Whilst we may focus on maintaining the health of our bodies, we tend to pay less attention (if any) to the health of our brains. Maybe it’s because we cannot actually see how healthy or not our brains are; but helping maintain brain health should be one of the top priorities for employers in order to ensure they have a healthy, high-performing workforce.
Mental health is quite rightly a priority for many employers. That said, many strategies are aimed at fixing issues rather than trying to prevent them in the first place. Brain health is focused on supporting the continued wellness of the brain structure itself – the ‘hardware’. In turn, taking care of the health of our brain ensures great foundations for good mental health by preventing or reducing cognitive decline.
Interestingly, there is still very little known about the brain. We have some idea of how it functions and some ideas about what it needs for optimum health but there is still so much to learn. I describe the mind as the ‘undiscovered country’ – much like the deepest oceans and the furthest reaches of our galaxies.
The fascinating thing about the brain is that we now know that it is not fixed, it is capable of growing new cells (a process called neurogenesis), and so it can consistently benefit from daily stimulation throughout our lives.
We also know that the brain is capable of changing its activities in response to stimuli and that we are capable of learning new things throughout our lives, as well as adapting and changing our thinking to a much greater degree than previously thought. So you can teach an old dog new tricks! The brain’s ability to change its neural networks, to flex and adapt how it operates despite aging, is known as neuroplasticity. Employees in their mid-life are just as valuable and capable as their younger counterparts, so long as they are working in an environment of stimulation and so long as they undertake activities and practices that nourish their brain.
So, on the topic of brain health and nourishment, let me share with you some different ways that you can encourage and support your staff, as well as undertake for yourself, to maintain optimum brain health:
1. Get sufficient sleep
Getting consistent, good-quality sleep is known to improve overall health and prevent cognitive decline. Our bodies rely on a certain amount of regular sleep for a variety of essential functions, many of them in the brain. A study on the relationship between sleep deprivation and cognitive decline found that people who sleep less or more than the recommended seven to eight hours a night exhibited a more noticeable decline than those sleeping 7 hours per night.
As simple as it sounds, employers need to make sure staff are properly rested. Sleep is fundamental for the brain to function properly and will help to massively reduce the risk of burnout. A well-rested employee is 30% more productive and 40% more creative, which means that your overall output will be stronger if your staff are sleeping better.
There are many neurological benefits that come from physical activity, and these include decreased stress levels, increased focus, improved memory and better blood circulation. While people will exercise for a variety of reasons, few people do it with the intent to improve their brain functioning.
Exercise can help ward off cognitive decline, and some studies have shown that engaging in a program of regular exercise improved cognitive function in people who already had memory problems. Exercise may be particularly advantageous for people who carry the APOE4 gene variant, which makes people more susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease.
While exercising, oxygen saturation occurs in areas of the brain associated with rational thinking as well as social, physical, and intellectual performance. Additionally, exercise reduces stress hormones and increases the number of neurotransmitter chemicals like serotonin and norepinephrine, which are known to accelerate information processing.
What is incredible is that you are able to target and enhance a specific element of brain health through exercise:
- For concentration: yoga, tai chi, aerobic classes;
- For memory: aerobics, walking, and cycling;
- To improve blood circulation: cardio activities (walking, riding a bicycle, running, swimming);
- For stress and anxiety: yoga;
- For depression: aerobic and resistance training.
Even people who engage in smaller forms of exercise, like gardening, are less likely to suffer from age-related neurological conditions. If intense exercise is not for you, gentle exercise can bring your brain a breath of oxygen-rich air. Much of the scientific community agrees that walking is one of the best and most accessible forms of physical activity, and gentle on the joints. It is therefore worth considering offering physical health memberships for employees, as keeping staff physically and mentally fit with increase their productivity.
3. Limit your consumption of Alcohol
Balance and moderation are key here. There is some evidence that low levels of alcohol consumption can reduce the risk of cognitive decline and dementia. One study found that people over the age of 65 who drank up to one alcoholic beverage a day had about half the risk of cognitive decline as non-drinkers over a period of five to seven years.
We do know that a heavy consumption of alcohol can have damaging effects on the body and brain. When a person drinks to excess the liver cannot filter alcohol quickly enough and this can lead to long-lasting effects on the neurotransmitters in the brain, destroying brain cells and shrinking brain tissue.
The precise effect on the brain depends on the individual’s overall health, how much they drink and how well their liver functions. So, whilst the jury is still out on any benefits from light drinking, heavy drinking has definitely been proven to be damaging to the brain.
4. Manage your diet
Although there remains ambiguity around micro-dosing with alcohol, we do know that what you choose to eat can have a great effect on the health of your brain. A Mediterranean diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, and olive oil, and includes moderate amounts of fish, poultry, and dairy products, while limiting red meat. This eating pattern has long been recognized as promoting better cardiovascular health, lowering the risk of certain cancers, and there is evidence to suggest that it can also contribute to protecting against cognitive decline.
Recent extensive studies have shown that consumption of oily fish is particularly associated with reduced risk of cognitive impairment. The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil certainly play important roles in brain function and development. We also need to ensure that we are getting sufficient vitamins B6, B12, and Vitamin E in our diets.
And considering that the brain is circa 60% water, there is also a strong case for keeping ourselves hydrated. If water levels are too low, our brains cannot function effectively and must work harder than normal to complete everyday tasks. Dehydration can lead to confusion, drowsiness and memory loss so staying hydrated is vital. Research has shown that as little as 1% dehydration can negatively affect your mood.
To incorporate these findings into the workplace, it is good to offer balanced, healthy food when at work, as well as having multiple water coolers or means to remain hydrated. Having a vending machine that is filled with healthy snacks as opposed to fatty, sugary foods is a great little change that can be made to help promote healthy snacking.
Tomorrow, we will be posting the second part to this article, which outlines a further four things you can be doing to maintain your brain health.