Imagine you’re planning to run a marathon, you prepare your body accordingly; building up your fitness, eating the right foods (maybe cutting back on the after work drinks) and getting a good night’s sleep the evening before the big event.
However, do you ensure your brain is in peak condition before making an significant decision, attending an important meeting or spending a morning brainstorming ideas for a new project?
Like our bodies, our brains need to be in optimal condition for peak performance.
There are a number of key factors that, when combined, will help us put our best foot (or should that be brain) forward when it comes to optimal mental health.
Studies show that not getting enough sleep has a negative impact on our brains. In fact some studies suggest, not getting enough sleep has the same impact as drinking too much alcohol. Sleep plays an important function in storing, prioritising and filing our memories from the day – what we’ve learnt and experienced. Sleep improves our ability to learn, pay attention, think creatively and regulate our emotions.
The optimal amount of sleep varies by person and changes as we age, however the most common guide is between 7-9 hours.
Studies show that regular exercise isn’t just good for the body, it’s also vital for a healthy brain. Exercise increases the blood flow to the brain, reduces inflammation and insulin resistance and stimulates the release of chemicals that promote the health of brain cells and the growth of new blood vessels, which assists memory formation and learning.
Some studies show an increase in capacity in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the part of the brain that controls our working memory, response times, focus and emotional regulation, for people who exercise.
Exercise can reduce stress, anxiety and depression and improve our sleep – all important factors for good mental cognition. Studies are also showing that exercise can slow cognitive decline as we age.
How much, and the type of exercise varies by person, however organisations such as the World Health Organisation (and reflected in many fitness apps these days), recommend healthy adults aged between 18-64 do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity, aerobic physical activity per week.
Interest in the benefits of mindfulness and meditation continues to grow as does the scientific interest in researching what occurs within our brains when we practice it. Mindfulness is, according to Jon Kabat-Zinn the founder of the Centre for Mindfulness, “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.“.
Studies are suggesting that the benefits of mindfulness or mindful meditation, are experienced not simply at the time of meditation but carry over into other activities throughout the day. Apparent benefits include increases in our brain’s grey matter, improved attention span, creativity and stress management, reduced anxiety and depression.
Other studies are proposing that how often you meditate, rather than how long you meditate could be the key. Five minutes every day, may prove to be more beneficial that 30 minutes once per week.
Have you ever looked up from something you’re doing, thinking it’s been 10 minutes, only to find you’ve been fully focused on it for an hour? That total immersion in what you’re doing so that you lose all sense of space and time? That’s flow. Or being in the zone. It’s something that happens to me when I’m gardening, or solving an Excel challenge (yep!) or when I’m writing (on a good day) in the midst of a noisy café.
With the right elements in place, such as clear goals, complete focus, feeling the activity is rewarding, the right amount of stretch, control over the situation, a sense of timelessness and lack of physical needs, we can encourage flow.
To sustain a state of flow your PFC needs to be in a state of optimal arousal, not too bored and not too stressed.
Knowing when your PFC is at its optimum and scheduling tasks accordingly can help to improve your effectiveness. If you know that you have a high level of energy, alertness and concentration early morning, schedule your most important (or brain-intense) tasks for then.
Neuroscience has identified that our brains have an inherently social nature – when we’re not engaging our brains on active tasks, it’s default is social thinking – to think about other people. According to social psychologist and neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman “The default network directs us to think about other people’s minds—their thoughts, feelings, and goals.”.
Studies into the impact of human relationships suggest people who have more social support tend to have better mental, physical and immunological health.
Play, engaging in an activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose, releases dopamine putting us in a state that supports optimal cortical functions such as cognition, attention, and memory.
Play isn’t just for kids, it’s important for relaxation and stimulation and helps to fuel our imagination, creativity, problem-solving abilities and well-being. Incorporating play with social connections boosts the benefits.
How often do you take time out simply to goof around with family or friends and have a good laugh? How great does a good belly laugh make you feel?
Different to mindfulness or play, disconnecting, or what Drs Rock and Siegel refer to as down time on their Healthy Mind Platter; carving out time when you simply do nothing, with no mental stimulus and no goal or outcome in mind, is important to allow our brains to recharge. You might call it chilling, daydreaming or simply lazing around.
Insights often come after a period of recharge.
Next time you catch yourself staring out the window instead of working on a task, perhaps it’s your brain needing a recharge and is the precursor to a great idea.
Nutrition and hydration
Our brains use a lot of our body’s energy in comparison to its size, and our PFC is particularly energy hungry – using up a lot of our brain’s glucose and oxygen resources when it’s functioning.
What you eat and drink has a direct impact on your brain so choose foods that will give you long lasting energy and make sure you stay well hydrated.
Research suggests a diet high in fruit, vegetables (particularly leafy greens), healthy fats (found in nuts, fish, avocado and olive oil), fish high in omega 3, lean meat and wholegrains support good brain health.
The majority of our brain’s content is composed of water, with water a necessary requirement for all the chemical reactions that take place in the brain. So it’s no surprise our brains are sensitive to dehydration; loss of water can cause brain fog, fatigue, dizziness, confusion and even brain shrinkage.
How much water we should drink varies from person to person and factors such as body size, weather, activity levels and so on, however the general guideline is at least 8 glasses per day.
Whilst all the above component are important, there is no one, daily combination for everyone to follow; the amount of each component needed for optimal mental health will vary from person to person and won’t necessarily be the same every day. The important thing is to be aware, learn to understand your own needs, triggers and signals and adjust accordingly.
Understanding how your brain’s energy levels change throughout the day can also be a great help in improving productivity by scheduling the tasks that take the most mental effort at times you’ll have the greatest energy.
Not sure when the best time for your brain is? One of my coaching tools is for coachees to log their activities, the degree of difficulty and their energy levels for a period of time and then apply these learnings to how they plan their days.
Take good care of your brain and it will reward you with it’s amazing capacity.
Need some help with personal effectiveness, goals setting or building new habits? Contact me for a confidential discussion about how coaching can facilitate positive change through improved thinking.
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