When I read my favorite mystery books as a child, the heroine got knocked out cold about once per novel, and never once did she have any long-term (or short term!) effects of concussion or go to see a therapist to rehab her brain.
Clearly, Nancy Drew knew and practiced every one of these brain strengthening techniques in spades because her head was so resilient! 😉
As you’ve seen in the last few posts in the series, kids (and adults) are experiencing concussions more often lately and as Dr. Brian Hanks says at the end of this fascinating interview and demonstration about functional neurology, research on brain resiliency, recovery, and optimization is just in its infancy. Findings are changing all the time, and typically conventional medicine runs slowly from research to implementation (like a decade or more delay!), so the natural and alternative health spheres tend to be a step or two (or ten) ahead.
Mayo Clinic, for example, only lists exterior head protective strategies like helmets and general safety notes that could prevent accidents as “prevention” options. The article there does recommend exercise, but only as a way to strengthen leg muscles and improve balance so a person is less likely to fall and hit his head, not as something that can actually strengthen the brain or provide any resilience.
Frustrating! You CAN protect your brain in so many ways other than just “don’t get hit in the head again,” and there are PLENTY of practices to implement that are “neuro-protective,” in the words of Dr. Dan Engle, one of many brain experts from whom I’ve been fortunate to learn.
Related: The Healthy Brain Cookbook Review
In this post, I’ll draw from a variety of sources, books, personal interviews, and documentaries to share TEN strategies to strengthen your brain and become more resilient to concussion.
This can be seen as a recovery plan from an actual concussion (to be used after the immediate concussion recovery strategies) and also for everyone who wants to harness the power of research to build their own brain resiliency. The strategies create both better performance on daily tasks and decrease your chances of even getting a serious concussion or TBI. Plus, strong brains recover faster when an injury does happen.
Healthy Foods (& Drink) to Build Your Brain
1. Fish Oil & Omega-3s
The recommendation to consume fish oil trumpeted widely by experts like JJ Virgin and Michael Lewis, M.D., author of When Brains Collide, stems from the fact that we need more omega-3s to counterbalance the excess of inflammatory omega-6 fats we are inundated with through American food.
I went into brands of fish oil and how much you might take after a concussion in the concussion recovery post, and our contributor Leah has a whole post going into sustainability and safety. But I’ve also been reading lately about the potential of heavy metal toxicity in fish and fish oil. Sigh. It’s never easy, is it!?!? Since I have been diagnosed with serious mitochondrial dysfunction and it may be heavy metals, my interest in plant-based sources of omega-3s is piqued.
I haven’t looked into plant-based omega-3 supplements deeply, but a quick search on Amazon show results that seem to have clean ingredients, at least, including this one that also has green tea (see next point for why that’s important), this one that is much less expensive, and even a liquid and gummies (sweetened with erythritol and monk fruit, 2 more acceptable calorie-free sweeteners).
Getting more fish into your diet (smaller is better, like sardines) and finding an omega-3 supplement to take daily are 2 easy ways to build your brain AND has other benefits to cardiovascular and even vision health as well.
2. Lots of Antioxidants
We know antioxidants help us fight cancer, but did you know they’re also powerful food for the brain?
Wild blueberries are number one recommended, but really, any vegetable with deep colors like purples, greens, reds and more, will have high antioxidants. When you look at your plate, you want it to be full of a variety of colors – that makes me happy both aesthetically and in my brain in multiple ways!
Our contributor Lori shared some hot tips for easily increasing the amount of antioxidants in your food without changing what you buy, just some simple strategies about when to use food after purchasing and how to prepare.
One swap I’ve recently made is to use black japonica rice instead of white or brown – it’s more of a seed than a grain, first of all, but it is also packed with antioxidants. Black rice looks a little weird and freaks out guests, but it tastes very normal if you’re used to brown rice. I bought a 25-pound bag from Country Life (I think just a Michigan thing) but can also be found on Amazon – this is the one I’d buy or mayyyybe this one if you just want a pound.
