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Absolute Worst Habits For Your Brain

It's the ones that aren't obvious that might hurt you the most.

Right now, you're taking a break to read this story. But that puzzling mass of spongy goo called your brain is busy working away—"about 100 billion nerve cells—aka neurons—and one trillion supporting cells" are stabilizing the tissue, according to the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care. And everything you do causes a charged reaction inside.

That makes what you do incredibly important.

The health of your brain (and your entire body) is directly related to your habits more than you know. Some of your worst habits can make it hard for your brain to do its job, which can negatively affect every other system in your body. Here are some of the absolute worst habits you should nix so your brain can stay healthy and keep your whole body functioning properly.


Eating Processed and Refined Foods

Man Opens Door And Reaches For Unhealthy Donut

You may already notice how processed or refined foods affect your mood. After the sugar high of your Sunday morning donut wears off, you might feel sluggish and a little melancholy. It's not all in your head. Well, it is actually all in your head. Eating foods that are processed or contain refined or artificial sugars inhibit your brain from sending you "happy" vibes.

According to Harvard Health Publishing, serotonin, the neurotransmitter responsible for keeping your mood stable, inhibiting pain, and regulating sleep, is mostly produced in your gastrointestinal tract, which is lined with neurons. These talk to your brain and tell it how you're feeling. When you eat processed and refined foods, the "good" bacteria that keeps these neurons happy is whisked away. So less of the "happy" neurotransmitters can reach your brain, making you feel sluggish, sad, or even depressed.

The Rx: In a study published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, dietary patterns and the onset of depression were analyzed. "The results suggest that high intakes of fruit, vegetables, fish, and whole grains may be associated with a reduced depression risk." Stay away from processed and refined foods and keep your diet as "whole" as possible to keep your brain (and yourself) happy.


Not Drinking Enough Water

woman drinking water at summer green park

You know you need to drink water when you're physically active to avoid muscle cramps, or even when you have a hangover to avoid a dreaded headache. But hydration is also crucial for your brain function at all times. Without enough water, you could experience memory loss and confusion. Your brain is made up of 75% water and it needs adequate water intake to continue doing its job. 

A study published in Physiology and Behavior found that when healthy young women were dehydrated, even by only 1%, their bodies' executive functions and cognitive abilities were impaired. According to Mindy Millard-Stafford, director of the Exercise Physiology Laboratory at the Georgia Institute of Technology, "We find that when people are mildly dehydrated they really don't do as well on tasks that require complex processing or on tasks that require a lot of their attention." 

The Rx: Harvard Health recommends that the average person drink about 30 to 50 fluid ounces each day. Increase the amount of fluids you drink when you're active to avoid even the slightest dehydration.



Man Smoking On Bright Sunny Day Outdoor

Smoking is obviously bad for your lungs but did you know it can also harm your brain? There are a million reasons to kick this bad habit, but the way nicotine changes your brain is a pretty strong one. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, nicotine reaches your brain about eight seconds after you inhale cigarette smoke. 

After inhalation, nicotine causes an imbalance in neurotransmitters and also causes the brain to think there are too many acetylcholine neurotransmitters, which are responsible for respiration, memory, alertness, muscle movement, and heart rate. The brain stops producing these receptors and the only way the smoker feels "normal" is with more nicotine.

The Rx: Quit smoking! When you first quit smoking cigarettes, your body will take time to adjust and kick the nicotine addiction. You may feel jittery, irritable, and less alert. However, once you make it through these withdrawal symptoms, your brain can heal itself and begin to function properly again.

RELATED: 50 Unhealthiest Habits on the Planet


Letting Yourself Get Fat

Overweight Man Measuring Waist

Obesity has negative effects on all aspects of your health, including your heart and lung function. But if you don't exercise and eat a poor diet high in calories and processed foods, your brain will also suffer. A study published in Human Brain Mapping compared the density of gray matter in 94 adults who were healthy, overweight, and obese. The study found, "Compared to healthy weight individuals, the obese adults had reduced gray matter volume in several brain regions, including the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, and other subcortical regions." 

