The 3 Worst Habits for Your Brain, According to Brain Scientists — and 6 Ways to Combat Them

an illustration of a ladder coming up from a shadow of a brain? i know that's not as helpful as it could be but it's a pretty abstract illustration

Published on May 10, 2022

By Pamela Vachon

Since brain health tends to have more to do with long term effects than immediate ones, it can be a little hard to grasp how our behaviors now connect to our brain health later on. But the two are inextricably linked — and our choices today impact how our brain will work later. “Everything from what we eat to how we spend our day impacts our brain, just as it impacts our body,” says neuroscientist Sonja K. Billes, PhD, science advisor for Solaray. So as you might imagine, what’s good for your body is also good for your brain — like maintaining healthy diet and exercise routines — but there are also things that can be done to specifically improve brain function as you age.

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Habits are some of the most powerful tools at our disposal for a healthy lifestyle for both brain and body, as they are practices that become second nature through repetition. “There are certainly ways to improve cognitive function through small and big lifestyle changes,” says Dave Rabin, MD, PhD, neuroscientist and board-certified psychiatrist at Apollo Neuroscience. The longer-lasting and more sustainable the lifestyle change, the more beneficial it becomes to your overall health — neural, and otherwise. Bad habits, on the other hand, can also have a lasting, negative effect on brain health. Here are the worst habits for your brain according to several brain specialists, and the best ways to combat them that can help improve cognitive function and keep your brain in top form for years to come.

Bad Habit #1: Chronic stress

The worst habits outlined here tend to be interrelated, but stress seems to be public enemy number one where long term brain health is concerned. “Some stress is a good thing and helps us focus and prioritize our efforts,” says Billes. “However, chronic, unresolved stress has a profound negative impact on brain function over time and can disrupt neuronal communication, interfere with learning and memory, and increase the risk of developing numerous conditions including cardiovascular disease, mental illness, and dementia.” 

Rabin adds to this by explaining some of the the physiology of daily, excessive stress: “Chronic stress strains the whole body by overactivating our sympathetic nervous system, releasing stress hormones like cortisol, making our breathing shallow and fast, and sending our heart rates up and our HRV (Heart Rate Variability) down. It’s really, really bad for us.”

Understanding how stress becomes part of our daily life in such a way as qualifies as a habit can be difficult, but below we outline several habitual, actionable ways to reduce the amount of stress your body, and therefore your brain, experiences.

Bad Habit #2: Not getting enough sleep

When you’re stressed out, things go from bad to worse in terms of brain health, as one of the side effects of stress can be difficulty sleeping. “More often than not, when we’re faced with intense stress, we’re not sleeping well — which is another bad habit that hurts our cognitive function,” says Rabin. “And it doesn’t take a neuroscientist to tell you that; you know how you feel when you’re exhausted versus well-rested.”

Dr. Billes notes that what qualifies as adequate sleep can vary from person to person, but public health guidelines typically recommend at least six hours a night. (Those of you who need more of it definitely already know who you are.) Sleep deprivation can be akin to alcohol intoxication in terms of its impairment to cognitive function. Your body needs sleep not only as a recharge, but as a daily detoxification. “Research in the last decade has shown that waste products are flushed from the brain during sleep,” says Billes.

As in their ability to reduce chronic stress, many of the good habits outlined below are also beneficial to your ability to get a regular, good night’s rest.

Bad Habit #3: Heavy drinking

Like sleep deprivation, stress and drinking often go hand in hand. While a moderate amount of alcohol consumption, especially wine, can definitely be part of a balanced, healthy lifestyle, there is a very fine line between that which relaxes us in a way that can actually improve brain health, and that which is extremely detrimental to our brains in the short and long term. “Excessive alcohol use really ages the brain,” says Michael J. McGrath, MD, board-certified psychiatrist and medical director of The Ohana Addiction Rehab. “Even though a person’s alcohol use may not rise to the level of an addiction, it can be quite damaging to the brain over the years, even if the person never gets drunk.” 

