mind. Among others, the neurotransmitter dopamine is influenced by the amount of exercise you get,” says Dr. Hafeez.
BREAKING BAD: Set small goals that will get you moving. If you work at home, make a point to walk to your local coffee spot every morning, rain or shine. If you’re working in an office, get off transit two stops ahead of your destination, or park a few blocks away. Extra points if you pick a path that offers a nature walk.