When we talk about brain health, we mostly talk about the physical aspects over the mental ones. In order to prevent age-related cognitive decline, modern medicine touts all kinds of valuable physiological strategies. But in Ayurveda, the approach to long-lasting brain health is a little different.
That’s because we see the brain in a less concrete way. In Ayurveda, the mind is seen as something that’s spread all over the body. It’s located in two main areas: the head and the heart. In a sense, the head is the epicenter of the logical mind, and the heart is the location of the emotional mind. For optimal brain health to be achieved, these two aspects of the mind need to exist in harmony. The brain and the mind are intertwined.
There are three main ways to achieve this balance between logic and emotion: lifestyle, diet, and herbs. Here’s what you need to know about each.
If you’re familiar with Ayurveda, you probably know that daily routine is an important part of the ancient practice. Tongue scraping and drinking water first thing in the morning are examples of routines Ayurveda recommends. These rituals laid out in the ancient texts are meant to be practiced daily for life. They serve a crucial purpose: To make use of our sense organs (like the ears, eyes, skin, and more) in order to establish a connection with our natural instincts over the forces of our minds.
Practices, like oil massage, are great examples of this. Vata, the wind energy, is considered to be the most harmful dosha when it comes to brain health. The best way to reduce the influence of an energy is to do something with opposite qualities. So since vata is dry, cold, and rough, we can use daily oil massage to keep it under control.
Most of these routines relate to physical hygiene, but there are also recommendations about mental hygiene. Ayurveda says that in order to achieve good brain health, people need to behave in a righteous way. This means telling the truth, respecting others, and being pleasant to those around you. Basically, Ayurveda says people should have a positive approach to their life in order to establish a healthy mental routine and boost brain health.
Science supports this idea. If you look at “blue zone” studies, or evaluations of people who live in areas of the world where the population lives the longest, one of the things they have in common is a positive life outlook.
Sleep is also a crucial part of a lifestyle that promotes brain health. A good night’s rest is essential for strong brain function, so building high quality sleep into your routine should be a priority.
It’s also vital not to suppress natural urges, like needing to go to the bathroom, for example. Ayurveda says that doing so can cause toxins to accumulate in the deep tissues (FYI: the brain is considered deep tissue) and, simultaneously, increase vata energy in the body. So listening to what your body tells you is a key component in establishing a brain-health-promotive lifestyle.
Ayurveda makes specific diet recommendations for healthy brain function. In Ayurvedic texts, brain tissue is referred to as bone marrow. It may sound like a strange way of looking at it, but Ayurveda refers to anything that is contained in a hard bone cavity (like your brain) as bone marrow.
Why does that matter? It is believed that foods similar in structure to a certain type of tissue—brain tissue, for example, which is soft and oily—are beneficial for that tissue. That means the consumption of marrow is encouraged for meat eaters, either in the form of the marrow itself or in something like bone broth.
The use of healthy fat is also highly encouraged for brain health, since that is also considered to be soft and oily. This could be in the form of ghee, nuts and seeds, avocados. Food extracted from a hard shell, like walnuts and coconut, are also considered beneficial.
We also know that many brain issues, like dementia, affect the fatty tissues of the brain, so it makes sense that eating foods high in healthy fats may be helpful. This may be surprising because we have been told low fat diets were so healthy for so long, but this trend is changing, and Ayurveda has recommended healthy fats in the diet for thousands of years.
Herbs are also used in Ayurveda to keep the brain functioning well. There is a classification of herbs called medhya. Meda means “supports healthy brain function.” This has three aspects: intellect, memory, and willpower. Herbs that physically enhance the overall function of the mind fall into this category. Examples include Brahmi, Tulsi, Jatamansi, and Kapikacchu.
These herbs are often consumed as supplements, cooked in ghee, and are also sometimes added to oil and then used for application to the scalp. There is also a treatment called shirodhara, which involves pouring a stream of hot, herb-infused oil onto the forehead. It’s meant to reduce stress and can help bring the logical and emotional minds into harmony.
Lastly, Ayurveda recommends a seasonal head and neck cleansing (NASYA therapy) to keep the brain healthy. This is done by administering herbal oil nasally once every three to four months. There is a procedure for doing this that involves preparing the head and neck region beforehand with massage and steam. This practice should only be done by a qualified Ayurvedic practitioner, not on your own at home.