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.

Reply
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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We teach our kids to respect adults and other children, and they should – respect is an important part of growing up to be a pretty great human. There’s something else though that’s even more important – teaching them to respect themselves first. 

We can’t stop difficult people coming into their lives. They might be teachers, coaches, peers, and eventually, colleagues, or perhaps people connected to the people who love them. What we can do though is give our kids independence of mind and permission to recognise that person and their behaviour as unacceptable to them. We can teach our kids that being kind and respectful doesn’t necessarily mean accepting someone’s behaviour, beliefs or influence. 

The kindness and respect we teach our children to show to others should never be used against them by those broken others who might do harm. We have to recognise as adults that the words and attitudes directed to our children can be just as damaging as anything physical. 

If the behaviour is from an adult, it’s up to us to guard our child’s safe space in the world even harder. That might be by withdrawing support for the adult, using our own voice with the adult to elevate our child’s, asking our child what they need and how we can help, helping them find their voice, withdrawing them from the environment. 

Of course there will be times our children do or say things that aren’t okay, but this never makes it okay for any adult in your child’s life to treat them in a way that leads them to feeling ‘less than’.

Sometimes the difficult person will be a peer. There is no ‘one certain way’ to deal with this. Sometimes it will involve mediation, role playing responses, clarifying the other child’s behaviour, asking for support from other adults in the environment, or letting go of the friendship.

Learning that it’s okay to let go of relationships is such an important part of full living. Too often we hold on to people who don’t deserve us. Not everyone who comes into our lives is meant to stay and if we can help our children start to think about this when they’re young, they’ll be so much more empowered and deliberate in their relationships when they’re older.♥️
When we are angry, there will always be another emotion underneath it. It is this way for all of us. 

Anger itself is a valid emotion so it’s important not to dismiss it. Emotion is e-motion - energy in motion. It has to find a way out, which is why telling an angry child to calm down or to keep their bodies still will only make things worse for them. They might comply, but their bodies will still be in a state of distress. 

Often, beneath an angry child is an anxious one needing our help. It’s the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. As with all emotions, anger has a job to do - to help us to safety through movement, or to recruit support, or to give us the physical resources to meet a need or to change something that needs changing. It doesn’t mean it does the job well, because an angry brain means the feeling brain has the baton, while the thinking brain sits out for a while. What it means is that there is a valid need there and this young person is doing their very best to meet it, given their available resources in the moment or their developmental stage. 

Children need the same thing we all need when we’re feeling fierce - to be seen,  heard, and supported; to find a way to get the energy out, either with words or movement. Not to be shut down or ‘fixed’. 

Our job isn’t to stop their anger, but to help them find ways to feel it and express it in ways that don’t do damage. This will take lots of experience, and lots of time - and that’s okay.♥️
The SCCR Online Conference 2021 is a wonderful initiative by @sccrcentre (Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution) which will explore ’The Power of Reconnection’. I’ve been working with SCCR for many years. They do incredible work to build relationships between young people and the important adults around them, and I’m excited to be working with them again as part of this conference.

More than ever, relationships matter. They heal, provide a buffer against stress, and make the world feel a little softer and safer for our young people. Building meaningful connections can take time, and even the strongest relationships can feel the effects of disconnection from time to time. As part of this free webinar, I’ll be talking about the power of attachment relationships, and ways to build relationships with the children and teens in your life that protect, strengthen, and heal. 

The workshop will be on Monday 11 October at 7pm Brisbane, Australia time (10am Scotland time). The link to register is in my story.
There are many things that can send a nervous system into distress. These can include physiological (tired, hungry, unwell), sensory overload/ underload, real or perceived threat (anxiety), stressed resources (having to share, pay attention, learn new things, putting a lid on what they really think or want - the things that can send any of us to the end of ourselves).

Most of the time it’s developmental - the grown up brain is being built and still has a way to go. Like all beautiful, strong, important things, brains take time to build. The part of the brain that has a heavy hand in regulation launches into its big developmental window when kids are about 6 years old. It won’t be fully done developing until mid-late 20s. This is a great thing - it means we have a wide window of influence, and there is no hurry.

Like any building work, on the way to completion things will get messy sometimes - and that’s okay. It’s not a reflection of your young one and it’s not a reflection of your parenting. It’s a reflection of a brain in the midst of a build. It’s wondrous and fascinating and frustrating and maddening - it’s all the things.

The messy times are part of their development, not glitches in it. They are how it’s meant to be. They are important opportunities for us to influence their growth. It’s just how it happens. We have to be careful not to judge our children or ourselves because of these messy times, or let the judgement of others fill the space where love, curiosity, and gentle guidance should be. For sure, some days this will be easy, and some days it will feel harder - like splitting an atom with an axe kind of hard.

Their growth will always be best nurtured in the calm, loving space beside us. It won’t happen through punishment, ever. Consequences have a place if they make sense and are delivered in a way that doesn’t shame or separate them from us, either physically or emotionally. The best ‘consequence’ is the conversation with you in a space that is held by your warm loving strong presence, in a way that makes it safe for both of you to be curious, explore options, and understand what happened.♥️
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#mindfulparenting #positiveparenting #parenting
When children are struggling to physically control their bodies, we support them in ways that strengthen. If they’re struggling to write, for example, we don’t punish or shame them. We guide them and show them by doing ‘with’. We also lift them up, ‘I know you can do this. Keep going. You’re getting better and better.’ We also don’t wait for perfection. ‘You wrote a number 4! Nice work you!’ We sit with and do with, over and over. We also give them a break when they get frustrated or upset.

It’s the same for behaviour. Big behaviour comes from big feelings or attempts to meet valid needs. (And all needs are valid.) It is this way for all of us. When we’re upset or angry, the last thing we need is for someone to tell us we can’t be, or to lecture or shame us. Kids are the same.

With kids and teens though, there can be a sense that we need to ‘do’ something in response to big behaviour, so we lay down punishments or consequences with a view to teaching a lesson.

But - unless the consequences make sense (punishments never do), they risk teaching lessons we don’t want them to learn:
- that the environment is fragile and won’t tolerate mistakes. 
- that secrecy and lies are a safer option than coming to us. 
- shut down. They put a lid on expressing big feelings. The feelings will still be there, but they aren’t getting the vital guidance from us on how to calm them (through co-regulation). The risk is that they will eventually call on unhealthy ways to calm the fierce stress neurobiology that comes with big feelings.

Consequences have to make sense. Maybe it’s to repair or reconnect. Discipline has to teach. It’s not about what we do to them but about what we nurture within them. Is that trust and the capacity to learn and grow? Or is it fear or shame.

Often the only response that’s needed is a loving conversation with us. ‘What happened?’ ‘What were you hoping would happen?’ ‘What did you need that you didn’t get?’ What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right?’ Because if discipline is about learning, the most powerful consequence is the strong, loving conversation with us that lights their way and speaks softly to the safety of us.♥️

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