The key to success lies in our most important tool – our brain. It is our most important organ. Our brain weighs only around 1.4kg, or roughly 2% of an average person’s weight, but it uses up to 20% of our resting metabolic rate (RMR). If a person has an RMR of 1,300 calories per day, 260 calories of that are used, literally, as brain food.
Because the brain is so essential, we should do our utmost to help our brains work at their best. Here are some tips to optimize your brain.
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Exercising And Fitness Are Key
New studies have found that exercising not only benefits our bodily health but the health of our brains as well.
Exercising increases blood flow to the brain, specifically to the hippocampus, which plays a role in forming new memories. Exercise also prevents a decline in our cognitive abilities; a recent study shows that loss in tissue density was less in people who were more aerobically fit.
There are also studies that have proven that exercise can help one increase one’s learning abilities, make clearer decisions, and deal better with stressful situations.
Exercise Your Brain Too
Lifting weights and taking on activities that otherwise allow us to move our muscles can help improve blood flow to the brain. We can also help our brains function better by stimulating it–by hitting the books.
People used to believe that we would also have the same amount of grey matter for the entire duration of our lives. We also thought that if the brain were to lose neurons, it could no longer regenerate the lost cells.
However, research over the past twenty years has shown that certain parts of the brain can actually form new synapses and neurons. This means that when we learn something new or engage our minds in activities that stimulate our brain, we help our brain repair itself.
However, reading and writing are not the only activities that can stimulate our brains. There have been several studies on less traditional activities that can help our brains work better.
In one study on Alzheimer’s disease, researchers from Tel Aviv found that problem-solving puzzles could delay–or even prevent–the onset of this dreaded disease in some people. Also, although video games have been much maligned by parents the world over, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco have found that playing certain kinds of video games can benefit mental health.
This led researchers to create a specialized video game to help older people boost certain mental skills, such as multitasking.
In a July 2013 study, it was discovered that people of all ages can do activities such as writing or reading books to help preserve memory. Reading a novel, especially fiction, has been found to improve brain function.
One’s level of education and a lifetime of intellectual stimuli is also known to shield the brain from the effects of aging. Many famous talents and intellectuals were productive until their 80s or even 90s because they were constantly challenging themselves mentally. Giuseppe Verdi was still composing operas in his 80s.
Frank Lloyd Wright designed his last building at 89. Oliver Wendell Holmes was still dominating the Supreme Court until he retired at 91. Leopold Stokowski recorded 20 albums in his 90s and signed a six-year contract at 96.
Food and Nutrition
There are many conflicting studies on the effect of classical music or puzzles on improving brain activity. However, hardly anyone disputes the benefits our brains can get from many of the nutrients and vitamins that we derive from the food and supplements we consume every day. There are foods that have been proven to improve cognitive skills.
Vitamin E is known to help prevent a decline in cognitive abilities, especially in the elderly. Good sources of vitamin E include whole grains, eggs, nuts, and brown rice.
Aside from Vitamin E, Steven Pratt, MD, author of Superfoods Rx: Fourteen Foods Proven to Change Your Life, has written about many different foods that can improve or maintain the health of our brains.
Pratt has cited studies where researchers doing animal studies found that blueberries can protect the brain from oxidative stress and can reduce the effects of age-related conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. There are also studies that have shown that diets rich in blueberries improved the learning abilities and motor skills of aging rats.
Certain seafood are another source of the kind of nutrients that our brains need. Omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon, halibut, tuna, and some other seafood contain anti-inflammatory substances and have a vital role in brain function.
Some seeds, such as pumpkin seeds, contain zinc and magnesium. Zinc has been shown to improve memory and cognitive skills. On the other hand, magnesium has been known to reduce stress levels, thereby improving brain function.
Avocados can also be very good for our brains. According to Pratt, the monounsaturated fat that is found in avocados contributes to healthy blood flow. Also, avocados have been found to lower blood pressure. This improved blood flow means that blood flow to our brains will also be improved, greatly benefiting brain function.
While certain nutrients make our brains more alert and function faster and better, some nutrients, while necessary for our overall health, can make the brain sluggish if consumed in excessive quantities. Glucose is one such nutrient.
To avoid this, we should consume food with a lower glycemic index, such as pasta or brown wholegrain cereals. These foods release glucose slower into our bloodstreams and help keep us alert for a longer time.
Sleep And Rest Are Essential to Mental Health
Neuroscientists have discovered that chronic stress and high levels of cortisol can damage the brain. The “stress hormone” cortisol is believed to create a domino effect that hard-wires pathways between the hippocampus and amygdala in a way that might create a vicious cycle by creating a brain that becomes predisposed to being in a constant state of fight-or-flight.
Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have found that chronic stress can cause a long-term negative impact on our brain structure and function. There have been findings that people who are exposed to chronic stress while they are young are more likely to develop mental problems later in life.
Many new studies have reinforced the importance of lowering cortisol by reducing chronic stress to keep our brains healthy. Meditation and getting a good night’s rest can help in beating stress and improving cognitive function.
Research also shows that meditation improves concentration and memory. Studies have also tracked the growth in important brain areas associated with intelligent thinking over time as research participants practiced meditation.
On the other hand, sleeping does not only reduce stress, it actually helps us learn better and more efficiently. The brain does not shut off when we are asleep. There is a lot of work going on while you sleep and much of it involves consolidating the learning that took place during the day. Adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep each night to benefit fully and perform at their cognitive peak each day.
MORE: The Power of Conscious Habits
Knowing the basics of taking care of your brain’s health and improving its functions is the first step to success. Choosing better food and activities that help optimize how your brain works not only directly impacts your brain but also the other aspects of your life. Increased productivity may lead to better career opportunities as well as a more fulfilled life. So, take care of your brain, it’s your partner for success in the many things that you strive to accomplish.