When we buy a new device, such as an iPod or car, it usually comes with instructions on how to operate it safely and get the best from it. However, as human beings we don’t come with a manual. We arrive on the planet with an amazing body and brain, but getting the best from them isn’t so clear.
Maggies top tips for getting the best from your brain and body:
Researchers have been discovering more about the brain in the last 15 years than ever before. This information could fill a 500-page book so we are only going to cover the essentials:
ESSENTIAL FUEL FOR THE BRAIN
Wonderful Water – H2O
80% of the body and brain are made up of water and it plays an essential and vital role in keeping the brain working at its best. It also helps maintain a steady pH level in the blood stream, enabling it to carry essential ingredients to the brain. Beware of becoming dehydrated – even without exercise, we can become dehydrated. Make drinking water a regular part of your day. Water also helps to keep our stress levels down by cleansing toxins from our body and if water is restricted when we are stressed we can have problems staying focused, and can feel unsettled, uneasy and may even get a headache.
Hot Tip: Fruit juices, soft drinks, alcohol, energy drinks, coffee and tea are all diuretics which help to make you dehydrated. Water is the only fluid that rehydrates the brain!
Beautiful Oxygen – O2
Oxygen is carried via the blood stream to the whole body. In order to perform at an optimum level the brain needs to convert glucose into fuel and it needs oxygen to do this. The brain uses 20-30% of every breath you take! The more oxygen in your blood supply, the better your brain will function. Pausing to breathe deeply and often will help keep your oxygen levels up. See how slowly you can breathe in deeply – count slowly as you breathe in. Then release the breath slowly. The more stress we feel the less we tend to breathe.
Exercise stimulates the body to oxygenate the blood better than anything. Ensure that you do vigorous exercise each day, and especially around study times and exams. It helps to release built-up tension from your nervous system, builds up oxygen in the blood and helps to burn off fat. Get into a habit of walking the dog, or walking after dinner to sharpen your brain for after-dinner study time.
Hot Tip: Pausing to take three deep breaths often during the day can benefit you in many ways. Try it or try sighing three times for quick stress release.
BRAIN FOOD – What is Best for the Brain?
The brain needs you to have breakfast. Brekky provides the brain with vital nutrients and enzymes that stimulate the ‘alertness chemicals’ also known as dopamine and noradrenaline. It is best if you have protein with your breakfast and not just carbohydrates.
Protein – can be found in low fat yoghurt, low fat milk, soy products, baked beans, eggs, sardines, lean meats and cheese.
Carbohydrates – the best carbs are those that have a low GI-or glycemic index, like wholegrain breads. This means they are slower to digest and this keeps your blood sugars more stable. Low blood sugar can give you a fuzzy head, mild headache and slow your brain integration and processing. Natural glucose is also excellent for your brain to function well – especially that found in apples, pears, strawberries, oranges and berries. Try eating these fruits rather than cakes and biscuits before studying. They will help you think better.
Anti-oxidants – foods that are rich in anti-oxidants will also help your brain to function. Especially good foods here include all the berries, prunes, garlic, spinach, and tomato products like paste and sauce. The best anti-oxidant drinks include those containing dark red grape juice, mangosteen juice and both black and green tea. It can help around exam times to take a supplement that is high in anti-oxidants. Some people find that their brain feels sharper if they graze on food throughout the day rather than just eat three main meals. Work out what works best for you!
Essential fatty acids – another form of great brain food is oil that contains Omega 3 and other essential fatty acids. This is found naturally in fatty fish like salmon, tuna, trout, herring and sardines, and also oils like canola, flaxseed and olive oil. To ensure that you have enough of this wonderful food in your body, take a fish oil supplement each day. There is a growing body of research that shows that Omega3 helps the brain to function in many ways as well as stabilising emotions and calming responses to conflict. It is excellent for people suffering from ADHD. For the ladies, Evening Primrose tablets help with premenstrual crabbiness for the same reasons.
