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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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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