Black rice makes gorgeous rice pudding (purple!!) and is done in 20 minutes in the Instant Pot. I always make extra when I’m cooking some and plan for rice pudding the next morning! The only negative I find is that when the kids are messy at the table, it totally looks like a mouse has visited the next morning when you glance at the floor. Eek!
Another unique place to get your antioxidants is in your probiotic – one of the two I’m currently rotating after my practitioner did this thorough soil-based probiotic review is Just Thrive (use code “Katie15” for 15% off), and the special probiotic actually increases (and creates) antioxidants in your gut. I’ll take it! You can compare prices at Perfect Supplements with my code KS10 for 10% off.
3. Stay Hydrated
This one is really hard for me in the winter, because drinking a lot of water tends to make me cold or think I’m cold. But I’m working on it…because the body is so dependent on water. Your brain can actually shrink in size when dehydrated, and thinking is foggy among other consequences.
Seriously, if something as simple as drinking completely free water can help build my brain’s resiliency to injury, it’s foolish not to make a concerted effort to do it.
Most say that coffee and soda don’t count as far as hydration, especially because caffeine can be a diuretic. I’ve heard of this both ways, that maybe it counts and maybe it doesn’t, but it seems safer to just drink plain water.
That said, in the winter I’m adding tea to my rotation. Crossing my fingers that it counts toward hydration! I really enjoy this Pique Tea partly because it’s super easy to make, no steeping time or forgetting about it on the counter, but it’s also really really tasty! My favorite is the ginger citrus.
My husband has been really into green tea ever since he read The Calorie Myth by Jonathan Bailor, both hot in the winter and iced in the summer. Green tea is very high in antioxidants, and the caffeine is assimilated differently than that in coffee, so it’s said to be really good for the brain too. Win-win! (Pique has an instant green tea too.)
Hopefully, I don’t need to say that adding sweeteners to your beverages is always a bad idea…
Best Exercises for Brain Health
Everyone knows exercise is good for them, but many of us aren’t doing it or sticking with it. I love what I heard on the Broken Brain podcast not too long ago, from Dr. Elizabeth Boham. She refers to exercise as “purposeful movement,” to sort of convince our brains that it’s not this evil thing that we have to work so hard to do. It’s great that purposeful movement can be both physically healthy AND improve your brain, isn’t it?
Just going for a walk is a great start! Walking in nature is even better for your brain by the way, so if you can find some trees or a field near you, walk there.
4. HIIT Training
There is actually a “best choice” for movement to support brain health: HIIT training.
High-Intensity Interval Training, according to JJ Virgin, is the best to get oxygen to the brain but doesn’t cause the stress of aerobics. Getting your heart rate and breathing up but with plenty of breaks increases blood flow to the brain, increases human growth hormone, and even increases the volume of your brain.
Plus, it’s a short workout — so doable for busy people!
Cardio yoga is another good brain-building activity, according to Dr. Dan Engle.
5. Activate Your Vestibular Sense
Dr. Brian Hanks reminded us about giving our vestibular sense a workout too in this fascinating interview. The vestibular sense could be translated as “balance,” and any motion that gets you moving up and down or turning around in any direction is excellent for brain health. We encourage our kids to do plenty of tumbling, rolling, somersaults, twisting and turning, jumping and bouncing, and we invested in a backyard trampoline earlier this year. It is by far the most used item in our entire house (outside the kitchen of course!).
After a lot of research, we went with the Propel brand of trampoline from Dunham’s, but pretty much the same one is also on Amazon.
Adults should do these things too! I talked in my post on natural remedies for constipation about rebounding, the concept of jumping on a mini-trampoline, and it turns out that’s great for the brain too. (See that post for more mini trampoline options.)
6. Brain Therapy Exercises to Get Into Balance and Optimize
If really getting your heart rate up and increasing your lung capacity or doing somersaults and jumping on a trampoline at your age sounds about as fun as someone pulling your fingernails off, how about some really simple exercises specifically targeted for brain health? 😉
I don’t even want to use the word “exercise,” but I can’t think of anything else to call them! Simply crossing the midline of your body has powerful effects on the brain.
