Brush your teeth more than twice a day. In my house growing up, both my mother and my father lost all their teeth to gum infections before I was born. As a result, I never saw either of them brush or floss – they put their teeth in a glass of water by the bed at night. Consequently, I had no modeling and little early discipline in oral hygiene myself. Nevertheless, I’ve managed to keep most of my own teeth for more than six decades, but not without considerable expense. I would give myself a B- in terms of oral hygiene, which it turns out, is significantly correlated with heart disease. By extension, I would argue, poor heart health negatively affects brain function, since a diseased heart pumps blood to the brain much differently than a heart that is not diseased. If you want to optimize brain function, take care of your heart. Your teeth will greatly appreciate it.
Delay clamping a baby’s umbilical cord. Doctor Paul Sandberg at the University of South Florida’s Center for Excellence in Aging and Brain Repair has determined that significant benefits accrue to babies whose umbilical cord is cut only after it stops pulsating. The benefits from this pluripotent blood supply include diminishing respiratory distress, sepsis, chronic lung disease, prematurity apneas, and increases iron to prevent anemia – in effect providing baby with their very first stem cell transplant. Patience is a neurological virtue.
Orchestrate the constructive expression of anger. I’ve often thought how unfair it is that the good die young, and that cranky, negative, whining, trouble-making apocaholics like me frequently live to a ripe old age. Well, some researchers at the Spanish University of Valencia have discovered, in part, why that might be: good people who tend to keep things bottled up miss out on expressing anger that reduces cortisol levels and activates the left hemisphere of the brain. Lower cortisol levels are correlated with better stress management and the left hemisphere is associated with positive feelings and emotional closeness. Go figure. Then go find ways to creatively and constructively move that anger energy out of the brain and body in ways that don’t raise other people’s stress levels!
Cultivate conscientiousness. Do what you say you’ll do. If you give your word, keep it. Your word as a strong bond correlates with a brain with strong bonds and greater neuron density. Promises made and kept, answer the Big Brain Question best. Denise Head, a psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis, found that conscientious people have larger volumes of gray matter in the orbitofrontal and medial temporal areas of their brains than those less conscientious. Being reliable pays off neurologically.
Get out of abusive relationships. Abusive relationships make us fat and stupid. Here’s what Dr. Renee Boynton-Jarrett at the Boston University School of Medicine has to say about the effects of simply witnessing abuse on as many as 10 million kids in America:
Exposure to intimate partner violence in childhood is associated with altered neuro-endocrine system profiles, impaired socio-emotional development, cognitive functioning, attachment to caregivers and emotional regulation, and poorer physical and mental health.
That altered neuro-endocrine profile can make our brain unable to handle such things as food cravings. The end result, as these researchers point out, is even further disruptions to our brain and body health and well-being.
Don’t be born in December. Like Thursday’s Child, December children have far to go – they end up developmentally almost a year behind their peers. This has significant disadvantages. Such children are less likely to become sports stars according to one research study. In addition, two Notre Dame economists, Kasey Buckles and Daniel Hungerman claim that if you’re born in winter, you have a much higher probability of being fat, poor and stupid! These are all things associated with a disorganized neural network.
Pay attention to messages from skin. The skin covering our body is our largest organ. Its condition will often provide us with clues to the amount of stress we’re under. Cortisol, a stress-generated neurotoxin at high or sustained levels, increases skin oil production, often resulting in acne flare ups. Sores that spontaneously erupt and are slow to heal can be another sign of excessive stress. Rashes, itchy skin and alopecia – bald spots that appear suddenly on the head or face – can also be stress indicators. When any of these things show up, it’s time to take extra self-care.
Practice empathy for optimal mirror neuron development. Finally, I’d like to leave you with this inspiring animated video featuring Wharton professor Jeremy Rifkin on the power of empathy to change both our personal internal world and by extension, the world your mother inhabits, the one where the brain you’ve grown has made her extremely proud: Becoming Civilized.