Recently, a friend and colleague passed away. He was a good man who died far too young. Upon learning the news, my emotions ranged from anger to grief to solemnness. But above all, I was scared. That emotion is selfish, but nonetheless it lingered as I thought about all the people I would miss and the experiences I wouldn’t have if I died young. And then my mind drifted to where any amateur doctor’s would go — a plan of action. Here are some things I have learned over the years about our brains that I am hoping will keep all of us alive a little longer:
I have written about sleep before, but it is probably one of the most overlooked lifelines we have. Sleep is required to clear toxins from the brain. If you were to try to live without any sleep at all, the toxins would build up and kill you after about 200 hours. In the case of limited sleep, the toxins kill you more slowly, over time. Every night counts, so making it a habit is one of the best things you can do for yourself.
Walk more, run less
We are all naturally lazy, and for good reason: Our brains were wired to conserve energy because food was really hard to find. But now that we eat until we are nauseated and don’t have to physically work to get our food, we need other ways to remain active and fit. Everyone knows the benefits of exercise; I have nothing to add here. But almost everyone overlooks a large body of research showing the opposite, namely that too much, too aggressive or too strenuous exercise comes with as many dangers as a sedentary lifestyle. World-class athletes often pay a huge physical toll later in life, as do people who participate in extreme sports. But even overdoing it with strenuous exercise, such as long-distance running or cycling, can cause more harm than good. Consistent, low-impact exercise is your best bet to keep your heart, your mind and your joints healthy. Want a sweat shortcut? Invest in a sauna: Studies show regular use of a sauna can decrease your risk of a stroke by 60% and reduce the risk of heart disease and even Alzheimer’s.
Those pesky researchers in food labs have discovered all kinds of ways to make us crave their food. They manipulate the smell, taste, texture, color and even the names of foods to keep our brains fixated on eating more of what we don’t need. Our only remedy for overindulging seems to be dieting. But no self-help advice is more dangerous or misunderstood than dieting. Is it worse to eat fat or carbs? Is Atkins or Paleo more effective? There are many tricks and gimmicks, but we have always known what is healthiest — stick with unprocessed foods and eat as much as you like. Back in the wild, learning to cook and process food was important to our survival and our ability to maintain our large brains. But in our modern, food-abundant society, we need to head back to nature. I know that’s easier said than done, so even I have put together some tricks on the subject. Forget dieting; just eat real food.
Don’t worry, be happy
Stress is one of evolution’s greatest tricks and our brain’s best defense mechanism. When we sense danger, our brains flood us with chemicals that put our bodies into hyperactivity. This works great when we encounter a lion or the edge of a cliff, as stress focuses all of our attention and resources on the singular task of survival. In this way, stress has saved humanity and most other mammals in the wild. But when our modern brains have the time and luxury to think about the future, we see danger everywhere: We stress about money, work, relationships, you name it. These types of problems won’t kill us today, but our brains respond the same as if they’re growling lions. Living in a state of stress for long periods eventually destroys the mind and body; it is a key reason why people develop ulcers, high blood pressure and heart disease. Think of it as the difference between drinking an energy drink to stay awake for one big test vs. drinking dozens over many months so you can study. The former may actually provide a benefit with little short-term damage; the latter may eventually kill you. Do everything you can to remove stress from your life (unless your life is in real danger).
If you can’t be happy, fake it
Happiness is really important. If you’re happy, your risk of dying is significantly lower. More than just prolonging our lives, happiness makes life more enjoyable (we don’t need science to teach us that). But for those of us who have trouble being happy, let me leave you with a brain science trick: Smile anyway. Happiness is physiologically linked to the muscles in our face, so smiling is the chicken to the happiness egg. Don’t believe me? Try smiling the next time you’re not happy. It’s also contagious — people in close proximity to other smiling people tend to be happier as well. It works, so smile more.
If you can’t smile for whatever reason, fake it. I have a close friend with chronic neurological pain. We wrapped her car in velvet (no joke) so that everywhere she drove, people would come up to her with big smiles. She was embarrassed and annoyed, but oddly enough, all of those curios smiles made her smile. Forcing a smile works wonders for the average person on an average day. But life can be overwhelming. If you or someone you know feels down regularly, seek the help of professionals. The world just lost Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, and we cannot afford to lose even one more person to depression or pain.
I will be the first to admit that I am more preacher than practitioner. But there is no reason to wait for something bad to happen before all of us start doing a little bit more good for ourselves.
Jeff Stibel is the former CEO of Web.com and vice chairman of Dun & Bradstreet, a partner of Bryant Stibel and an entrepreneur who also happens to be a brain scientist. He is the USA TODAY bestselling author of "Breakpoint" and "Wired for Thought." Follow him on Twitter at @stibel.
The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.