Myelin is a fatty coating that insulates your nerve cells. It protects them from damage and allows them to communicate with one another faster.
Myelin decreases as you age—a process called demyelination. Decreased myelin slows your brain down and makes complex thought more difficult. Fortunately, there are several things you can do to increase your myelin and keep your brain in good shape or even make it stronger.
Here’s a look at how myelin works, why it’s vital for your brain, and how you can increase myelin to improve your brain function.
What Is Myelin?
Myelin is a fatty coating that surrounds many of your brain cells.
Your brain cells have long, sprawling branches called axons that spread across your brain. Information travels along these axons in the form of electricity, sending messages from one brain cell to another.
Myelin coats many of your axons, much like rubber coats a metal wire. It acts as an insulator, protecting your brain cells from damage and speeding up the electrical signals that they send across your brain. When your myelin is in good shape, you can think faster and your brain is more efficient.
Myelin Breaks Down As You Age
It costs a lot of energy for the brain to make myelin, mostly because myelin requires a substantial amount of fat and cholesterol, both of which are difficult to synthesize. Around age 50, your brain begins struggling to keep up with the energy demands you need to maintain the myelin coating your nerves.https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0197458003001647
The result is demyelination—a gradual decrease in your myelin levels, accompanied by less efficient brain function.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3896619/
The good news is that there are several ways to increase your myelin, keeping your brain sharp and protecting it from stress, regardless of your age.
3 Ways to Increase Your Myelin for a Stronger Brain
While demyelination is a decrease in myelin, remyelination is the opposite: increasing your brain’s myelin production to coat nerve fibers that have previously lost their insulation.
Remyelination is one of the best ways to maintain healthy cognition. It’s good for your brain at any age, and is especially effective as you pass 50.
Here are three ways to trigger remyelination:
Working out is one of the best ways to maintain high myelin levels in your brain.
A growing body of research suggests that exercise both protects the myelin you have and increases myelin production, helping to reinsulate your axons and strengthen your brain.
A 2019 study found that athletes had significantly higher levels of myelin integrity compared to people who didn’t exercise, and that myelin health correlated with exercise frequency and intensity.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6757343/
Another study from 2018 found that, as children grew into adulthood, those who exercised more and maintained better cardiovascular fitness had higher myelin production and less demyelination.https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fncel.2018.00424/full
A similar study from 2019 that followed children’s brains into adulthood found a similar connection between exercise and myelination.https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00208/full
Fasting involves going without food for an extended period of time—typically more than 14 hours.
When you fast, your cellular systems focus on repair, cleaning out old or damaged cells and replacing them with new ones. The repair process is especially prominent in your brain.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30172870/https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20534972/
A 2016 animal study found that fasting may also be good for myelin. Researchers put mice with multiple sclerosis (a demyelination disease) on a 3-day fasting-mimicking diet, where the mice ate only minimal calories for three days, then cycled back to eating normally.
Fasting reversed demyelination in mice, to the point where 20% of them had completely normal myelin levels and zero symptoms afterward after 3 days on a fasting-mimicking diet.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27239035/ The researchers also shared early research on humans with similarly promising results, where fasting improved symptoms of demyelination in patients.
Research on fasting and myelin is still early, but it’s promising. Given how good fasting is for brain function in general, it may be worth your time to try fasting.
Nootropics are compounds that enhance your brain function. There are many types of nootropics, including minerals, vitamins, phytonutrients, fatty acids, and lab-made compounds.
Research suggests that a few different nootropics are good for maintaining optimal myelin levels. Notable ones includehttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3896619/
- Polyphenols. Antioxidants guard against demyelination by altering your immune response.
- Vitamin D. An essential neurovitamin that, in addition to supporting general brain function, reduces risk of demyelination.
- Omega-3s. Fatty acids that make up a significant portion of your brain. Omega-3s help you maintain myelin integrity by blocking arachidonic acid, an inflammatory fat that causes myelin breakdown.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3896619/
These compounds also stack well with other nootropics, especially if you want to improve your focus, working memory, or attention. If you’re curious, take a nootropic quiz; it will recommend a personalized nootropic stack based on your unique needs.
Myelin is an essential part of your brain. It protects your nerves from damage and speeds up communication between brain cells, keeping you mentally sharp.
Myelin decreases naturally with age, but with a few changes to your routine—exercise, fasting, and nootropic supplements—you can increase your myelin levels and upgrade your brain function.