Your hippocampus is responsible for memory and your prefrontal cortex helps to develop your personality. Your subcortical regions are important for a variety of functions, including your mood and hormones. If your gray matter is reduced due to obesity, these regions in your brain can't function properly and you'll see negative effects in many aspects.

The Rx: To ensure your gray matter stays dense and healthy, stay at a healthy weight. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests using your Body Mass Index (BMI) to determine your ideal weight. 

According to Dr. Aron Tendler, M.D.,C.BSM, chief medical officer at BrainsWay, "Obesity results in a feed forward mechanism in the brain, making it harder to sustain the prior normal weight. About 80% of people who lose weight regain it within one year." You can maintain your weight by eating healthy and exercising regularly.


Not Getting Enough Natural Light

young african american woman smiling and looking up

Plants need sunlight to thrive and we're kind of the same way. Exposure to sunlight is important for your absorption of Vitamin D but the number of sun rays you catch can also affect your brain and general cognitive function. Exposure to light increases the production of serotonin in your brain, which stabilizes and improves your mood. Sunlight also increases blood flow throughout the body and to the brain, which overall assists your brain with functioning on all levels. 

A study published in Environmental Health analyzed the effect of sunlight exposure on depressed participants. The study found that, "The relationships that serotonin, melatonin, and cerebral hemodynamics have with sunlight, depression, and cognitive function suggest that persons prone to sunlight-related mood disturbances may also be prone to sunlight-related cognitive difficulties."

The Rx: With our technology-based and sedentary lifestyles, it can be easy to skimp on sunshine, especially in the winter months. But it's important to snag a few rays everyday. Science Daily suggests getting at least 10 to 20 minutes of sunlight daily for optimal brain health.


Eating Too Much Salt

Salting food

A diet high in salt is more likely to raise your blood pressure. And high blood pressure increases your risk of a stroke, which can cause permanent brain damage. "High salt intake can have negative effects on the brain, as it can result in high blood pressure, which in the worst case, can lead to cerebrovascular disease, such as stroke," says Dr. Jennifer Moliterno, MD, a Yale Medicine neurosurgeon. 

Studies published by the National Institutes of Health also indicate that a high intake of salt decreases your blood flow to the brain. When mice were fed diets high in salt, immune cells called T helper 17 (TH17) cells started to accumulate in their guts. After eight weeks, this buildup of cells was the culprit for a 30% decreased blood flow in these mice. They experienced cognitive impairment due to this decreased blood flow to their brains and had trouble navigating mazes, building nests, and recognizing objects. 

The Rx: To keep your brain sharp and your heart ticking, the American Heart Association recommends consuming less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of salt a day but work toward cutting down to about 1,000 mg per day.


Listening to Music in Your Earpods on Max Volume…

listening to music through wireless earphones outdoors

Everyone enjoys drowning out the sounds of the morning commute or the loud breathing of a run with loud music through headphones. But listening to your music this way can easily cause hearing loss, which actually impairs the way your brain functions.

According to Hear It, "Noise levels above 110 decibels strip insulation from nerve fibers carrying signals from the ear to the brain. Loss of the protective coating, called myelin, disrupts electrical nerve signals." When the nerves in the brain are disrupted, your brain can't function normally and constant exposure to this loud music can even cause multiple sclerosis. 

The Rx: The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests a maximum volume of 85 decibels for headphones, especially if you'll be listening to them for consecutive hours. Limit time with your headphones in and get regular hearing check ups to ensure you're not causing damage.


Or Not Listening to Music at All

woman in earphones is imitating playing guitar using a vacuum cleaner and smiling while cleaning her house

Just because listening to loud music causes hearing loss and impaired cognitive function doesn't mean you should nix music altogether. Your brain gets a workout from listening to music and it can be a key factor in keeping your brain healthy and functioning properly. 

According to John Hopkins University, "There are few things that stimulate the brain the way music does. If you want to keep your brain engaged throughout the aging process, listening to or playing music is a great tool. It provides a total brain workout." University researchers claim that listening to music can improve your alertness and memory while jump-starting your creativity.

