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5 easy ways to keep your brain sharp

By Andrea Kane, CNN

(CNN) — As the year wraps up, people have their sights on 2024 and what changes it will bring. The more enterprising may even be thinking of initiating changes in the form of resolutions or intentions.

But for the less decisive, those can be hard to come up with; with so many choices, where do you start and which areas of growth do you focus on?

Here’s a thought: Start with what makes you tick, the brain. It informs how we act, how we feel and how we process all the information around us — and what goes on in the brain also affects the body.

The eighth season of the podcast Chasing Life with Dr. Sanjay Gupta has been all about the brain in some of its myriad states — including the organized brain, the menopausal brain and the depressed brain.

Here are five of the top brain tips from podcast guests to help keep everyone sharp and focused in 2024.

Prioritize brain rest

Getting enough rest is essential to good overall health as well as good brain health. But what is enough?

“The things that we always say to people are … you want to be sleeping for seven to nine hours a night on average,” Victoria Garfield, a senior research fellow at the Medical Research Council Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing and a professor at University College London, told CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta. “That’s half the battle won.”

Garfield said it’s OK if it’s not quite seven to eight hours of rest, as long as it is close to that and good quality sleep. “That will help your brain replenish.”

Taking short, daytime naps might also give your brain a boost. One of Garfield’s studies showed that people who napped regularly had, on average, larger brain volume than those who didn’t.

“We think that’s really important because a lower total brain volume is linked to certain diseases, earlier mortality and higher stress levels,” she said.

Two other tips from Garfield: Go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day. And unplug your brain — even if you are not sleeping, find another way to do something mindless, whether it’s a stroll, some gardening or a chat with a friend.

Nourish your brain

Your brain needs food to function well, but it’s important that you consider the source of that fuel.

“If you want, you know, your brain to really be optimized, lean into the foods you like but healthier versions of them,” said nutritional psychiatrist Dr. Uma Naidoo, the director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and on the faculty at Harvard Medical School.

Naidoo, who is also a professional chef and author, uses food and medication to help her patients improve their mental health. “We’re not at the point where I can say, ‘Eat this number of blueberries in order to improve your mood,’” she said. But she said scientific evidence is “definitely emerging and growing” to show certain foods can elevate mood.

“You can lean into those leafy green vegetables — three to five cups a day,” she said. “Things like arugula, spinach all contain folate; low folate is associated with low mood.”

There are plenty of other mood-boosting foods. One of Naidoo’s favorites is dark chocolate.

“What we do know, from a pretty large population-based (study), that if you are consuming extra-dark natural chocolate, that it improved depression by 70% in over 12,000 participants,” she said. “It wasn’t the candy bars; it was extra-dark natural chocolate, which contained serotonin, magnesium, some fiber.”

Naidoo also recommends fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as salmon, mackerel, anchovies and sardines as well as fermented foods such as yogurt, almonds and other nuts, and seeds such as flax and chia.

Caffeinate — but not too much

Caffeine is among, if not the, most widely used psychoactive drugs in the world — and it’s no wonder as it has a lot of benefits. But as with all things, moderation is key. At higher doses, it can have drawbacks, too.

“Caffeine, or I should say to be more precise, caffeine-containing drinks such as coffee and tea, have a lot of very positive health effects,” said science writer and author Michael Pollan. “They help with cardiovascular disease. They are correlated with lower rates of Parkinson’s disease.”

Caffeinated beverages also can make you feel good, helping you to wake up and keeping you focused.

“There’s something transparent about consciousness on caffeine. Things … don’t seem like they’re distorted in any way, but they’re sure different. And the way you can tell is by giving up caffeine for a period of time,” said Pollan, who did just that for three months (and documented his experience in a recent audible book, “Caffeine: How Coffee and Tea Created the Modern World”). He said abstaining from caffeine helped him understand his relationship to it.

But caffeine also blocks the chemical adenosine from building up over the course of the day, which can result in some people having trouble sleeping. For that reason, Pollan called using caffeine to keep you alert is “borrowing against the future.”

“My biggest advice would be, be aware,” Pollan said. “When are you knocking off? When is your last cup of coffee or tea during the day? How does that correlate with your sleep? Just make that connection.” It’s no secret that these are stressful times, with war in the Middle East, Ukraine and elsewhere, and political acrimony simmering in the United States. There’s also the opioid crisis, climate change, gun violence and, of course, the lingering effects of the pandemic.

Unplug and just breathe to reduce stress

All these stressful events are being played out in real time, through 24-hour news cycles as well as social media feeds, making it hard to stay informed without getting sucked into a vortex of negative emotions.

“I am concerned that as the world we at least now are living in, we’re not prioritizing, let’s say, mental health over the access to these things,” said Dr. Gail Saltz, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital and Weill Cornell Medical College and the host of the podcast, “How Can I Help?

Saltz’s advice can be applied to any category of upsetting news.

“What many people can do is to really think about how they’re consuming their news right now,” she said. “I’m not saying, ‘Hey, crawl under a rock and have no idea what’s going on. I’m not advocating for that, but I am advocating for, perhaps, not scrolling through on the social media where … there’s no warning, it’s just a constant diet of really upsetting images.”

Saltz recommends paced deep breathing to ground and relax your body and activate your parasympathetic (rest and digest) response, which is the counterpart of the sympathetic (fight or flight) response.

To do so, Saltz said breathe in through your nose for a count of five, with your hand on your chest (to make sure your chest — and not your belly — is rising). “And then you would breathe out through your mouth to a slow count of seven — a little longer exhale than an inhale,” she said. “And the reason is we know on that long extra exhale is what slows your heart rate just a little bit and that helps bring … the anxiety down.”

Doing this type of breathing for five or 10 minutes will leave you more physiologically and psychologically relaxed, Saltz said.

Consider forgiving someone

Forgiving someone — a friend, stranger or even yourself — can lead to a host of physical and mental benefits, including a reduction in anxiety and depression, lower blood pressure and better sleep. But doing so is not always easy.

“Forgiveness is a moral virtue basically; it is a merciful response toward those who have not been good to us — without excusing the people, without forgetting, lest it happen again, without necessarily reconciling,” said Robert Enright, a pioneer in the field of forgiveness science and professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

But forgiving is a practice and, more often than not, it takes time, said Enright, cofounder of the nonprofit International Forgiveness Institute, which offers a road map for starting the forgiving process.

“Oftentimes I suggest that you don’t start with the huge issues,” he said. “Start with the smaller ones and get to know the pathway of forgiveness. As you do that, then you grow in it. Then you can go to the big ones.”

Enright said forgiveness may be appropriate to consider when you’re stuck and in distress over a situation.

“What are your pathways of healing? And if there has been attempt, upon attempt, upon attempt, with no healing, I would gently suggest the possibility of forgiving,” he said. “But it’s always the forgiver’s choice.”

We hope these five lessons from Season 8 of the Chasing Life podcast help keep your brain sharp yet relaxed in the new year. Listen to the full episode here. And join us in January when Chasing Life explores the topic of weight.

The-CNN-Wire
™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN Audio team producers Eryn Mathewson, David Rind, Madeleine Thompson and Grace Walker contributed to this report.

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