Alcohol is a toxin to which your body reacts accordingly, creating inflammation, which is a major culprit in many body and mind disorders. “I rarely contribute ailments like memory loss to just one cause,” says Mahmud Kara, MD, longtime practitioner at The Cleveland Clinic, and founder of KaraMD. “With that in mind, however, one of the leading causes of memory loss is inflammation.” Inflammation is the body’s natural response to harmful substances, not only to things such as viruses, but to toxins such as alcohol. “Although inflammation is meant to protect us, over time if this response is not kept in check, it can cause damage to vital structures like the brain. Recent studies have discussed the link between chronic inflammation and memory loss, specifically related to Alzheimer’s disease,” says Kara.

While many of us can relate to a general feeling of malaise due to stress, sleep deprivation, and alcohol consumption, don’t worry — there are more good habits to adopt in terms of brain health than there are ones to avoid. Here are some daily practices that can actually increase cognitive function and extend the life of your brain.

Good Habit #1: Have regular play dates

Yes, really! In good news, making a regular habit of spending time with friends and family isn’t only good for your emotional health, it’s actually good for your cognitive function. “The pandemic increased awareness of the importance of socialization on brain health,” says Billes. “Social isolation is associated with higher stress, cognitive decline, and increased risk of developing dementia or psychological disorders.” So if isolation has you feeling unlike your best self, here’s a legit medical excuse to text a friend and set up a coffee date.

Good Habit #2: Practice gratitude

“Gratitude actually changes your brain’s neural pathways, combats chronic stress, and strengthens the immune system — generally boosting our well-being,” says Rabin. “Research shows that our parasympathetic nervous system, or ‘rest-and-digest,’ is triggered when we think about what we appreciate, versus focusing on the negative thought loop.” A regular gratitude practice can be as simple as beginning your day by stating, or writing down, three things that you are grateful for. They need not be profound, only identified as positive factors in your life. Better yet, combine with the last point and establish a gratitude accountability practice by texting or calling a friend to share your gratitude with. As an easy place to begin, we’re grateful that simple habits such as this one can do more than just change our outlook, they can literally change our minds.

Good Habit #3: Healthy eating

Chief among the logic that what’s good for the body is good for the brain: proper nutrition. “The brain can make many of the nutrients it needs to function, others we need to supply them via our diet,“ explains Billes. “Eating a diet that is high in fruits and vegetables, and low in processed foods is great for the brain,” she says. Additionally, the brain benefits from other essential nutrients such as omega-3s and antioxidants, and Billes recommends looking for dietary supplements that can fill in the gaps if you aren’t getting enough of these. 

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There are some supplements that can help, too. “As we age, our ‘brain energy metabolism’ decreases naturally,” says Kara. “Recent research on MCT oil (medium-chain triglyceride oil) has suggested that this supplement can produce important ketones that can compensate for the brain glucose deficit and be used for fuel in the brain.”

Good Habit #4: Hydration

There’s a specific reason hydration is especially important to cognitive function. “The brain is made of about 80% water, followed by fat (11%), and protein (8%),” says Billes. “The brain can shrink in volume and does not function as well if we don’t get enough water.” So if you’ve ever felt like your brain was literally shriveled after a night of heavy drinking, dehydration is to blame.

Good Habit #5: Regular exercise

“Diet and exercise” can sometimes feel like a broken record when it comes to our health, but that’s simply because they really are the best things you can do to honor your body and brain. “Although most of us think about exercise as something we do for cardiovascular or metabolic health, many studies have shown a positive relationship between exercise and memory,” says Billes. “Exercise has other beneficial effects on the brain, including increasing levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which is important for repairing brain cells and forming new connections between brain cells, improving blood flow (which supports optimal function) reducing the impact of stress, and preventing cognitive decline as we age.”

Good Habit #6: Breathwork

In addition to regular exercise, it’s a good idea to reduce stress, which we’ve already identified as the worst thing that can happen to your brain. Reducing stress often leads to better sleep, so these good habits are two for the price of one. Whether or not you can realistically eliminate all stressors from your life, the good news is there are simple, concrete things you can do to overcome the effects of stress on the body and brain. “Breathwork is a really easy way to improve your brain health,” says Rabin. He recommends looking into apps that offer guided practices, otherwise he suggests a simple 4-7-8 breathing technique. (Inhale for four seconds through the nose, hold for seven seconds, exhale over eight seconds through the mouth.) 

Read next: Stressed Out? Try Taking an Ocean Breath

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