To see progress, you must change your behavior. To change behavior, you need to change your thoughts. To change thoughts, you need to change…Your behavior? As a coach, one of our main priorities is to encourage our clients to change behaviors that will enable them to get closer to their goals. This comes down to understanding what makes them tick and how they handle stress; what then comes into question is the thought of what comes first to change habits becomes a debate like the chicken and the egg. Do you have to change your thoughts before you make a behavior change, or do you change behavior which then shifts your perspective? What does the research say regarding long-term, sustainable change?
Understanding the Brain
To thoroughly answer this question, we must first have confidence that our brains can change through habits, as this will encourage the desired behavior for long-term change to be more intentional. Like our bodies, our brains are constantly changing due to neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the nervous system to alter its activity in response to intrinsic or extrinsic stimuli b reorganizing its structure, functions, or connections after events or injuries.” In other words, it describes how the brain can rewire itself for the better or, the worse. Working on the following habits will encourage these changes.
Diets’ role on Inflammation in the Body
Total intake of food and fluid plays a critical role in the molecular events of energy metabolism and the brain’s ability to have positive neuroplasticity effects. Due to individual differences in people and the complexity of cognitive function, the ability to do a complete overview is impossible. However, this section will go over potential ways to encourage neurogenesis and positive effects on neuroplasticity through hacking the dietary system, as well as reducing chronic inflammation.
Research suggests that reducing caloric intake by 30% relative to your metabolic rate, or the average calories burned throughout the day, was associated with an average of 20% in verbal memory after three months. This research was done on fifty healthy, elderly subjects: 29 females and 21 males with an average age of 60.5 years. There were three groups: caloric restriction (30% reduction), relatively increased intake of UFAs, unsaturated fatty acids (20% increase, unchanged total fat), and control. Memory performance was asses under standardized conditions; there was a significant increase in verbal memory scores after caloric restriction, which correlates with decreases in fasting plasma levels of insulin and high sensitive C reactive protein, most pronounced in subjects with the best adherence to the diet. No significant changes were found in the other two groups and the brain-derived neurotrophic factor levels.
So the question to these findings is how does this happen and significantly benefit cognitive function? It does because this reduces the chances of suffering from metabolic factors such as insulin resistance and low-grade inflammation, both of which are related to long-term cognitive impairment.
Exercise is medicine, and here is why. Regular exercise, suggested at roughly 70-85%, improves the immune system’s resilience. Other research has shown that aerobic exercise of up to 60 minutes can enhance cognitive performance, increasing the volume of the hippocampus, which influences long-term memories, and making those memories resistant to forgetting. These findings are the reason as to why the jock is no longer seen as having a lower intelligence level than the average joe. Recent discoveries also found that in a study of 120 adults with signs of dementia (age 60), high-intensity bouts of exercise lasting up to 60 minutes improved spatial memory and brain-derived neurotrophic factor. These benefits had a catalyst effect by increasing the size of the hippocampus, thus potentially improving mood and memory.
Love, Perception, and Reduced Stress
This might sound cliché, but the experience of love and value is one of the most valuable intentional emotional experiences humans can be part of. Research has shown that the feeling of importance and love produces the chemicals serotonin and oxytocin, which are inversely related to chronic levels of cortisol release, the catabolic hormone released during stress, and can negatively affect health. Simply put, the feeling of love fights off the physical consequences of the distress caused by negative perceptions and experiences. Changing perspective in a way that allows the situation to be less stressful and controlling the controllable has been shown to increase the cognitive skills of verbal fluency and memory.
Chronic Sleep deprivation has decreased BDNF in animals, a chemical critical in allowing the brain to adjust the chemistry and form new habits. Lack of sleep will also increase chronic cortisol levels, thereby increasing the chances of cognitive deficits, inflammation, general impairment, protein translation, metabolic imbalance, and thermal deregulation. Sleep is also essential for removing waste and distributing glucose, lipids, amino acids, growth factors, and, lastly, neuromodulators. While most of these findings were performed on mice, the results increase the curiosity about how sleep plays a critical role in establishing new habits for the betterment of oneself.
Witte, A. V., Fobker, M., Gellner, R., Knecht, S., and Floel, A. (2009). Caloric restriction improves memory in elderly humans. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 106, 1255–1260. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0808587106
Ferrarelli, F., Smith, R., Dentico, D., Riedner, B. A., Zennig, C., Benca, R. M., et al. (2013). Experienced mindfulness meditators exhibit higher parietal-occipital EEG gamma activity during NREM sleep. PLoS ONE 8:e73417. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0073417
Eriksson, P., Perfilieva, E., Björk-Eriksson, T., Alborn, A., Nordborg, C., Peterson, D., et al. (1998). Neurogenesis in the adult human hippocampus. Nat. Med. 4, 1313–1317.