The 6 Factors of Peak Brain Health

Categories: Well-being

The 6 Factors of Focus for Peak Brain Health

Your daily activities affect your overall brain health! Think of your brain health like spokes on a tire. Take a look at the diagram below. Each element has an important job, and when they aren’t running well, the tire can go flat. Let’s hear from brain health expert Michael Dottino from USA Memory Championship to learn about how to keep our brain, mental, and physical health at peak performance!

1. Nutrition

We may not realize it, but what we eat can affect our memory and how our brain functions. There are three important types of nutrients that our bodies need in large amounts, called macronutrients: proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. To learn more about how to eat macronutrients for brain health, click below!


Protein is an important part of any healthy diet, and has many benefits for the brain, such as helping with communication between neurons.

You can get your protein from meat and animal products, but there are also plenty of plant protein options, such as beans and nuts! Just try to pick lean meat options over fatty meat when possible.



Carbohydrates are important for your health. There are three main types: sugar, starch, and fiber. These give your body the fuel it needs to work properly. When you eat sugars and starches, they turn into glucose and give your body energy. In fact, your brain mainly uses glucose for energy.

Sugar can be found naturally in foods like fruits, vegetables, milk, and milk products.

Starch is a carbohydrate made up of many sugar units joined together. It’s in vegetables, grains, and cooked beans and peas.

Fiber is also a complex carbohydrate and is naturally found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and cooked beans and peas.

Sugar and Refined Carbohydrates Hinder the Brain

It’s important to know that eating too much sugar can harm your brain. When the levels of glucose in your brain are not stable, it can affect how neurons communicate with each other.

You should be careful about foods that may not seem sugary but have a lot of sugar, like processed foods, fruit juice, sports drinks, breakfast cereal, granola bars, ketchup, flavored coffee, and iced tea.



Fats have several roles in our body:

  • Provide energy.
  • Help in the absorption of vitamins and minerals.
  • Build cell membranes and protect nerve fibers.
  • Support muscle movement.
  • Reduce blood clotting.

The healthiest fats are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Good sources of these fats include olive oil, peanut oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, avocados, nuts like walnuts and almonds, seeds such as sunflower, flaxseed, and chia, as well as fish.

Saturated fats are found in popular foods like pizza, dairy products, meat products, cookies, and desserts and should be eaten reasonably. Scientists don’t fully agree on whether saturated fat is bad for us, but it doesn’t offer many benefits. The National Institute of Health recommends that no more than 10% of our daily calorie intake should come from saturated fats. It’s better to focus on eating monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats for most of our fat intake.

On the other hand, it’s important to stay away from artificial trans fats in your diet. These fats are made in factories and turn healthy fats into unhealthy ones. They’re used to make foods last longer. They can harm our health because they have a different structure at the molecular level.

While macronutrients should make up the largest part of your diet, there are other things in our diet that impact our brain health.


When our body breaks down food for energy, it creates harmful free radicals. As we get older, our body isn’t as good at getting rid of these free radicals, and that can hurt our cells.

The brain is sensitive to these free radicals because it uses a lot of energy and oxygen. If we’re exposed to too many free radicals for a long time, it can harm our brain. This is called oxidative stress and it’s linked to diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Luckily, there are many foods that have antioxidants. Some examples of antioxidants are Vitamins A, C, D, and E, beta-carotene, and selenium. Berries like blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries are great sources of antioxidants. Dark chocolate with a lot of cocoa (around 72% cocoa) and spices like turmeric, cinnamon, and ginger also have antioxidants.

Remember, the more colorful a food is, the more antioxidants it usually has.

Coffee and tea in moderation (3 or less cups per day)

Good news for people who like coffee and tea! When you drink a moderate amount of coffee or tea, it can make your memory better and keep your brain healthy.

Having up to 3 cups of black coffee or tea each day can give you these benefits. One reason is because of caffeine, which makes your brain more active by blocking a substance called adenosine.

If you prefer tea, it’s good to know that it has something called polyphenols, that are good for your health because they can help reduce inflammation.

So, feel free to enjoy your coffee or tea, but remember to not have too much to get the best effects for your brain! You can learn more about the benefits of coffee by clicking here!

Limit alcohol

Drinking too much alcohol for a long time can shrink your hippocampus (part of the brain) and white matter (the fibers that connect brain cells).

