POWER UP YOUR BRAIN
Six Ways to Boost Blood Flow
by Ronica O’Hara
Our brain has many well-known structures like the amygdala that detects danger and the prefrontal cortex that enables planning, but we often take for granted the 400 miles of blood vessels that push through a liter of blood per minute, carrying in oxygen and nutrients, and porting out wastes. “Our brains are highly metabolic organs, so they require lots of nutrients and oxygen to function properly, and those can only get to our brain when we have good blood flow,” says naturopathic physician Emilie Wilson, of the Synergy Wellness Center, in Prescott, Arizona.
When that blood flow is optimal, we feel energized and clear-headed; when it’s low, we feel foggy and listless. Low levels of cranial blood flow have been linked in brain imaging studies to strokes and dementia, as well as bipolar disorder, depression and suicidal tendencies. The first imperative for healthy cranial blood flow is to make sure our blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol numbers are in a healthy range. Health practitioners can help us address that, as well as the conditions linked to reduced blood flow—heart disease, hypothyroidism, diabetes, anemia, depression and smoking. To boost brain blood flow, specific lifestyle strategies have proven to be highly effective:
1. Eat strategically, especially beets and chocolate.
Nitric oxide (NO) is made in the endothelium, the thin layer of cells that line blood vessels; it relaxes the inner muscles of those vessels, maximizing blood flow. “The continuous formation of NO in the brain is essential to life,” says prominent pharmacologist Louis Ignarro, Ph.D., who received the Nobel Prize in Science in 1998 for discovering that humans produce NO and that it lowers blood pressure and improves blood flow. He advocates passing up meat for soy and fish protein, eating antioxidant-rich produce such as pomegranate, blueberries, spinach and kale, and consuming lots of nitrate-rich food like celery and leafy greens which are converted to NO in the body. He especially recommends beets—one study reported that in juice form, it increases nitric oxide levels by 21 percent in 45 minutes—as well as dark chocolate. In a Harvard study, older people that drank two cups of hot chocolate a day for 30 days had improved blood flow to the brain and better memory.
2. Take amino acid supplements.
“Consuming supplements containing both L-arginine and L-citrulline are well-documented to boost the production of endothelium-derived NO,” says Ignarro. “Adding antioxidants to the amino acid mix provides added benefit by increasing NO levels.” He recommends pomegranate extract, cocoa flavonols and omega-3 supplements.
3. Move the body.
Fast walking, running, cycling, swimming, ball playing, weight lifting and yoga all help improve cranial blood flow, says Ignarro: “Physical activity stimulates the production of NO in all arteries, including those in the brain.” In one study, women over 60 that walked for 30 to 50 minutes three or four times a week increased ongoing cranial blood flow up to 15 percent. Yoga exercises like downward dog and shoulder stands also raise blood flow in the head.
4. Play music.
Research using functional magnetic resonance imaging published in Scientific Reports found that blood flow in the brain increases when people listen to music they love, whether it’s Mozart or Eminem. In a recent study, Weightless, a song written by the British group Macaroni Union along with sound therapists, reduced participants’ anxiety levels by 65 percent and physiological resting rates by 35 percent.
5. Do a chanting meditation.
Kirtan Kriya, a 12-minute daily meditation that includes chanting, finger movements and visualization, “has been researched for over 18 years and has documented benefits in increasing blood flow to the brain,” says Krystal Culler, senior Atlantic fellow with the Global Brain Health Institute, in San Francisco and Ireland. YouTube offers several versions, as does the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation (Tinyurl.com/12MinuteYogaMeditation).
6. Consider acupuncture and craniosacral therapy.
“Acupuncture has been used for thousands of years to boost blood flow, and it can also relax tense muscles in the neck and head, which can impair blood flow more than we realize,” says Wilson. She also recommends the gentle, hands-on-head approach of craniosacral therapy: “It can directly improve blood flow by removing restrictions, and it can also rebalance sympathetic and parasympathetic functions, which has beneficial effects on our nervous system and on blood flow.”
Ronica O’Hara is a Denver-based health writer. Connect at OHaraRonica@gmail.com.