The Rx: Try turning on some tunes while you're working or cleaning the house. Everyone's body responds to different types of music in various ways so pay attention to how you feel when listening. Try to identify the types of music that make you feel good or focus better and stick with those genres.


Skipping Breakfast

hot beverage swallow sip croissant table late job quickly dressing jacket blazer exhausted formal-wear checkered plaid costume bright white kitchen

You've probably heard that skipping breakfast can actually lead to weight gain. If this isn't enough to convince you to crack an egg, then consider the cognitive effects you can experience if you deny yourself breakfast. Eating breakfast actually drops blood pressure, so when you chow down in the morning, you're actually reducing your risk of a brain hemorrhage. 

Research published by the American Heart Association studied over 80,000 people over the course of 15 years. Some participants ate breakfast everyday while other skipped it. The study concluded that participants who ate breakfast everyday were "less likely to have high blood pressure (systolic blood pressure ≥140 or diastolic blood pressure ≥90 mm Hg) than those skipping breakfast."

The Rx: Don't skip breakfast! Dr. Monique Tello, MD, MPH from Harvard Health Publishing recommends that you eat a healthy breakfast with a low glycemic index everyday. This could include eggs, meat, nuts, or whole grains. Foods with a low glycemic index don't spike your blood sugar level, so you'll have improved cognitive function and focus after your meal.


Not Wearing a Helmet During Dangerous Activities

couple of new yorkers on their bikes

To protect your brain, you literally need to protect your brain. Not wearing a helmet when you're participating in a dangerous sport can lead to serious injury, brain damage, or even death. A study published in Brain Injury analyzed 76,032 cycling injuries between 2002 and 2012 and found 78% of adult cyclists and 88% of young riders who suffered head and neck injuries were not wearing helmets when they were injured.

Dr. Moliterno warns you should not only wear a helmet to prevent severe traumas from occurring, but also to avoid smaller and more common injuries that can have lasting effects on your cognitive function. "While trauma to the brain can be dangerous and potentially life-threatening, less severe trauma can lead to long-term complications, such as changes in mood, cognitive abilities, and can impact other important brain functions, such as memory. Routinely wearing a helmet can become a good and potentially life-saving habit to form."

The Rx: Wear a helmet during any sport that's considered dangerous, including biking, rock climbing, horseback riding, or skiing. According to Consumer Reports, the helmet you choose should be specific to the sport you're participating in and should fit correctly. You should replace your helmet every five years.


Neglecting Social Time

Sad and lonely woman feeling depressed

Socialization may seem like a leisurely activity that helps us pass time. However, forging close friendships and having intimate conversation is more important than you think. Taking the time to socialize and build relationships with people is also important for your mental health and brain function. Stimulating conversations challenge your brain and give it a workout. Just like the muscles in your body, the more exercise your brain experiences, the stronger it gets. 

Interacting with others also boosts your mood and decreases feelings of depression. Research published by the Aging Research Center also found that keeping tight relationships with your friends and engaging socially can lower your risk of dementia. Those who participated in the study and kept active social lives were also found to have better memories and cognitive skills.

The Rx: With a busy and demanding life, it's easy to let your social life fall by the wayside. But socialization can keep you happy, healthy, and your brain functioning properly. Reach out to your friends or join local social groups to ensure you're having good conversation and interactions with others.


Not Getting Enough Sleep

Depressed man lying in his bed and feeling bad

Not only can sleep prevent you from snapping at your significant other or nodding off at your desk, it's also vital for several of your physiological functions, including memory consolidation and alertness. According to Dr. Sujay Kansagra, director of Duke University's pediatric neurology sleep medicine program, "Sleep deprivation can cause fatigue, irritability and worsen depression or anxiety. Because sleep is crucial for memory consolidation and maximal alertness and attention, without it we aren't able to give our day the energy it needs."

The Rx: Dr. Kansagra recommends getting about eight hours of uninterrupted sleep each night. He says, "If you experience trouble sleeping at night or have anxiety-induced behavior, such as sleep deprivation, know that you can always seek help. Bring it up to your regular physician and consider a referral to a sleep specialist that can help improve your sleep quality."