Those who drink heavily may experience memory, attention, and reasoning decline years earlier than those who drink moderately. Heavy drinkers are also more likely to have ongoing memory and learning difficulties.

People often ask if different types of alcohol, like beer, wine, or spirits, have different effects on the brain. The truth is that alcohol is alcohol, no matter where it comes from. It has the same impact on your brain regardless of the source. Don’t want to miss out on your favorite holiday favorites? We have recipes for healthier holiday cocktails with mocktail options!

2. Exercise

Exercise is important not only for our physical health but also for our brains. It makes sure that our brains receive a good supply of oxygen. Since the brain uses a large amount of the oxygen in our bodies, maintaining good fitness is important for protecting brain health. To get the maximum benefits from exercise, do activities that you enjoy so you will stick to an exercise routine and reduces stress levels in the body! Exercise also improves mood and lowers the risk of anxiety and depression. Click below to explore different types of exercises and their benefits!


National guidelines suggest doing 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, which is about 30 minutes a day for 5 days.

Surprisingly, many everyday activities we do are considered aerobic exercise. Chores like washing the car, cleaning windows, gardening, pushing a stroller, or raking leaves count as moderate exercise. Walking is a great way to get aerobic exercise!

Sports like volleyball, touch football, and shooting baskets, as well as activities like fast dancing and water aerobics, are considered moderate exercise too.

For higher intensity, activities like jogging a 10-minute mile, swimming laps, playing basketball, cycling, jumping rope, and climbing stairs count. High-intensity activities give you the same benefits as moderate ones but in less time. As a rule of thumb, 1 minute of high-intensity activity equals 2 minutes of moderate activity. Find more information about physical activity guidelines here!


As we get older our muscles weaken, but we can regain strength through strength exercises. Using weights, resistance bands, or other exercises, strength training is important for our overall fitness.

Strength training helps us maintain the strength we need for everyday tasks like carrying groceries and doing household chores. It also boosts our metabolism, helping us burn more calories even after we finish exercising.

If you want to lose weight, incorporating strength training into your exercise routine is beneficial. Aim to do strength exercises twice a week on different days, working out all major muscle groups like arms, legs, and core.

You don’t need heavy weights to see results! Even using 5-pound dumbbells with proper technique can give your upper body a good workout. If you don’t prefer weights, resistance bands are a great alternative. They come in different tensions, offering varying levels of resistance.

Apart from weights and resistance bands, there are plenty of weight-free exercises that count as strength training. Classic exercises like push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, squats, lunges, and core exercises like planks all contribute to building strength.

Remember, you have many options to choose from, and you can do these exercises anywhere. So, get started!

Stretching and balance

Stretching exercises improve flexibility, helping muscles stay flexible and reducing the chance of injury. Try stretching at least 3 times a week, or even more often if possible!

Combining stretching with meditation, like yoga, can also help you relax at the end of the day.

Balance exercises are important too, as our balance gets worse with age if we don’t exercise. They reduce the risk of falling, which becomes more serious problem as we get older.

Depending on your age and current activity level, find a program that suits you best. Start slowly and work your way up! Need some inspiration to get started? Click here to for a full body at-home workout tutorial!

3. Sleep

Getting enough sleep is important for memory. When we sleep, the brain decides which memories to keep in long-term memory and which ones to forget. Improper sleep can lead to short-term effects of sleep deprivation, such as difficulty remembering things and learning new information.

 The amount of sleep needed is different for everyone. Most adults require 7-9 hours of sleep per night, but everyone is different!


  • Keep a bedtime routine. We should try to maintain about the same bedtime and wake up time each day, even when it is on our weekend.
  • Prepare body for sleep. The hour before going to bed should be used to wind down and do relaxing things. Avoid things that can trigger high emotions such as stress. You can find more information on creating a good sleep environment here!
  • Avoid eating right before bed! We sleep our best when our stomachs are in the middle point between being empty and full. We recommend whenever possible, avoid eating within the last two hours before bedtime.
  • Stay away from your phone! We strongly encourage you to get in the habit of leaving your smart device away from your bed. If you can’t bear to be that far away from it, at least keep it face down and turn off all forms of alerts.
  • Use the sunlight to your advantage. Sunlight can naturally help your body wake up. We recommend that at the beginning of the day, give yourself the opportunity to be exposed to sunlight.  Open the curtains, or even better, step outside directly into the light!
  • Don’t let napping during the day mess with your nighttime sleep. If during the day you are tired enough to require a nap, please try two things: don’t nap past 3pm and the nap for 30 minutes or less.

