By Sinem Günel│ Medium│9 min
Your brain is the control center for all activities in your body. It regulates your breathing, heartbeat, and many more vital activities.
Yet, most people harm their brains every single day. And most of the time, they’re not even aware of it.
In this post, I’m not going to cover obviously brain-damaging activities like smoking or excessive drinking. Instead, we’ll debunk some of the more subtle habits that might be harming your brain in your daily life.
One of the most underrated ways you might be harming your brains is by not using it.
Think of your brain like a muscle: If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.
Your brain is designed to think. Challenging thoughts, new skills, different languages, interesting conversations, reading, new experiences, or even puzzles and crosswords can help stimulate your brain and develop neuroplasticity, which refers to the brain’s ability to adapt.
Like any muscle, your brain needs to be used and flexed to stay in shape.
What to do:
Research proves that brain exercises have a positive effect on our cognitive abilities. So, what are you waiting for? Ask yourself what you could do this week to train your brain.
What about reading a new book on a topic you’re not familiar with? Or signing up for that French or Spanish class you always wanted to visit?
What’s one thing that sounds a little bit scary but still tempting? Find it out and make a plan to get started as soon as possible.
Our biggest enemies
Bad news: Your favorite companion is your worst enemy.
Good news: You can defeat him.
I’m talking about your screens. Your phone, laptop, tablet,… they’re all designed to make you stay glued to your screen. But what’s good for social media giants like Facebook is deadly for your brain health.
If your eyes start to hurt and feel dry while staring at your screens, you know you should stop and take a break. Yet, the problem is that we‘re mostly not even aware of these obvious signs.
Instead, we keep scrolling because the Instagram feed looks tempting or because we think we need to reply to one more email.
Yet, studies show a direct link between screentime and depression. And it’s no wonder because most of the content we consume online is negative and harms our wellbeing.
First, we face mental overstimulation.
Second, our eyes hurt.
Third, most media and negative news harm our emotions and negatively impact our thinking.
And if that’s still not enough reasons to curb down your screen time, studies also show that too much screen time impairs brain structure and function.
What to do:
You don’t have to avoid social media or technology altogether. It’s just about setting healthy boundaries and making sure you control your media consumption, not the other way around.
Most smartphones allow you to track your screen time to see how much time you spend using your device.
According to TechJury, the average American spends 5.4 hours per day on his phone.
Just imagine what you could do, create, or learn if you had an additional five hours each day.
For the next few days, analyze your screen usage and ask yourself how you could minimize it, so you have more time to invest in meaningful activities.
Please don’t remain seated
Even though seating feels like one of the most natural activities, it can have dangerous effects on our mental and physical health.
We often forget that we were built to stand upright and ignore that an inactive lifestyle comes at high costs, such as heart disease, obesity, depression, or dementia.
Yet, a study found that a sedentary lifestyle also has negative effects on our brains. For example, it negatively influences our memory.
There’s nothing wrong with taking some time off and chilling on your beloved couch. However, the problem is that millions of people across the globe are victims of a sedentary lifestyle.
We all know how uncomfortable a stiff neck, lower back pain, or tension in our shoulders can feel like. Yet, we often fail to avoid these painful experiences because sitting feels normal.
What to do:
Beating your sedentary lifestyle is mostly about incorporating daily activity into your life.
It’s not about exercising like crazy and running marathons but about getting up for a few minutes, taking short walks, and standing upright.
According to research, even high levels of physical activity and exercise can’t offset the harmful effects of sitting for extended periods. This might sound frustrating, but it’s actually good news because it means you can significantly shape your (brain) health through small, daily changes.
Sometimes, adding more daily activity to your life can be about tricking yourself. E.g., set a timer on your phone that reminds you to stand up and walk around every 30–50 minutes.
Or use small cups for water or coffee, so you have to get up more frequently to refill.
On top of those small daily changes, pick activities you genuinely enjoy and include them in your weekly schedule. Join a dancing class, sign up for the local yoga club, or whatever else you enjoy doing.
Life is sweeter when you eat less sugar
According to Fernando Gomes Pinilla, professor of neurosurgery at UCLA, what you eat affects how you think.
Research also proves that a high-sugar diet slows down our brains and hampers memory and learning.
Most of the time, sugar cravings are a natural reaction to stress. As soon as we’re overwhelmed, we feel the need for more energy, and the easiest way to get that instant push is through sugar.
And that’s exactly what most junk food delivers: Minimal nutrients, maximum amounts of sugar, and salt. That way, we’re quickly satisfied yet feel hungry again quite soon.
The problem is that malnutrition doesn’t only harm your waistline but also slows down brain development.