While helping our 3-year-old heal from his concussion (and curing my 10-year-old’s motion sickness), Dr. Hanks did dozens of therapy techniques. I was often asking him whether they could be used by anyone to simply strengthen the brain, and every so often, he would say yes.
You can see examples of my daughter doing this during motion sickness therapy in this video interview, and the two that might be recommended for anyone to do to build their brains, as long as they are not in the immediate recovery period of a concussion, are circular clapping to the beat of a metronome on a balance board, and one that we call cat-and-mouse with the flashlight, as seen in the second half of this video:
If you can’t view the video above, click “Tips to Build Brain Resilience and Strength” to see it directly on YouTube – it’s under 2 minutes long.
If you don’t have a helper in your household, you can’t do cat-and-mouse, but anyone can accomplish the metronome. Here is one of the balance boards we have that I’m standing on as I type this post, and if you just search the word “metronome” on Google, it’s really easy to use. Go for about 70 beats per minute and every 25 claps, pause and increase or decrease by 1 beat, about three or four repetitions. Dr. Hanks had a nice wooden balance board more like this one, and the non-slip grips would be really nice. Ours is hard to use with socks.
A few more exercises: I have an interview with Dr. Louise Swartswalter on brain health too, not yet posted in the Healthy Parenting Connector, but she has an entire “Balance Your Brain” program, including a free download with 12 simple exercises to begin to optimize your brain health. I’m downloading now!
Specific Brain Optimizing Recommendations
That last exercise recommendation is a little more targeted specifically at brain health, i.e. not something you’d be doing for general health otherwise. If you really do want to focus on building your brain and using it to its fullest potential (as well as recovering faster from a concussion if one would happen), a few very specific brain building strategies include:
7. Learn Something New Every Day – Get Out of Your Brain Rut!
I heard on a Wellness Mama podcast with Jim Kwik, learning expert, that we have something like 60,000 thoughts a day, but 95% of them are the same as yesterday.
Now every day since then I think of that and wonder if I am above average!
When we think the same thoughts and do the same things, we use the same neural pathways, and it’s like wearing a rut in a dirt road. The deeper it gets, the more you stay there, and the less you are able to use other parts of your brain.
So when my 92-year-old grandma did crossword puzzles daily for decades, she was constantly exercising different parts of her brain. The more you can do that and diversify your thoughts and thoughtful activities, the stronger your brain will be… And yes, this does apply to physical impacts like concussions as well as avoiding brain degeneration and dementia as you age.
8. Increase Neural Connections in Your Brain
It’s said that upon examination of Einstein’s brain, it wasn’t any larger or heavier than anyone else’s, but it was so very dense because he had so many more neural connections than others.
Another way to continue to build neural connections, especially for kids according to Dr. Hanks, is to focus on using one’s imagination and playing in different ways. In other words, YES, tell your kids to get outside, let them have unstructured play without specific toys (and especially screens), and in fact – get right in there with them and stretch your own imagination!
I can guarantee that for myself personally, I’ve let the imaginative part of my brain lie dormant too often, and it’s something I should be setting goals about. I’m thinking of writing some children’s books in the next year or two, so that ought to stretch out some weak brain muscles for sure!
9. Try Brain-Building Apps and Games
There are a plethora of brain building apps that you can download for your phone. Search for the word “Stroop” to find many that challenge your brain with colors and words.
Stroop is a concept of connecting the left and right brain by writing color words in the wrong color text – the left brain tries to read the actual word and the right brain recognizes the color, so you have to use both sides to accomplish the task. The best Stroop games ask you to “read” the color of a word, then choose the right “word” that matches the color.
For example: You see the word “Red” but the word is green in color. You’re supposed to choose the WORD “green” from a list, even if that word might be colored red! It is tricky but you can feel yourself building capacity and speed as you practice.