4. Mental Challenges

Just like a muscle, our brain needs to be exercised to stay healthy. Even though the brain is not a muscle, maintaining its health is similar to maintaining a healthy body. Challenging mental workouts can benefit the brain the most, as they involve active learning and often require both mental and physical activity.


  • Learn something new! Exercising your memory is more about learning to memorize new things than recalling things you learned a long-time ago. Pick a topic that interests you and learn new things about it!
  • The next activity is card playing, although certain types of cards games provide more benefit than others.
  • Learning a new language is one of the best workouts possible for your brain. Grab a language textbook or use a learning app on your phone!
  • If you are looking to combine a mental challenge with physical exercise, you might consider learning a new dance routine!
  • Or perhaps you are not a dancer but an up-and-coming musician. Playing a musical instrument, whether it is for the first time or to learn a new song, is also a fantastic workout for your brain.
  • One brain activity that many of us enjoy is reading a book. If you are looking for brain exercise, pick up a book that contains complex material about which you are unfamiliar.  If you opt for something less demanding, you may still get a boost from improving your mood.
  • Certain board games can also work out our brain. When trying to determine if a board game is a brain booster versus something enjoyable for social interaction, these factors apply.  Is it something new, or something you already know how play?  Are the rules complex or simple?  Does it require you to pay close attention to details frequently or just occasionally?  Does it exercise multiple parts of your brain (e.g., logic, order) or just a few?
  • For a brain challenge that combines a mind and body workout, consider learning tai chi. It is a wonderful activity for balance and relaxation and requires learning several new moves and terms.

5. Emotions & Stress

Our mood has control of our thoughts and memory. If we repeatedly view our experiences and events negatively, we may experience stress. This chronic stress can harm our ability to translate memories and harm the process of storing information in long-term memory. It can also lead to mental exhaustion, commonly known as burnout. Our brains are designed for periods of hard work followed by periods of rest; however, chronic stress disrupts this balance. Click here to learn how to use mindfulness to reduce stress!



6. Social Interaction

Studies have shown that social interactions help keep our brain healthy and also increases life expectancy, so socializing is a key part of a healthy lifestyle. According to Stanford University, people who feel connected to others experience lower levels of anxiety and depression. They also have higher self-esteem, greater empathy, and are more trusting and cooperative. Learn more about the health risks of social isolation and how to prioritize socialization in your life HERE!



For many of us, our daily routines often get in the way of our social life, and we miss out on opportunities to connect with others. If that sounds like you, here are a few simple steps to stay connected:

  • Be intentional about scheduling time to connect. Put it on your calendar and treat it as a priority.
  • Whenever possible, aim for face-to-face interaction. If that’s not possible, virtual contact with both video and audio is better than just audio.
  • Join a club or activity that interests you. Sharing a common interest with others is a fun way to spend time, and joining a group immediately provides a conversation starter. You might even make new friends!

The benefits of belonging to a social network apply even when we have only a handful of close meaningful relationships.  Just having a few people that are part of your support group may be all you need to feel connected! Want to get some exercise and connect with others? Click here to find local workout groups! To discover other community events in the Orange County area, click here!

Continue your brain health journey

Remember, progress can be made little at a time! Keep prioritizing your brain health by reading the next two blogs in this series! Click here to learn about the “Top 6 Ways to Keep Your Brain Fit” and “Benefits of Social Connection”.  Making small improvements every day for your brain health can go a long way. You got this!



Michael Dottino

Michael Dottino is the Chief Development Officer of the USA Memory Championship (USAMC). He is the creator of the Brain Power Series, a curriculum of online and in-person courses that teach memory skills, brain health, and super learning. He has provided both personal and organizational coaching to clients in the health care, hospitality, armed services, emergency services and education industries.
Michael is currently working with the neuroscience departments at MIT and Columbia on a National Science Foundation grant to study the impact of memory training on brain
function, and is a co-facilitator of the Brain Fitness Academy at the Dr Phillips YMCA.

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