Seven ways to keep your brain healthy in college

Amanda Wymore

Staying healthy is an absolute must if you’re going to get the most out of your college experience. But did you know how important a healthy brain is to your overall health and well-being? 

For most students, college is the doorway to a career that they have dreamed about since childhood.

Hannah Chute, junior in elementary education and president of Iowa State University’s Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA) chapter, said there are several ways to sustain a healthy lifestyle, especially in regard to the brain.

“I have watched so many students come to college full of excitement about the new experiences and opportunities that lay before them,” Chute said. “I often wonder if they have given any thought to the single most important item they have brought to campus: their brain.”

The following seven things have been shown to enhance brain functioning and can help any college student live up to their full academic potential.

1. Get plenty of sleep

Sleep is necessary for learning and allows the brain to repair itself from the stress of daily life. The average adult needs about eight hours of sleep every night. Research from Dovepress has shown that sleep-deprived individuals have a shorter attention span, impaired memory, longer reaction times and reduced neural activity during cognition tasks. Sleep deprivation also results in a higher cortisol and stress hormone production. 

2. Television and video games in moderation

Positive and affirming movies, television and video games in moderation are certainly not damaging. Unfortunately, in our high-tech society, this type of entertainment is quickly taking the place of more healthy activities such as exercise, time with family or reading a book. In excess, video media can have a detrimental effect on brain function by inducing alpha or slow wave activity to the brain. This is usually associated with drowsy or resting states and can lead to permanent change in brain activity. 

3. Exercise regularly

Most of us know that regular exercise benefits our bodies by helping to manage our weight, increase our strength and stamina and improve our mood. Exercise is also important for the health of our brain. Studies have shown that regular exercise stimulates the growth of new brain cells, increases blood flow to the brain and reduces the level of stress hormones. College students who exercise regularly learn faster, remember more, think more clearly and bounce back faster from brain injuries and psychological distress than those who do not exercise. 

4. Develop good eating habits

Chute said the neurons of the brain, like other cells in the body, are made of lipids and proteins and require glucose for energy. Brain cells communicate through the electrical signals, produced by an ionic solution, which surrounds the cells and neurotransmitters, produced from amino acids within the cells. For your brain to function optimally, it requires sufficient levels of glucose, electrolytes and amino acids. Deficiencies in any of these vital nutrients can lead to cognitive confusion, forgetfulness, lack of attention and mood swings. Making the right diet choices can also decrease a person’s risk to developing brain disorders, like Alzheimer’s disease, later in life.

5. Avoid alcohol and drugs

Alcohol and drug use are significant problems on most college campuses. Surveys from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism show that the average male college student consumes 8.4 alcoholic beverages per week, while females consume 3.6 drinks per week. The highly destructive effects of alcohol and drugs on the brain cannot be understated. These substances wreak havoc on the neurons’ ability to send signals by altering the levels of neurotransmitters within the brain, leading to permanent brain damage and cognitive impairment.

6. Read every day

Reading is a highly complex cognitive task that simultaneously engages a significant number of neural systems throughout the brain. Just like the muscles, the brain is strengthened by the “mental” exercise of reading. Chute claims individuals who read often have superior memories, vocabularies, comprehension skills and attention. The neurocognitive effects of reading are perhaps most apparent in the fact that reading is protective against damage to the brain as a result of Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, other dementias, sleep apnea or traumatic brain injury. 

7. Reduce stress

In a stressful situation, the body reacts with a flood of stress hormones to prepare you for the circumstances at hand. Your heart beats faster, your blood pressure rises and you breathe faster, pumping oxygen-rich blood to your muscles. Extended exposure to stress hormones causes cell death in certain brain areas, particularly the hippocampus, which is vital to learning and memory. This is supported by the fact that highly stressed individuals consistently report forgetfulness and difficulty learning new material.

For more information on how to keep your brain healthy during college, Iowa State’s AFA chapter is hosting the Raise Your Voice event from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday in the Memorial Union. The event will feature a caregiver panel, career panel, memory screenings, virtual dementia tours and discussions about Alzheimer’s disease and therapies. If there are other questions, contact Chute at [email protected] or call 319-540-3221.