Neurogenesis: Growth of brain as you age

Till recently we believed that the growth of brain stops in mid-twenties and from that time onward it is downhill as we begin losing neurons on a daily basis. By our sixties, our brains have literally begun to shrink. No wonder in every language there is a phrase to signify the loss of mind with age such as losing one’s marbles in English or satthiya jana in Hindi. But this gloomy version of slow brain death has been proven wrong by latest studies that show that neurons continue to grow throughout the lifespan of a person. The process of making new brain cells is called neurogenesis.  The knowledge of neurogenesis has huge implications on our health and well-being. It not only provides us with tools to counter age-related cognitive and memory loss but also helps us to remain sharp and creative at every age.

Assessing brain health

The most important biomarker for brain health is the rate of growth of new neurons at any given point of time. A low rate of neurogenesis is associated with cognitive decline, memory loss, anxiety, stress, lower immunity and even depression. While a high rate of neurogenesis leads to cognitive enhancement, rapid learning, problem-solving and robust emotional resilience.

Holistic approach to brain health

Creation of a holistic living context is vital for increased rate of growth of brain cells.  Dr. Brant Cortright in his book, “The Neurogenesis Diet & Lifestyle”  has recommended a two-pronged strategy towards brain health. First, incorporate all habits and practices that help in neuron generation. Second, weed out habits, behavior, and practices that slow down the rate of regeneration of brain. A brain-friendly diet, physical exercises, meditation, intermittent fasting, continuous learning of new skills, work-life balance and a circle of friends and loved ones help to increase the rate of neurogenesis.

Diet and Brain Health

Diet is incredibly important for regulating rate of growth of neurons in the brain. Natural food rich in bioflavonoids, also sometimes referred to as “vitamin P,” are excellent for neurogenesis. Scientists have found that bioflavonoids have specific capabilities to increase health in many different ways. They support strong cell formations and suppress poor cellular growth to deliver an anti-carcinogenic effect. Fruits and vegetables like strawberry, mangoes, citrus fruits,  blueberry, mulberry, red sage, goji berries, avocado, broccoli,  and salvia are all good for neuron growth. Curcumin found in turmeric helps in the synthesis of docosahexaenoic acid or DHA, a key component for the development of brain and eye.

Good fat is good for brain

Since two-thirds of the brain is made up of fat it is important to add high-quality fatty acids in the diet such as found in nuts and seeds. Diet rich in omega -3 fatty acids are particularly beneficial as a 1500mg of omega-3 fatty acids per day can increase the rate of neurogenesis by 40 percent. Fish oil, which is rich in omega -3 fatty acids can be included as a supplement. While it is important to build on healthy fats, it is equally important to wean out unhealthy fats that oxidize in the body such as vegetable oils. Against the common knowledge, saturated fats such as ghee, butter, cheese and coconut oil are good for the brain. The western diet of high carb low fat reduces the rate of neurogenesis and is primarily responsible for the epidemic of diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and Alzheimer’s. In fact, the brain runs better on healthy fat diet than on carbohydrate and sugar.

Food to avoid for brain health

Alcohol and caffeine are another two food items that must be avoided as they reduce the rate of neuron generation. Though polyphenols in coffee are beneficial for the brain for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, caffeine is harmful. Caffeine can provide a short-term memory stimulus but in the long run, causes a decline in cognitive functions.

Not only your body but your brain needs exercise too

Apart from brain-friendly diet, physical exercises stimulate neurogenesis. Though all forms of exercises such as strength training, yoga, and aerobics are good for brain health, the best form, as borne by research, is aerobics. Aerobic exercise is anything that gets the heart beating fast. So half an hour session of running, biking, brisk walking, fast dancing, and swimming is good for neurogenesis. Combining exercises with the consumption of flavonoids and omega-3 fatty acids helps to ensure hundred percent survival of newly generated nerve cells.

Sound sleep regenerates your brain

Sound sleep of 7 to 8 hours is vital for neurogenesis. Sleep helps the brain to produce an increased amount of melatonin necessary for new cell generation. During sleep, brain performs the housekeeping function of flushing out the toxins such as beta amyloids that are responsible for Alzheimer’s.  The brain only does all this while we are in deep sleep. Hence both quantity and quality of sleep are important for brain regeneration.

Ward off stress to grow your brain

Our emotions also play a key role in neurogenesis. Emotions like love, compassion, happiness, friendship, and camaraderie have a positive influence on brain whereas stress, anger and hatred have a negative impact on neurogenesis. While short-term moderate stress that helps us to up our game and plays to our full potential is conducive to neurogenesis, chronic stress is harmful. Chronic stress not only slows down the rate of brain regeneration but also destroys nerve cells in the hippocampus, the part of the brain where neurogenesis occurs. So stress management is an important aspect of brain health. Studies have shown that spiritual practices such as meditation help in both stress management and brain regeneration.

Holistic approach for neurogenesis

Lifelong learning, healthy sex life, meditation, sunlight, fasting and calorie restriction all have a positive impact on the rate of neurogenesis. Fasting not only protects the brain from oxidative stress but also increases the production of beneficial antioxidant and DNA-repair enzymes. Calorie restriction increases expression of several growth factors in the hippocampus and improves memory. Lifelong learning helps to keep the brain active and build a cognitive reserve that acts as a buffer against toxins such as beta-amyloid.

In a nutshell, a multidimensional holistic approach directed at physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of life can have a force multiplier impact on the rate of neurogenesis. Embracing neuron friendly diet and lifestyle can help us to keep our brain young for a long time and improve quality of life.


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