Even though our brains only make up 2% of our body weight, they use 20% of the resources. That’s why the food you consume has such a huge effect on your thinking and decision-making.
What to do:
Instead of cutting out sugary drinks and foods, try to replace them with alternatives that positively affect your (brain) health.
Berries, whole grains, nuts, and green leafy vegetables are just a few of those examples.
Opt for whole food meals that consist of nutritious veggies and high-quality protein sources whenever possible.
If you crave sweets with your cup of coffee, opt for a piece of dark chocolate without added sugar. I know it doesn’t taste the same as your favorite chocolate bar, but it satisfies your cravings and is good for your brain, so it’s worth trying.
Also, don’t cut back on healthy fats and omega-rich foods such as nuts and seeds. According to the UCLA study, adding omega-3 fatty acids can even help minimize the damage caused by high sugar consumption.
And last but not least, make sure to drink enough water.
If you’re dehydrated, your body won’t be able to perform at its best, and you’ll struggle to stay focused or memorize important things — even if you’re mostly eating healthy foods.
Your Facebook friends don’t count
According to the Harvard Study of Adult Development, good relationships keep us happy and healthy.
As humans, we’re wired for genuine social interactions. Yet, the problem is that we often try to substitute those genuine relationships through Facebook friends and likes on our Instagram photos. And even though those give us an instant adrenaline rush, they don’t give us a real sense of connection.
The same is true when you’re surrounded by hundreds of people you don’t genuinely feel connected to.
Loneliness isn’t about being alone. It’s about the quality of your relationships.
Research proves that a lack of high-quality social contacts can indeed lead to mental and physical health issues. Human interactions can make or break our brain health, and digital communication can’t replace the value of face-to-face interactions.
What to do:
The quality of your relationships and social interactions has a significant impact on your brain health and the overall quality of your life.
In day-to-day life, your to-do list might often seem more important than spending time with your loved ones, but in the long run, you’ll be better off choosing humans over computers.
A 2007 study by the University of Michigan found that even a ten-minute face-to-face conversation per day can improve memory and cognition. Oscar Ybarra, the lead author of the study, even states that socializing is as effective as more traditional kinds of mental exercise.
You don’t do enough of this
When was the last time you didn’t sleep well but felt great and performed at your best?
Let me guess: That’s never been the case.
We all know that a bad night’s sleep leads to a lack of focus, harms our attention span, and negatively influences our mood.
Even though sleep is a vital part of our lives, we often view it as a necessary evil. In our productivity-driven world, many people try to cut down on sleep to have more time to work. Yet, the consequences of sleep deprivation are fatal and can range from dementia,
In the worst case, lack of sleep can lead to loss of brain cells, early memory loss, or even Alzheimers. These effects may slow down your thinking, impair your memory, and hinder learning. Research even shows that sleep deprivation might shrink your brain.
When you sleep, your brain gets a chance to recover and process what you’ve learned and experienced throughout the day.
What to do:
How well and how much you sleep can have a great impact on your brain health and memory. Most people need seven to eight hours of sleep to feel and perform at their best.
However, it’s also important to take care of the quality of your sleep.
One way to get more high-quality sleep is by having regular sleeping hours and going to bed at the same time.
Ideally, you’d also have a little bedtime ritual that helps you calm down and relax at least an hour before going to bed.
Don’t let music damage your brain
Another underrated way you might be harming your brain every day is through loud noises, especially through your headphones.
30 minutes of loud music (or any other kind of noise) are enough to damage your hearing permanently. But what’s worse is that research proves hearing loss is linked to brain problems and cognitive decline.
If you’re living in a big city, you might be exposed to loud noises anyway. In that case, it’s even more important to take well care of your ears.
What to do:
I know it’s tempting to plug in your earphones and say goodbye to the real world. I’m using headphones for multiple hours per day, especially while working and exercising.
Yet, I make sure the volume is adjusted, so it doesn’t hurt me in the long run.
Whenever you use earphones for long periods, make sure to check the volume of your devices regularly.
Most of the time, we get used to the loud noise, so it doesn’t even feel loud anymore — that’s when it gets really dangerous because we end up harming our hearing without being aware of it.
Put your headphones off at least once per hour to check the noise and adjust the volume.
Doing those regular checks helps you realize that the volume was higher than necessary because our ears naturally adapt to the noise.
Another quick check you can do is remove your headphones and hold them out in front of you at an arm’s length. If you can still hear the music clearly, it’s a sign to turn it down.
Instead of loading your mind with negative stimuli and becoming a victim of subtle brain-damaging activities, view each day as a fresh opportunity to restart and nourish your brain.
Most of these habits can have serious long-term effects, yet, the good news is that they’re all easy to avoid, and you can start right now.