I've always been under the impression that once we reach adulthood, our brains stop producing new cells. I pictured a brain, which was once a lava lamp of amorphous nerves connecting and disconnecting in a constant state of flux throughout adolescence, reaching the magical endpoint of adulthood and suddenly lying stagnant, with cobwebs collecting in the corners. Sure, I took some creative license with the imagery, but I truly believed that the brain stopped cell production somewhere in our late teens/early-20s.
According to neurologist Ilene Ruhoy, MD and PhD, in an article from MindBodyGreen, the adult brain can, in fact, generate healthy new cells. It just has to be in the perfect environment to do so.
Let's rewind a bit, shall we? The name for the formation of new brain cells is "neurogenesis." According to Ruhoy, it's an important area of study and research since "active adult neurogenesis is associated with higher cognitive function as we age." That means encouraging neurogenesis could result in better memory and the prevention of degenerative diseases, among other things.
While the science behind neurogenesis gets pretty complicated pretty fast, there are some simple changes you can make to create the ideal environment for neurogenesis. Hint: most of it involves taking control of your diet, by adding (or avoiding) certain foods. "Studies show the detrimental effects of diets high in saturated fat and high in refined sugars on adult neurogenesis and neuroplasticity," Ruhoy writes. "This is because they promote oxidative stress and neuroinflammation, which creates a very poor environment for continued neurogenesis. On the flip side, carotenoids, vitamins, polyphenols, fatty acids, and flavonoids can play a crucial role in supporting the thousands of enzymatic reactions that are required for effective and functional neurogenesis."
Ruhoy suggests the following for promoting neurogenesis:
1. Eliminate saturated fat from your diet
2. Eliminate refined sugars from your diet
3. Include vitamins E, C, B12, B2, and B9 in your diet
4. Eat dark leafy greens, cruciferous veggies, grapes, and berries
5. Eat polyunsaturated fatty acids (these are found in walnuts, Brazil nuts, flaxseed, and chia seeds)
6. Get a daily dose of grapeseed and holy basil extracts
7. Drink a morning juice of turmeric and ginger root
8. Drink smoothies with berries, greens, banana, and lion's mane powder (this is a type of mushroom thought to stimulate a nerve-growth protein)
9. Eat a piece of dark chocolate each day
10. Practice intermittent fasting
11. Meditate daily
12. Exercise each day for 30 minutes
13. Sleep (Ruhoy says this "restorative sleep is critical for brain health)"
These are pretty specific guidelines, but it seems the general point of Ruhoy's advice is to make sure you're eating a well-rounded and nutrient-rich diet. "If you're able to do the above at least some of the time, you're well on your way to allowing the brain to do what it does best: maintain healthy neurons and healthy connections between the neurons for better cognitive protection for life," Ruhoy writes.
Beilharz JE, Maniam J, Morris MJ. Diet-induced cognitive deficits: the role of fat and sugar, potential mechanisms and nutritional interventions. Nutrients. 2015;7(8):6719‐6738. doi:10.3390/nu7085307