Nearly everyone engages in unhealthy lifestyle habits on occasion — bag of potato chips instead of dinner? Two-too-many glasses of Pinot Noir? We’ve all been there and life is all about balance, right? While “everything in moderation,” goes the old line, does that adage hold true when it comes to prioritizing the health of your brain? According to some experts, less is more when it comes to consumption of substances that can hurt you long term.
For instance, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Kathryn Piper says there can be absolutely devastating consequences to not prioritizing habits that lead to a healthier brain, including but not limited to: memory loss, dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease, mental health disorders, and more.
One common way many people are harming their brain health is by regularly eating foods that contribute to chronic inflammation, says Piper.
Processed foods alter the bacteria that live in our gut, which in turn triggers an altered immune response. Over time, this different response leads to chronic inflammation, which has been linked to dementia, she says.
Foods that contribute to chronic inflammation:
- Added Sugar (cakes, cookies, coffee drinks, soda, candy)
- Trans Fat containing foods (fast food, fried foods, donuts, commercial baked goods, stick margarine)
- Refined Carbohydrates (white bread, pasta, white rice, many breakfast cereals)
- Ultra-Processed Foods (hot dogs, chicken nuggets, packaged soups, chips and snack crackers)
Among substances that can both cause chronic inflammation and deteriorate brain health, there is a big standout: Alcohol.
How can Alcohol Impact Your Brain?
A common question that arises when discussing alcohol consumption is whether or not low-to-moderate alcohol consumption — meaning around one or two drinks a day — is bad for your brain, if it causes degeneration of neurons or nerve cells, and so on, Dr. Andrew Huberman recently said on an episode of The Huberman Lab Podcast.
A recent study: “Associations between alcohol consumption and gray and white matter volumes in the UK Biobank,” looked at the brains of more than 35,000 generally healthy adults who were drinking various amounts of alcohol to address the question of how much alcohol consumption hurts your brain.
“What they found was that even for people that were drinking low-to-moderate amounts of alcohol, so one or two drinks per day, there was evidence of thinning of the neocortex — loss of neurons in the neocortex — and other brain regions,” Huberman said in his podcast episode titled: What alcohol does to your body, brain and health.
This is an important study because it shows that if you are consuming just seven glasses of wine throughout the week, regardless of it being one a night or seven on Friday, there can be consequences for your brain, he said.
“Chronic alcohol intake can disrupt the brain, even if the chronic intake is very low,” Huberman added.
Beyond this, over drinking can, “in the short term this can cause memory problems and raise your risk of depression,” says Kara Nassour, licensed professional counselor practicing at Shaded Bough Counseling. “In the long term, it increases your risk of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which includes memory problems, learning difficulties, confusion and psychosis.”
Overconsumption of alcohol falls under a broader category of behaviors that are harmful to the brain: numbing habits. Overindulgence in these can be a dangerous route to take, says self-intelligence coach Dr. Jessica Metcalfe.
“Numbing behaviors are actions or habits that help you escape reality, or zone out, so you don’t have to feel bad, sad or uncomfortable,” Metcalfe says. “It’s a way to suppress your fight-or-flight response and worrying.”
These can include:
- Excessive Shopping
- Excessive Scrolling Social Media
- Alcohol and Substance Abuse
- Binge Watching TV
- Online Games
Apart from consumption of harmful substances or an overindulgence in Netflix, there are other, less easily avoidable parts of life that can be harmful to your brain: too much stress, says Dr. David Seitz, the Medical Director for Ascendant Detox.
How Stress can Impact Your Brain Health
Stress can take a toll on the brain, causing problems with memory and concentration, says Seitz. “This is because an increase in the stress hormone, cortisol, can damage the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for the brain’s executive functions like reasoning, problem-solving, and flexible thinking.”
Chronic stress can also lead to anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems.
So, what are steps you can take to avoid these unhealthy behaviors and cut back the stress from your life? First is to recognize them, says Dr. Jeff Ditzell, CEO and lead psychiatrist at Jeff Ditzell Psychiatry in New York City.
“Very few people want to admit that they have bad habits. But there are ways to overcome this,” says Ditzell. “Once you understand how your mind thinks, you can change them before they become more serious issues which could affect your health negatively.”
Here are some Top Tips on Breaking Unhealthy Habits that are Impacting your Brain:
- Eliminate Triggers: Knowing how to identify what triggers you — like a messy room or oversleeping — can be the difference between having a stressful day, and a productive one. Eliminate or reduce these triggers as much as possible so you don’t have an excuse to engage in that behavior, says Ditzell.
- Change your Environment and you won’t need to use willpower as much. When you make changes in your environment (for example, eliminating most processed foods from your home) you won’t find yourself having cravings for that snack or thinking about another scenario that would trigger your unhealthy behavior.
- Find Healthy Replacements: Science shows that it’s much harder to simply stop doing something than it is to replace that action. Why? Because withdrawal from rewards is more difficult. Having a healthy replacement habit can help you overcome this obstacle and get back on track. For instance, if you tend to pour yourself a glass of wine each night, try replacing it with tart cherry juice in a wine glass, which promotes healthy sleep patterns and is rich in nutrients.
- Form Healthier Habits: When it comes to habit-forming, one of the most important things you can do is visualize yourself completing your goal. A lot of people think that this is an impossible task, and that if they could just overcome the inner fight against their habits then they would be successful. This couldn’t be further from the truth. By creating an image in your head of what you want to look like when you are one year from now and picturing attainable goals along with obstacles or struggles you will encounter in reaching your goal it is easier to stay motivated to reach for the stars and ultimately accomplish them.
- Avoid Sedentarism: Studies show that too much sitting — like smoking — increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes and premature death. According to a preliminary study by UCLA researchers of middle-aged and older adults, sitting too much is linked to changes in a section of the brain that is critical for memory. In order to avoid this, avoid sitting and lack of physical activity for long periods of time throughout the day.
Use a Neurofeedback Device Neurofeedback therapy can improve focus by measuring brain activity and showing it to us in real time. It does so by using electrodes on the head to detect brain patterns. The patterns are then analyzed by a computer that delivers feedback to the user as images or sounds. Narbis neurofeedback smart glasses [affiliate link] for example, use sensors and a NASA patented algorithm to track how focused you are. When you are distracted, the glasses change tint. When you are concentrating, the glasses instantly clear to reward and reinforce practicing attention. As you go through routine tasks like reading or responding to emails, the algorithm encourages healthy patterns of brain activity.