RELATED: 40 Surprising Facts You Didn't Know About Your Sleep


Skipping Exercise

young woman in sport clothing sitting front of the TV and doesn't wont to exercise

Exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle, but not just so you can maintain your weight. Moving around also improves cognitive function and decreases your likelihood of developing dementia. By implementing a regular exercise routine, you're also less likely to suffer from high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes, all of which may be linked to Alzheimer's disease. 

Exercise can also keep your brain's serotonin levels stable and hippocampus functioning properly. A study published in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology compared two groups of rats: one that exercised and one that didn't. The symptoms of depression were found to be eliminated in rats who moved regularly. The study concluded, "Suppression of cell proliferation in the hippocampus could constitute one of the mechanisms that underlie depression, and physical activity might be an efficient antidepressant."

The Rx: If you don't already stick to an exercise schedule, it's time to start. The Mayo Clinic recommends that most healthy adults get about 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity a week and engage in strength training sessions about twice per week. Talk to your doctor before starting an exercise regimen.


Not Resting When You're Sick

woman with handkerchief has sneezing attack, blowing nose while working with colleagues on meeting, caught cold, flu symptom

That foggy feeling you get when you have a cold makes it hard to focus. According to the American Psychological Association, cold sufferers experience the same types of effects as people do when consuming alcohol. They reported feeling less alert and having slower reaction times. Cold sufferers also had trouble learning new information and felt their thinking was sluggish. When you catch a cold, your immune system shifts into overdrive and produces several specific types of cytokines to fight off the illness. Colds also interfere with your neurotransmitters, which explains the memory loss and inability to comprehend new information. 

According to Andrew Smith, Ph.D., a health researcher and psychologist at Cardiff University, "While they're triggering your immune system's defenses, cytokines also mess with your brain chemistry." When you push yourself to continue working, exercising, or finishing a big project, you can exhaust your brain and body as it fights off your sickness. Brain efficiency declines and you can make it harder for your brain and body to recover if you push it too hard while you're trying to recover.

The Rx: If you're feeling under the weather, it's important to take it slow. Don't push yourself and edit your daily routine to accommodate your slow-moving brain. Hold off on intense exercise routines or complex projects until you're feeling better and your brain is clear.

RELATED: 40 Health Warnings You Should Never Ignore


Not Challenging Yourself

mature woman playing guitar in her bedroom, Free time and hobbies

When you go about your daily routine, your brain is rarely challenged. Habits become mindless, so your brain doesn't really need to engage when you complete familiar tasks. However, since your brain is like a muscle that needs to be exercised, it's important to challenge it and continue to build its strength. 

According to the Dementia Collaborative Research Centres of Australia, "Scientists have found that challenging the brain with new activities helps to build new brain cells and strengthen connections between them. Mental exercise may also protect against accumulation of damaging proteins in the brains of people with Alzheimer's disease." By keeping your brain exercised, you can reduce your risk of cognitive decline and dementia.

The Rx: Harvard Health Publishing recommends engaging in "mini brain challenges" throughout the day, such as brushing your teeth with the opposite hand, taking a different route when running errands, or taking a few bites of food with your eyes closed. You could also learn a new skill, like how to play a musical instrument, or do a crossword puzzle. 

Your brain is the epicenter of your body, so it's important to take care of it. By keeping your body healthy and your brain strong, you're less likely to develop diseases or chronic conditions that can affect your quality of life. Give up some of these bad habits and keep your brain happy.


Alcohol and Drugs

Upset man in bar. Friend's support

Needless to say, ingesting products that impair your mental faculties is bad for your brain. Hard drugs and alcohol can literally kill the cells inside it. For more on what booze can do, for example, don't miss this essential story: Here's What Happens to Your Brain When You Drink Alcohol.

The Rx: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends drinking up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. And to live your happiest and healthiest life, don't miss these 70 Things You Should Never Do For Your Health.

Kelly Hernandez
Kelly Hernandez is a health and wellness writer and certified personal trainer. Read more about Kelly