Simple Ways to Supercharge Brain Health and Mental Performance

Simple Ways to Supercharge Brain Health and Mental Performance

A vital part of protecting and optimising mental health and ageing well involves keeping the power pack in your head, your brain, healthy and strong. The exciting news is that there is plenty you can do to ensure this.

Your brain produces new brain cells throughout your life span. Its capacity to grow and strengthen is incredible. The degree to which it does this though, depends on the things you do.

The more you do the things that support the regeneration of brain cells, the more protected you’ll be against a whole list of things, including depression, anxiety and physical pain, and the stronger your overall cognitive functioning (such as memory and learning) will be.  

Science has given us a hand with this, finding the foods and activities that will help to keep the brain happy and high performing. Here we go:

The foods to eat for brain health.

  1. Cocoa Flavanols.

    Cocoa flavanols can improve memory by effecting a part of the brain called the dentate gyrus. 

    Find it in: dark chocolate. (Does that make you happy? Me too.)

  2. Omega-3 Fatty Acids.

    We’ve been aware of the magic of Omega 3 for a long time. Its long list of superpowers includes the way it works to protect against anxiety, improve memory and encourage neurogenesis (the growth of new brain cells).

    Find it in: salmon, flaxseed oil and chia seeds.

  3. Phosphatidylserine and Phosphatidi

    Improves memory, mood and cognitive function, and is used in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

    Find it in: cabbage and soy.

  4. Walnuts

    Research has found that eating a handful of walnuts each day can help to improve memory, concentration, and the speed at which the brain processes information.

    Find it in: the packet that says ‘Walnuts’. (Yeah I know you knew that.) 

  5. Choline

    Supports the brain during ageing and fights cognitive decline by preventing changes in brain chemistry.

    Find it in: eggs, prawns, scallops.

  6. Magnesium

    Magnesium is crucial for brain health and helps with the bounce back from stress. It also helps to protect against depression and anxiety, and strengthens memory and learning. The problem is that stress can carve crazy quick through our natural stores of magnesium, so it’s important to eat enough of the right foods to restore the magnesium that stress depletes.

    Find it in: avocado, soy beans, bananas and dark chocolate.

  7. Blueberries.

    Stimulates blood and oxygen to the brain, and promotes the growth of new brain cells.

    Find it in: Blueberry muffi.. yeah, no. It would be nice to think that blueberry muffins had evolved into a high-powered superfood, but no – you would need to eat a truckload. Every day. And you’d soon get sick of that – or just really really sick (oh life, you can be so cruel sometimes) – so best stick with the real thing – real blueberries I mean, not real muffins. 

  8. Dairy. 

    Research found that the closer older adults were to taking in three servings a day of dairy, the higher their levels of glutathione in the brain, an antioxidant that seems to protect against diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinsons, and many others.

    Find it in: milk, cheese, yoghurt, cream.

Other ways to keep your brain healthy:

  1. Learn something new.

    Anything that will stretch you at your edges is perfect – whether it’s learning to cook Argentinian, how to speak Italian like a local, or how to belly dance like you were born to do it, learning something new will build new neurons and encourage the existing neurons to strengthen connections and form new pathways. The more neurons and pathways you have, the quicker and better your brain will function.

    The best things to learn are those that are completely new to you. If you’re already multilingual, for example, learning another language won’t have the most value for your brain. Similarly, if you can already play the violin, rather than learning the piano learn something entirely different, like how to dance, play soccer, paint or make something sparkly, wearable and perfect for your wrist.

  2. Aerobic exercise

    Aerobic exercise is anything that gets you puffing (so walking to get your dark chocolate from the fridge doesn’t count. Pity.) Research has found that it increases the growth of neurons in the hippocampus – the part of the rain that looks after memory, organizing and storing information. Exercise also works to reduce stress, which decreases the growth of new neurons.

  3. Mindfulness

    During stress, activity increases in the amygdala, hypothalamus and anterior cingulate cortex (the areas of the brain that initiate the body’s physiological stress response). At the same time, there is decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex (the thinking, creative, rational part of the brain). Cutting edge research by David Creswell of Carnegie Mellon University  has found that mindfulness seems to reverse this – by increasing activity in the prefrontal cortex and decreasing the physiological stress response. That means less of the neurochemicals that are triggered by stress surging through the body and causing trouble.

  4. Share the love.

    Being with friends can provide opportunities for new experiences and new learning. Aside from the huge emotional benefits (as long as they’re tribe-worthy people of course) the benefits to brain health are plenty.

  5. But not with toxics.

    Toxic people create toxic environments, and when the brain is in a toxic environment it will shut down to protect itself. What this looks like is a slowing down of growth and the rate at which it produces new neurons (neurogenesis). Though people can and do still function when this happens, they become vulnerable to anxiety, depression, cognitive impairment, memory loss, reduced immunity, loss of vitality, reduced resilience to stress, and illness. Research has also shown that migraine and other pain conditions are more prevalent in people who were brought up in abusive environments, though the exact reason for the relationship is unclear. It’s not always possible to keep toxic people away, particularly if they are work colleagues or family, but in these instances it’s even more important to nurture brain health in other ways, to make up for the effects of the toxic person in your life.

  6. Get plenty of pillow time. (On your side if you can.)

    During sleep, brain cells seem to decrease in size, which opens up cave like structures between them. Cerebral spinal fluid, which covers the surface of the brain during the day, flows through the brain and flushes out neurotoxins. This takes an enormous amount of energy and because the brain has enough to do while we’re awake, the flushing out happens while we sleep. More research is needed to confirm that this is what happens, but the early findings have our attention. 

There’s a lot in life that we can’t avoid – ageing, illness, stress, pollution, idiots – but there are things we can do to strengthen and protect ourselves against those things. Our brain is the holder of our thoughts, memories, who we are and the way we are in the world. Looking after it is one of the most empowering and effective ways to make sure we’re the best version of ourselves that we can be.

7 Comments

Judith

thank you, Karen. As someone who prefers to use food as medicine your article is much appreciated. I am looking for ways that naturally increase serotonin to help manage depression and also an eating disorder. What came first the eating disorder which I have had since early childhood or the depression? Mnn? Doesn’t really matter if I can get a better handle on it, hey. Thanks again.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Thanks Judith – Such a great question. I’m so sure that as research keeps moving ahead in this area, we will start to see so many more connections between different illnesses. The gut is so important for mental health, so it makes sense that if you have had an eating disorder, this would impact the environment of the gut which would in may create a vulnerability to mental health issues like depression – not cause, but possibly contribute. There’s still so much to discover. It’s great that you’re looking for ways to naturally strengthen the health of your brain – it’s something we could all benefit from. All the best to you.

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Carol O'Neil

As always, I learn something new in each of your articles, and the advice is easily applied. I like your sense of ha-ha, too! Somehow it’s as though you know what I need to read for at least one person in my family, thank you SO much <3 <3

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How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.
When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.

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