The body is constantly changing and adapting to it’s surroundings over the course of days or years, depending on the environmental influence. Your body and your brain need adaptation (physically and mentally) in order to survive, but your brain also needs to be quick in it’s processing so that you can move as effortlessly throughout the adaptations as possible. One of the most fascinating things about the human body is how much it changes and how the majority of our cells are replaced multiple times over the course of our existence. So, adaptations needed today, may not be needed next year if habits and lifestyle changes are altered for the better. By changing lifestyle habits (positive environmental influences), your body becomes protected and can ease through any negative environmental influences that come your way. I remember when I was in college and would pull an all night studying extravaganza filled with sugary sodas and caffeine and candy in hopes to stay awake and keep me “on my game.” When the next morning rolled around, I had a sugar high, maybe 1-2 hours of sleep, and a bunch of facts and information floating around in my head that I am not sure was even processed fully. How did my body adapt to that? Not well at all. My stomach hurt from all the sugar, my body ached from not getting enough rest, I had a relentless headache, and any anxiety over the test was heightened because of all the caffeine. But, one thing I did recognize? Each time got a little easier that I attempted an all night study session. My headaches were not as bad, my body ached less, and my system sure was getting used to the sugar. My body was adapting. Now, in the long run, this was not a positive adaptation, but, at the time, it got me through what I needed to – or at least I thought. In my young and naive mind, I did not realize fully that there were better ways and that I could enhance my brain processing while still getting rest and proper nutrition. So, how exactly do you do that? Here are what I consider some of the top areas of focus to train the brain for sharpness and better health.
What you eat greatly influences your body’s ability to function well. The foods that you eat and drinks that you choose affect you on a cellular level and become your blood, muscles, organs, skin, hair, and even your moods. Food is fuel and your fuel dictates how well our bodies and brains operate. Nutrients come in the form of vitamins, minerals, enzymes, water, proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Nutrients do everything from combating infection to repairing tissue to helping you to think. Processed food and fast food options do not give you the nutrients you need and, therefore, your needs will not be met. A deficiency in good nutrients will impair your body’s normal tasks and can cause body parts to not perform properly and break down. How well your body is working can be seen in observing your brain function, memory, skin elasticity, eyesight, energy, weight, and your overall sense of well-being. Your neurotransmitters, the brain chemicals that regulate your behavior and your moods, are controlled by the food and beverages that you choose to take in. Why are neurotransmitters so important? They are responsible for relaying impulses between your nerve cells. The most commonly known neurotransmitters are dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. When you eat foods that increase serotonin, you become less tense. When the brain creates more dopamine and norepinephrine, you act and think clearer and are more alert. If you do not have enough serotonin, it can lead to depression, anxiety, and disturbed sleep. When you eat a diet that is complete and supportive of your body’s needs, it can help to calm you down, decrease your stress, decrease your anxiety, and help you think and act more clearly. It is so important that you get the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals that support, not only a healthy body, but also a healthy brain. I suggest, first and foremost that your attempt to gain your nutrients by whole foods first before supplementing with pills. Supplementation is not a means to replace, rather enhance, so opt for whole foods and then supplement as needed. What vitamins are of utmost importance in brain health?
- Vitmain C
- Vitamin D
- B Vitamins
A great website to get the lowdown on specifics with these three vitamins are at bebrainfit.com
- Vitamin E: Helps to improve circulation, repair tissue, promotes healing, and maintains healthy nerves and muscles. Deficiency may appear as damage to red blood cells and neuromuscular problems.
- Folic Acid/Folate: Folate is referred to as a brain food. It is also used in the formation of red blood cells and the production of energy. This vitamin helps to metabolize protein and may help relieve anxiety and depression. Possible neurological signs of folate deficiency are fatigue, growth impairment, insomnia, memory problems, and weakness.
Let’s talk nutrients… Making sure that you are taking in the proper foods and nutrients is your biggest and most important step in feeding the body, getting adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals, and overall brain health. Since carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and water are all key components of proper nutrition, it is even more important that you are making sure to get high-quality nutrients into your system.
Carbohydrates: the macronutrient that we need in the largest amounts. According to the Dietary Reference Intakes published by the USDA, 45% – 65% of calories should come from carbohydrate. We need this amount of carbohydrate because:
- Carbohydrates can be stored in the muscles and liver and later used for energy.
- Carbohydrates are important in intestinal health and waste elimination.
- Carbohydrates are mainly found in starchy foods (like grain and potatoes), fruits, milk, and yogurt. Other foods like vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and cottage cheese contain carbohydrates, but in lesser amounts.
Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of fuel.
Carbohydrates are easily used by the body for energy.
All of the tissues and cells in our body can use glucose for energy.
Carbohydrates are needed for the central nervous system, the kidneys, the brain, the muscles (including the heart) to function properly.
