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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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