We all have times when we feel as if we’re not firing on all cylinders. This isn’t necessarily cause for alarm. However, the following tips can help to maximize your mental well-being:
1. Sleep: Not only does lack of sleep impair our concentration, make our mood take a nose dive, cause us to be clumsy, compromise our immune system, and increase our appetite for carbohydrates and fat, not getting enough shut-eye also dramatically lessens our brain’s ability to detoxify proteins such as amyloid beta, the buildup of which is implicated in Alzheimer’s disease. It’s no secret that many people struggle to get adequate sleep, due either to hectic schedules, anxiety, hormonal imbalances, or other physical problems. Sneaking a peek at your iPad or cell phone too close to bedtime can disturb your sleep, due to the bright light signaling your brain to shut down the the production of melatonin (a hormone that promotes slumber). Try easing into bedtime about an hour before you retire, by lowering the lights in your bedroom and steering clear of TV and computer use. Minimizing or avoiding caffeine after 3:00 p.m. or so, and sticking with a regular bedtime/wake-up schedule may also help.
2. Exercise: Staying active is one of the most important ways we can take good care of our brain. Every time our heart beats, a significant amount of the blood generates goes straight to our brain, blood that transports oxygen and nutrients necessary to brain health. The healthier your heart is, the more effectively it can supply your brain with the substances needed for robust mental health. In addition, regular exercise aids in the release of numerous hormones like endorphins (which make us feel exhilarated and happy), dopamine (associated with pleasure and motivation), and serotonin (necessary to regulate sleep, mood, and appetite). If this weren’t enough, exercise also stimulates brain plasticity by bolstering the growth of new connections between cells in many important cortical areas of the brain.
3. Good nutrition: The type and amount of food we consume plays a huge role in brain development and function throughout our life. While the best food plan will differ from person to person, there are some good general rules of thumb:
a. Eat moderately sized meals, spaced evenly throughout the day.
b. Include some protein at every meal, to help maintain steady blood sugar levels. Recent studies have linked higher blood sugars, even at levels not in the prediabetic or diabetic range, with a higher likelihood of memory problems.
c. Decrease consumption of high-glycemic foods such as refined sugar, white flour, and white rice, which can cause spikes in blood sugar and subsequent brain fog.
d. Add healthy fats such as Omega-3 fatty acids (found in salmon, krill, and flax oil) and monounsaturated fats such as olive oil.
e. Eat plenty of colorful fruits and vegetables (such as blueberries, tomato, carrots, and spinach) for their vitamins, fiber, and antioxidants.
4. Mental stimulation: Novel and complex stimuli promote brain health. When we learn new things, we grow and strengthen new neural connections. In other words, neurons that fire together wire together. Your mind benefits from being challenged, from learning fresh information and skills, and from taking on pursuits that may initially be difficult for you. Have you ever noticed that the first time you drive to a location the trip seems to take a lot longer than on subsequent occasions? Assuming that you didn’t take a number of wrong turns on your first trip (perhaps an optimistic assumption) and that the actual time spent driving didn’t differ from later trips, the difference in perceived drive time was due to the energy and focus you expended on a novel activity. Chances are that if this became a regular commute, you would get to the point where you’d hardly remember the drive at all, since you’d developed such familiarity with the route. So, if an endeavor is difficult at the outset, you can reframe this as a mental workout that will strengthen you in the long run! Try:
a. reading books on subjects you’d like to know more about
b. brain games, such as board games, electronic, or computer-based games
c. taking up a new language
d. using your non-dominant hand (i.e., your left hand if you’re right-handed) to brush your teeth, eat (have plenty of napkins handy), or jot down notes
5. Social connection: Human beings have been social creatures since the beginning of time. Social interaction with others gives us opportunities to express our thoughts and feelings and to understand others through integrating what they say with their nonverbal communication, all of which exercises various areas of our brains. Furthermore, regular socializing maintains brain health by reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol. In addition, let’s be honest – socializing and celebrating often includes laughter, which is health-enhancing in and of itself!
6. Stress management: Chronic stress, anxiety and depression have been linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. In fact, some research suggests that long-term stress stimulates the growth of the proteins that might cause Alzheimer’s, in part by compromising the quality of sleep. Poor stress management can also impair brain health by leading one to engage in less constructive forms of alleviating stress, such as excessive alcohol intake, drug use, smoking, or overeating, all of which may impair one’s cardiovascular health and possibly even lead to a stroke.
7. Spirituality: Defined as connection with something greater than oneself and a sense of meaning, purpose, and direction, spirituality has been associated with greater emotional, mental, and physical well-being. Meditation, relaxation practices, yoga, and prayer all have neurophysiological foundations. Gaining a better perspective on our place in the universe and focusing on compassion, love, forgiveness, acceptance, and service can all rewire our mind as well as the rest of our body in health-enhancing ways.
Give just one of these suggestions this week and see how it affects your thought process. There’s plenty you can do to obtain and maintain vibrant mental health.