- Growth (especially important for children, teens, and pregnant women)
- Tissue repair
- Immune function
- Making essential hormones and enzymes
- Energy when carbohydrate is not available
- Preserving lean muscle mass
- Protein is found in meats, poultry, fish, meat substitutes, cheese, milk, nuts, legumes, and in smaller quantities in starchy foods and vegetables.
- Normal growth and development
- Energy (fat is the most concentrated source of energy)
- Absorbing certain vitamins ( like vitamins A, D, E, K, and carotenoids)
- Providing cushioning for the organs
- Maintaining cell membranes
- Providing taste, consistency, and stability to foods
- Brain health
So many people look at sleep as a luxury, somewhat of a downtime activity, when in reality it is part of the recovery for all the activity that we do in our waking hours. If you have ever been chronically sleep-deprived (or are battling that currently) you may not realize how your brain and your body are not functioning to full capacity. You may not realize it until you get a long night’s sleep and feel that inner calmness, elevated energy, and pure clarity that is typically associated with restful sleep. If you want your brain operating at optimal capacity, sleep is essential. So, what does lack of sleep actually do to the mind?
- Sleeplessness slows down your though process, concentration, and judgement. It’s more difficult to focus and pay attention, so you’re more easily confused. This hampers your ability to perform tasks that require logical reasoning or complex thought. In regards to judgement, it is more difficult for you to access situations clearly, therefore, you are less likely to pick the more appropriate behavior.
- Memory is impaired. Research suggests that the nerve connections that make our memories are strengthened during sleep and that all the things we learned throughout the day are transferred into our short-termed memories. Research also shows that different phases of sleep play different roles in embedding new information into our memories. When you sleep is cut short, it interferes with the cycles and how it is processed. Not only does all this happen, but when we are more sleepy, we become forgetful, therefore forgetfulness weakens our memories even more.
- Poor sleep makes learning difficult. Here is the greatest reason why all night studying sessions were not very wise while I was in college! Sleep deprivation doesn’t allow you to focus as well, therefore making it difficult to pick up new information and learn efficiently. And, it doesn’t allow for efficient memorization. Lack of sleep increases anxiety, hyperactivity, depression, and diligence.
- Slowed reaction time. Sleepiness makes your reaction time slower, a special problem when driving or doing work or other tasks that require a quick response.
- Affects your mood and mental health. Lack of sleep can alter your mood significantly. It causes irritability and anger and may lessen your ability to cope with stress. It can also enhance the effect of current mental health challenges, such as depression, ADHD, anxiety, bipolar, etc. Sleep-deprived people are also less likely than those who sleep well to exercise, eat healthfully, have sex, and engage in leisure activities because of sleepiness.
There is a great website that can give you some tips on how to improve your sleep and get the optimal sleep for your body. Check it out at here!
Not only does exercise heal the body and prevent so many diseases and physical conditions, but it is also shown to affect the brain in magnificent ways. Exercise not only releases endorphins, your natural feel good mood boosters, but it also changes the brain in ways that protect memory and thinking skills. Exercise makes the brain more “plastic,” meaning it becomes more solid and protected. It has been found that regular aerobic exercise, the kind that gets your heart pumping, boosts the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning, and the key brain region affected by Alzheimer’s disease. Knowing this comes at a critical time! I read through Harvard Health that, currently, researchers say one new case of dementia is detected every four seconds globally. They estimate that by the year 2050, more than 115 million people will have dementia worldwide. Wow! Anyone want to go for a jog with me? The benefits of exercise come directly from its ability to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation, and stimulate the release of growth factors, chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells and the growth of new blood vessels in the brain.
So, how does exercise directly affect brain health?
- Exercise improves mood and sleep, and reduces stress and anxiety. Therefore, cognitive quickness and sharpness are enhanced.
- Feel good endorphins are released, therefore improving your mood and your stress levels.
- The volume of the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex are larger in those that exercise. Many studies have suggested that the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory (the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex) have greater volume in people who exercise versus people who don’t. And, this can change. So, those who engage in a regular exercise program of moderate activity can enhance the brain and increased the volume of these selected areas.
- Improving and increasing blood flow to your brain
- Improving development and survival of neurons
So how much activity should you aim for?
30 minutes most days a week, or 120-150 minutes of moderate activity is a great number to aim for. I suggest including various types of exercise, including aerobic, strengthening, flexibility, and core work so that you can gain a balance throughout your body and utilize your exercise time wisely.
