Building habits (part 1) : why habits matter

Today’s post will be the first of a series about habits (and change). The objective is to give you an explanation of why we have habits, and how we can change them to make them literally work for us. Why do I write about habits here? Because a lot of our lifestyle choices (diet, exercise, alcohol consumption, smoking…) consist in habits, and if we want to make a lifestyle change last, having some basic knowledge in psychology and neuroscience can help. Let’s start by having a look at our brain.

Isaac Tobin/Dan Harris/ABC News

As human we have a uniquely large executive brain that support executive functions such as working memory, flexible thinking, impulse control, self monitoring, motivation, emotional control, willpower, planning, prioritisation and task management. These functions are future-oriented and enable us to make decisions according to our objectives.

Executive functions require a lot of mental energy, which can be drained by the demands of our busy, modern lives, leaving us feeling low.

This is where the autopilot, that sits deep within our brain, comes handy. The autopilot does not interact with motivation, it is made of habits. Habits are stimulus-response behavioural task, they are automatic. Brushing your teeth, going to the gym every Monday lunchtime, eating porridge at breakfast, adding salt to your food….

If our habits support our goals, we rely on autopilot more and have more mental energy available for our executive brain. We are more motivated, we perform better. When our habits don’t align with our objectives, our executive brain uses extra mental energy to suppress them, eventually we risk feel drained. The problem is that we cannot always replenish our mental energy enough, or reduce the demands of our executive brain.

Therefore, to cope with the demands of our busy lives, we can build habits that support our goals, while changing the habits that go in their way.

Vitamin D and your brain

In the UK, vitamin D deficiency affects 23% of adults (21% in those over 65yo), in winter the prevalence even rises to 40% (29% in those over 65yo). Vitamin D is mainly known for its role in the regulation of calcium homeostasis and in bone integrity, but it also plays an important role in the brain and is even considered neuroprotective.

Vitamin D promotes amyloid metabolism and clearance, neuronal and synaptic growth and neurotransmission. Many studies show the association between low vitamin D status and cognitive impairment associated with ageing (dementia). More recently, a study looked at vitamin D in 4 areas of the brain, 2 associated with Alzheimer, 1 with dementia and 1 with no association to cognitive decline. They found that high concentration of vitamin D in the 4 areas were correlated with better cognitive function. In another study, MR analyses suggested a causal effect of vitamin D deficiency on dementia.

The exact mechanisms by which vitamin D acts on cerebral health are not yet elucidated, but one thing is certain: whether it is for your bones or brain, take your daily 10 microgram vitamin D supplement between October and March.