5 Steps to a Healthier Brain in 2017

We're in a new year now and it seems like everyone's weighing in on the 5 or 10 or 20 things you and I should be doing to improve our health and wellness this year.

It is January, after all, and it’s time to start setting priorities. There are tons of great ideas out there! Here are my top 5 for 2017.

If you want to improve brain health, you need to make sure it gets enough oxygen, nutrition, and anti-oxidant support so that’s the unifying theme. I have a feeling if everyone did these, in 20 years we’d have fewer cases of psychological dysfunction and of neurodegenerative disease. 

1. Eat fish at least twice a week and consider supplementing fish oils (EPA and DHA). There’s a lot of consensus out there on this one. Getting enough EPA and DHA (omega 3 fatty acids) in the diet improves not only brain health but heart health as well. If it’s too much to grill a wild salmon on a maple plank for dinner, consider packing sardines or tuna for lunch. For the sensitive palate, Atlantic cod isn’t too fishy-tasting and seasons up to make excellent fish tacos. Algae sources of EPA and DHA are available in over-the-counter supplements for those who do not use animal products.

Rationale: Nourish the cell membrane and limit neuroinflammation [1], influence neurotransmitter synthesis [2] and regeneration of neurons [3]. Our brains and every other tissue in the body are made up of cells which must interact and communicate with one another, both near and far. Our diets play a significant role in the make-up of our cell membranes. Cholesterol and saturated fats render our membranes rigid and hardened whereas omega 3 fats keep them fluid and functional. EPA and DHA may also nourish the “gut friendlies,” our commensal intestinal bacterial population [4] which does everything from support neurotransmitter balance in the brain to synthesizing vitamins we absorb to training our immune systems when to mobilize and when to quiet. 

2. Get your sleep. To assess your sleep, ask yourself some questions. Do you go to bed tired? Do you sleep the night through? Do you get enough hours? Do you wake rested? If you snore, are overweight and/or have many of the symptoms on the Berlin Questionnaire, ask your doctor about doing a sleep study and if you have sleep apnea, treat it faithfully. Sleep apnea and the low-oxygen state it induces changes the way the brain signals hormone production, in general, predisposing those afflicted to cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Importantly, make sure you produce enough melatonin. You can test for this too. Consider supplementing if you don't have a nice showing of MT6S in your first morning urine sample. Melatonin is integral in calming the central nervous system, reducing oxidation, and helping with DNA repair/maintenance. Additionally, cortisol and the catecholamines epinephrine and norepinephrine (also easily assessed in the urine) should be within the appropriate ranges while we sleep so our brains and bodies can rest and repair. [5] [6]

Rationale: A brain without proper sleep oxidizes without reducing, excites without inhibiting, and accumulates toxins without clearing them out. Imbalances that arise from not regularly getting enough sleep can become pathologies and give rise to neurodegenerative disorders down the road. 

Because methylation cycles are also so intricately woven into our oxidation and reduction pathways, their function in the brain is crucial.

3. Check for methylation defects and supplement to correct them. Perhaps the best-studied set of single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) is in the MTHFR gene, which encodes the enzyme that activates folic acid to its usable form in the body by methylating it. The links between several MTHFR mutations and neuro and psychological conditions like ADD/ADHD, autism, OCD, depression, anxiety and even some cancers are just coming to light. [7] For some, the answer’s as simple as supplementing methyltetrahydrofolate (MTHF). For others, a more complex protocol is required. Before you go down the genetic rabbit hole with a laboratory, it’s important to link up with a health care professional who understands this type of testing and who can walk you through the process and interpretation. Test for a few or order the raw data on your whole genome.

Rationale: Many SNPs affect the way we metabolize our own hormones, neurotransmitters and drug therapies. Some of them (or combinations of them) have effects that are largely reversible with the right types of supplementation and without treatment can in some cases contribute to serious health problems while others are phenotypically silent. Because methylation cycles are also so intricately woven into our oxidation and reduction pathways, their function in the brain is crucial.   