These apps would be a great substitution for some of the mindless games people play on their phones or social media, and they are a powerful way to start the day or prepare your brain for a test or task that takes great concentration. Note that there are a lot of poor “Stroop” games out there, unfortunately, so try to look for one that is simple and follows the pattern I outlined above. The Apple Store may have better options than Android devices. On Apple only, search for “Brain Test – Stroop Effect” to get the one we used in Dr. Hanks’ office, and NeuRaTrails was another he recommends.
You can also find music specifically designed to optimize your brain function. I just started listening to this cognition enhancer from Brainwave Power Music, and other recommended by my friend Ryan at the Stern Method that are on my list to try include: Greenred Productions, Yellowbrick Cinema, Meditative Mind, and PowerThoughts Meditation Club. Brain.fm is an app I learned about through the Superhuman Brain Masterclass.
10. Avoid Environmental Impacts that Harm Brain Resiliency
Finally, when I posted on why people are getting so many more concussions lately, I promised to share some practical antidotes to all of the attacks on our brains in today’s world.
Therefore, recommendation number 10 is multifaceted, because it’s all the ways we can avoid environmental impacts that are negative to our brains.
- Avoid omega-6 fats – practical strategies here, but of course, increasing OTHER fats is the best way, so use more extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado oil. Try making homemade dressings!
- Get your levels of magnesium and zinc checked (although since the vast majority of Americans are deficient in magnesium, you could simply supplement after asking your doctor – magnesium glycinate is best absorbed. My husband and I take 4 at night before bed.)
- Get your D levels checked and supplement if necessary with capsules of Vitamin D.
- Avoid glyphosate, antibiotics, and aluminum as much as possible, and strengthen your detox pathways to get rid of what you are exposed to.
- Glyphosate is Round-up, sprayed on many crops, so decreasing your omega-6s is a good start, and focusing on organic foods, especially when it counts the most, is a second step.
- Even one round of antibiotics throw off your gut balance and increases your risk for MANY health issues, and the gut-brain connection means that what is off in your gut affects your brain. Use these natural remedies to do your best to avoid antibiotics unless they’re 100% necessary, and rebuild your gut after antibiotics if you do have to take them.
- Aluminum is unfortunately ubiquitous in our environment; you can read about where you are exposed to it here and take steps to avoid it in aluminum foil, cans, antiperspirants and pots and pans.
- Reduce your stress – or better yet, increase your ability to cope with stress, something I’ve been learning a lot about as I recently became a certified Stress Mastery Educator! I’ve shared some strategies here and here.
- Get sufficient sleep. Let’s just say that again for those of you (raising hand) who like to be healthy in every way but ignore all the research and recommendations about sleep. GET SLEEP. Get quality sleep. Your brain will thank you. Here are some tips for getting better sleep (that don’t take any extra time!)
- Avoid EMF exposure as much as possible – here are some strategies.
Can You Build a Better Brain?
My favorite part about all these recommendations is that most of them are already on a list of things humans should do for good physical health, so it’s just a bonus that they optimize brain health as well.
And remember – when you optimize your brain function, i.e. how clearly you think, how well you focus on a task, how widely you use your brain – you also increase your brain’s resiliency to impact and reduce your chances of getting a serious concussion, plus if you do get a bad bump on the head (or whiplash, which also causes concussions), your stronger brain will recover faster, much like a younger person recovers from illness more quickly than the elderly.
Maybe you’ll even be able to write massively long sentences like me! 😀
Finally, brain health has further cascading positive effects, because when your brain is more resilient in general, you’re also more resilient to mental health issues like depression. You can even continue to build strong brains at the dinner table with some simple routines. We just can’t stop teaching you how to WIN at life here at Kitchen Stewardship and Kids Cook Real Food!
Experts for Whom I’m Grateful Who Contributed to this Post
- Dr. Michael Lewis
- Dr. Titus Chiu
- Dr. Brian Hanks
- Nicolas Pineault
- Heidi Hanna of the American Institute of Stress
- Dr. Dan Engle via the Superhuman Brain Masterclass