Sugar – excessive sugar can play havoc with your blood sugar levels and make you have huge mood and energy swings and a scrambled brain! This is linked to the GI as explained already. Avoid ice-cream, lollies, energy drinks like Red Bull and Mother, and sugary drinks when you need your brain to be working efficiently for you. If you need a sweet fix try some good low GI foods such as yoghurt, bananas, dried apricots, cherries, strawberries, raisins, sultanas, and if you’re really keen for a sweet treat, a little Milo, and honey or Nuttela on wholegrain bread may be ok. A mix of nuts and dried fruits in the pantry is a good idea – and eat in small handfuls, not by the jar! If you don’t feel like eating much around stressful times like exams it would be advisable to take a multi-vitamin tablet (and maybe try home-made smoothies with protein in them). This would ensure you are still getting potassium, zinc and magnesium – all essential for healthy brains.
Energy drinks & caffeine – with the huge popularity of energy drinks, a lot of young people are ingesting very high levels of caffeine. Although it may give you a temporary boost in energy and mood, caffeine can also cause anxiety, jitters, headaches and dizziness. It can also disrupt your normal sleep patterns (source: kidshealth.org). Also, there have been reports of a US study that’s linked the use of energy drinks to higher levels of risk-taking among teens – meaning the side-effects could be far worse than we imagine.
Hot Tip: Eat as much fresh and unprocessed food as possible to help your body and brain work at their best. Would you put cheap fuel into a race car?
THE IMPORTANCE OF SLEEP
A good night’s sleep is essential for everyone. However for young adults who are still growing physically, mentally, emotionally, socially and spiritually the need is even more urgent.
- Deep sleep gives the body a chance to renew cells and generally rejuvenate the body because it is still and largely ‘offline’.
- The brain uses deep sleep to sort and store information and to process experiences that have occurred. If the deepest, ‘rapid eye movement’ stage of sleep is not reached, new learning may not be retained effectively.
- Tiredness from lack of sleep makes us emotionally unpredictable, short-tempered, moody and sometimes prone to unexpected tears! We are also prone to being less co-ordinated, more accident prone and generally less effective physically and mentally. Sleep deprivation also makes us a danger on the roads and we tend to make poor decisions on all levels.
- Hormonal changes in adolescence can cause sleep changes. Many teenagers need more sleep and yet find they are awake until after 11pm. This means the body will need to catch up and sleeping in on weekends is not to be seen as laziness, but rather a clearing of the sleep debt that has been created during the week.
- A regular sleep routine is essential for life. The same pattern will become anchored in the unconscious mind and the body will automatically be preparing for sleep as you begin the routine. Packing up your homework into your school bag, switching off your computer and iPod, and turning your phone off or leaving it on silent in another room is an excellent way to ‘close’ your mind from being in work or socialising mode. Then a shower or bath if that relaxes you – it can stimulate others. Work out what works best for you.
- Sleep loss elevates the stress hormone cortisol, which stimulates the body to make fat. The human growth hormone is also disrupted. Normally secreted as a pulse at the beginning of sleep, growth hormone is essential for the breakdown of fat and for, well, growing!
- Try a detox bath to help you have a really good night’s sleep: 1-2 cups of Epsom Salts or magnesium salts in a warm-to-hot bath for 20 minutes. This is great around exams or during study times. It works really well. If you are tossing and turning an hour after you have gone to bed – get up and try this.
- The use of guided visualisation audios is another excellent way to condition your mind to ‘switch off’ for sleep. Try to use the same few as they then become familiar to the mind and will work better. Calming music or calming aromatherapies also work. Smiling Mind have excellent free tracks.
Chronic stress can cause our bodies to become exhausted, full of toxins and to function less efficiently.
Simple steps to increase natural endorphins and deal with stress:
- Get good sleep
- Slow down if you’re moving too fast
- Exercise often
- Breathe often and deeply
- Learn how to relax the body
- Practise positive self-talk
- Laugh and play often
- Eat nutritiously
- Avoid toxic food, drink, drugs and people
- Develop positive friendships and connectedness
- Learn to communicate honestly
- Be realistic and enjoy the ride
- Keep your own dream alive
- Stay connected to a lighthouse (supportive adult) who cares about you.
RECAP: Essentials for Healthy Brain Functioning
- Healthy nutrients especially protein, essential fatty acids like Omega 3 & good oils
- Deep sleep every night
- An absence of chronic stress