4. Nourish your mitochondria. Tiny bacterial remnants that exist in every cell of the human body, the mitochondria function to manufacture ATP (energy currency in a cell), transfer this energy, and undergo constant oxidative processes in so doing. The mitochondria have their own DNA (inherited from your mother) and they function rather independently within each cell, have their own DNA replication, repair and maintenance capabilities, and must themselves divide (fission) and can even fuse together (fusion) as the need arises. Mitochondrial DNA is susceptible to damage and can occur secondarily to hormone and nutrient metabolism, therapeutic drug use, chemical exposures, and radiation. Antioxidant therapies may limit oxidative damage and prevent DNA adduct formation. Resveratrol, N-acetyl-cysteine, L-carnitine, coenzyme Q10, R-alpha lipoic acid, vitamin E, and the carotenoid family are a few examples of nutritional supplements that have been studied as mitochondria-targeting therapeutics for oxidation reduction. [8]  

Rationale: Mitochondrial dysfunction and mitochondrial DNA damage is implicated in several neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s disease and this is a major area for drug and nutritional research right now. [9]

5. Discover yoga. Decades of studies tell us that exercise improves these important functions of the brain and body: neuroplasticity, mitochondrial function, vascular function, adrenal sensitivity, cognition, and working memory. [10] [11] [12] Yoga provides more than just the stretching and cardio aspect of exercise. The breathing technique (or Pranayama) associated with yoga seems to drive the brain benefit here. So, don’t leave that part out. 

Rationale: I chose to highlight yoga here because of the multitude of studies out there that have observed a regular yoga practice’s effect on the HPA axis, the sympathetic nervous system and on the symptoms of depression and anxiety. It is also very accessible to many Americans, whether done with a prescription as physical therapy, at home with video instruction, in a class with a yoga therapist, or for free at a community center.

Related Content


[1] Nutr Health Aging. 2004;8(3):163-74. Roles of unsaturated fatty acids (especially omega-3 fatty acids) in the brain at various ages and during ageing. Bourre JM.

[2] FASEB J. 2015 Jun;29(6):2207-22. doi: 10.1096/fj.14-268342. Epub 2015 Feb 24. Vitamin D and the omega-3 fatty acids control serotonin synthesis and action, part 2: relevance for ADHD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and impulsive behavior. Patrick RP, Ames BN.

[3] Curr Med Chem. 2013;20(24):2953-63. n-3 fatty acids: role in neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. Crupi R, Marino A, Cuzzocrea S.

[4] Lipid Technology  Volume 27, Issue 8,  pages 179–182, August 2015 How fish oils could support our friendly bacteria. Bentley-Hewitt KL, et al. 

[5] J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2015 Dec;70(12):1569-77. doi: 10.1093/gerona/glv088. Epub 2015 Aug 11.  Association of Urinary 6-Sulfatoxymelatonin (aMT6s) Levels and Objective and Subjective Sleep Measures in Older Men: The MrOS Sleep Study.  Saksvik-Lehouillier I, et al.

[6] Science. 2016 Aug 12;353(6300):687-90. doi: 10.1126/science.aad2993. Local modulation of human brain responses by circadian rhythmicity and sleep debt. Muto V, et al.

[7] NIH Genetics Home Reference: MTHFR -  https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/gene/MTHFR#synonyms

[8] Curr Neuropharmacol. 2016;14(2):143-54. Mitochondrial Biology and Neurological Diseases.  Arun S, Liu L, Donmez G.

Neurol Res. 2017 Jan;39(1):73-82. Oxidative stress and mitochondrial dysfunction-linked neurodegenerative disorders. Islam MT.

[10] Curr Alzheimer Res. 2017 Jan 11. Resilience to Alzheimer's disease: the role of physical activity. Anna P, et al.

J Psychiatr Res. 2015 Sep;68:270-82. doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychires.2015.07.013. Epub 2015 Jul 13. A systematic review of randomised control trials on the effects of yoga on stress measures and mood.  Pascoe MC, Bauer IE.

J Altern Complement Med. 2010 Jan;16(1):3-12. doi: 10.1089/acm.2009.0044. The health benefits of yoga and exercise: a review of comparison studies. Ross A, Thomas S.