The effects of stress on the brain can greatly impair your brain from functioning at it’s optimal capacity. Our ancestors were equipped with this concept of “fight or flight,” that in which when a threatening situation (i.e., being eaten) rears it’s ugly head, hormones, including cortisol (stress hormone), would be released and flood the body. These hormones would elevate the heart rate, increase blood pressure, boost energy and prepare the body to deal with the problem. Unlike our ancestors, we are less likely to be eaten, however, we are confronted with multiple challenges throughout the day, such as meeting deadlines, paying bills, and juggling the numerous items on our to-do lists. The problem? These challenges cause the same reaction in the body and, because we deal with so many multiple stressors every day, our “fight or flight” response may be stuck in the on position. This is the beginning of chronic stress, which can have serious health concerns! Chronic stress causes wear and tear on the body, mentally and physically. Mentally, we become more confused, have difficulty sleeping, increasingly fatigued, forgetful, lowering good judgement, and it can raise mental and emotional challenges. Physically, it increases the inflammation within the body, causing more body aches and pain, increase likeliness for cancers and heart disease, and can set us up for injuries because of being fatigued and less likely to respond quickly. Chronic stress makes us physically and mentally feel worse, therefore, emphasizing the stressors and frustrating situations that we may be faced with day-to-day.
How can you decrease your stress?
Eliminating or decreasing stress can make you feel better immediately! But, how do you do that?
- First and foremost, identify what’s causing stress. Monitor your state of mind throughout the day. If you feel stressed, write down the cause, your thoughts and your mood. Once you know what’s bothering you, develop a plan for addressing it.
- Strong positive relationships = Decreased stress. Relationships can be a source of stress when they are negative and hostile. But, positive relationships that are healthy and fulfilling can be a stress buffer. Reach out to family members or close friends and let them know you’re having a tough time. They may be able to offer practical assistance and support, useful ideas or just a fresh perspective as you begin to tackle whatever’s causing your stress.
- Walk away when you’re angry. Instead of reacting, respond by taking some time to regroup. If you need to give yourself a time out to collect your thoughts and take a few deep breaths, go for it. This will help to clear your mind and give you a chance to think more clearly before reacting out of stress and old habitual reactions. Walking or other physical activities can also help you work off steam. Plus, exercise increases the production of endorphins, your body’s natural mood-booster. Commit to a daily walk or other form of exercise.
- Rest your mind. In a world full of distractions and activities that are easily at our finger tips 24/7, our brains get little relaxation if we do not mindfully incorporate mental relaxation. For immediate relief and mental breaks, try 5-10 minutes of meditation or a time where there are no distractions around you. Allow your mind to simply be still for that time frame. It is also helpful to cut back on caffeine, remove distractions such as television or computers from your bedroom and go to bed at the same time each night, exercise regularly, and to limit your exposure to social media or the news or your email to one or two times a day.
- Get help. If you continue to feel overwhelmed, consult with a psychologist or other licensed mental health professional who can help you learn how to manage stress effectively. He or she can help you identify situations or behaviors that contribute to your chronic stress and then develop an action plan for changing them.
What can you do in less than 5 minutes?
- Breathe Deeply: Take several deep breaths to slow down your heart rate and reduce your anxiety.
- Relax Your Muscles: Stretch your neck, stand or sit up straight, get some of the tension out of your body. Try meditation or yoga.
- Make A Change: Step back from what you’re doing and/or what’s stressing you; a few seconds can bring a lot of perspective.
- Laugh: Nothing relieves the tension in your body, or your mind, like a little humor.
- Practice Gratitude: Think of at least one thing that you are grateful for and name 10 in depth reasons why you are grateful for this person, place, thing, or event. For even more gratitude power, try a gratitude journal in the mornings before you get started for the day! It is the best time to shape and program your mind towards happiness!
- Improve memory: It can improve your short-term memory and speed up your reaction times
- Decrease fatigue
- Improve mental functioning
- Contains antioxidants: Caffeine protects our cells from free-radical damage. Between the combination of the antioxidants and the fact that it is a psychoactive stimulant (meaning it temporarily increases mental processes), caffeine has an edge when it comes to enhancing our daily lives and protecting our health.
- Improves concentration
- Improves mood: Caffeine stimulates the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that activates an area of gray matter in the brain responsible for alertness and productivity. And because dopamine regulates mood, a cup of coffee can improve your mood, at least temporarily.
- Workout enhancer: Has been shown to boost endurance and speed in workouts.
- Has been linked to helping to prevent: Type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, Liver disease/ cancer, including liver cancer, and decreasing ADHD symptoms
- Decrease stroke risk
- Increases glucose: Some studies indicate that caffeine consumption causes glucose levels to rise slightly in diabetics.
- Increased cortisol: Produces more cortisol, the ‘stress hormone,’ which has been linked to weight gain and, of course, stress.
- Increased persuasion (a real problem in the work place!)
- Boosts blood pressure: this is only temporary, however it has been speculated that repeated elevations in blood pressure and increases in your reactions to daily stress that occur with caffeine intake could possibly increase the risk of heart disease.
Those with high blood pressure
If you are a child, teen, and are elderly: These individuals may be more vulnerable to caffeine’s adverse effects.
If you are a pregnant women
If you are a post menopausal women: Some studies have indicated that more than 300 mg of caffeine each day can speed up bone loss in postmenopausal women.
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