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Seven Pillars of Brain Health

18 March 2012 4,979 views

By Rebecca Shafir

We treasure our memories.  But sometimes are memories are more vivid than what happened just an hour ago.  When we are overworked, sleep deprived, eating poorly, not getting enough exercise our brain plays tricks on us – we become forgetful. A summary of the research indicates that there are seven essen­tial pil­lars to main­tain a healthy brain. These are:  Phys­i­cal Exercise,  Good Nutrition,  Stress Management, Socialization, Sleep, Brain Training, Physical Exercise, and Gratitude.

Phys­i­cal Exer­cise

Check with your doc­tor before you begin any exercise regimen, espe­cially if you have been phys­i­cally inactive, have spe­cial health con­cerns, or are mak­ing sig­nif­i­cant changes to your cur­rent program.

Be realistic with your exercise goals. Set a goal that you can achieve, something specific like 2-3 times a week on Tuesday and Thursday at 10:00a.m. you will walk for 20 minutes, then when you are ready, build from there, gradually adding other physical activities to keep it interesting.

The best exercise is a cardiovascular exercise some­thing that gets your heart beat­ing faster. Walk­ing, run­ning, ski­ing, swim­ming, bik­ing, spin class, martial arts, hik­ing, ten­nis, bas­ket­ball, play­ing tag, and other sim­i­lar sports/activities.

Good Nutri­tion

Eat a vari­ety of foods of dif­fer­ent col­ors ( particularly leafy greens) with­out a lot of added ingre­di­ents or processes. 6-9 fruits and vegetables a day is recommended

The main portion ( and get to know what a portion-size is!) of your diet should be  veg­eta­bles, then fruits, followed by pro­tein, dairy, and/or grains.

Add some cold-water fish to your diet (tuna, salmon, mack­erel, hal­ibut, sar­dines, and her­ring) which con­tain omega-3 fatty acids. If you are allergic to fish, consider walnuts, almonds, eggs and flax seed oil to get your omega-3s.

Eat more foods low on the Glycemic Index. These include low GI carbs that produce only small fluctuations in our blood glucose and insulin levels. Reducing your risk of heart disease and diabetes and is the key to sustainable weight loss and brain health.

Make an appointment with  a nutritionist who specializes in brain health

Stress management

When one is anxious or stressed out the brain exudes cortisol affecting one’s ability to remember, recall and think clearly. Controlling one’s reactivity in stressful situations is key to brain health.

Exercise can help in a major way to burn off excess stress.

You may need to manage stress in other ways. Consider meditation, mindfulness practice and mindfulness stress reduction classes or cognitive behavioral therapy. Getting control of your breathing and body tension helps one think better.

Consider biofeedback and neurofeedback as evidence-based methods for training your brain to manage stress and high blood pressure. Try train­ing with a heart rate vari­abil­ity sen­sor, like the  emWave  found on Heartmath.com.



We are wired to connect in meaningful ways with other people. A good place to start is by getting to know your local library and com­mu­nity col­lege, local orga­ni­za­tions or churches that offer classes, lectures or workshops.

Involvement with churches, synagogues or charities adds a spiritual element to socialization that can inspire and motivate regular participation. It gives one a sense of purpose and belonging, so essential to longevity. Joining a church choir is one of the best places to start, and has been shown to be one of the best activities for the brain.

The MacArthur Study ( 1995) found that men with high social support had significantly lower    levels of the stress hormones: cortisol, epinephrine and  norepinephrine.



People vary in their need for sleep, but generally 7-8 hours is ideal for most people.During sleep we rejuvenate and consolidate experiences from the day. Notice how sleep deprivation negatively affects your thinking? A solid sleep pattern goes hand in hand with brain health.

Discuss with your physician any regular difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep and/or waking up refreshed.

If you are a worrier set aside time to worry, but not when you lay yourself down to sleep.

Consider taking time to wind down after a busy day. Shut off the TV, and computers, drink some “Sleepytime” tea, consider a calcium supplement or a melatonin supplement and turn down the lights.

Brain Training

Mental exercise that requires effort and intensity is ideal for staying sharp.

A crossword or Suduko puzzle a day is better than nothing, but the brain needs more of a mental workout to maintain an extra mental edge.

Discover what peaks your curiosity and immerse yourself in the subject. Choose to become an expert on the subject. Get your whole brain in the act by accessing multi-media resources on the subject

Consider Cogmed Working Memory Training as the most respected and researched approach to increasing your working memory capacity.

Memorize a poem, a series of jokes or a prayer every day.

Consider a private or a group session with a medical professional skilled in brain training to guide you through a series of easy to very challenging brain training regimens.


Expressing gratitude often keeps positive energy flowing into the body.  Research from the University of California at Davis by Dr. Robert Emmons shows that “by living the gratitude that we don’t feel, we begin to feel the gratitude we live.”  San Francisco Examiner.

With these seven pillars, you can begin to reclaim the recent memories that are slipping by as well as hold onto the memories that you treasure.

Rebecca Shafir, M.A. CCC

Rebecca Shafir is a speech/language pathologist and neurotherapist in charge of the alternative/complementary services division at the Hallowell Center for Cognitive and Emotional Health in Sudbury, Massachusetts where she works primarily with children and adults with ADHD, anxiety and depression.




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