When you’re deprived of sleep, you lose brain power. You can’t remember things and you just feel scattered. Sleep definitely affects your ability to clearly think. Studies have shown it to affect both memory and cognition. Try to get more sleep, and also try to improve the quality of your sleep. Most adults need 7 to 8.5 hours per day.
Power naps in the afternoon can really make a difference as well. The body needs sleep for energy conservation and restoration. While you sleep, your body consolidates memories which are essential to your cognitive performance. If you suffer from sleep loss, your blood pressure will rise, you’ll churn out more cortisol (the stress hormone), your immune response may be impaired and your mood and cognitive performance will decline.
When you are awake, decrease the stress on your body and reduce the “noise” in your brain by doing meditation. Chronic stress damages the brain, so reducing stress protects the brain. Even 15 minutes of meditation per day can work wonders.
When was the last time you tried to meditate? It can be difficult at first—you’re trying to focus on your breathing and all you can think about is the crisis at work, errands you need to run, when you need to pick up the kids or what you’re going to cook for dinner. Meditation distracts the mind, and because the mind is connected to the body, the practice of meditation changes physical response to stress. Studies have used functional MRI to look at changes in the brain while people are meditating; the data shows a reduced firing of the body’s stress response. Try focused breathing, tai chi, yoga or any other similar practice.
Exercise is certainly great for your body, but it works wonders for your brain, too. Research has shown that exercise actually improves cognitive function by increasing levels of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This is a protein created by the brain cells, and it is critical for the functions of higher thinking, learning and memory. The protein helps keep existing neurons healthy and is a growth stimulating factor for new neurons. So exercise literally boosts the brain! Any exercise will do—walking, team sports, running, swimming, cycling—whatever you find fun.
If you’ve ever heard of elderly people doing crossword puzzles to keep their brains fit, they’re on to something. The brain must keep plasticity in order to keep tip-top function. Plasticity means pliability, or the ability to keep changing as you learn new things. Any exercise that forces you to learn something new—crossword puzzles, learning a new language, listening to a new piece of music, chess or card games, taking a new route to work—stimulates cognition. Now go challenge yourself!
Every cell in the body needs fuel, which for humans is in the form of a sugar called glucose. And because the brain has so many nerve cells, all those cells certainly need fuel. In fact, the brain puts the most energy demand on the body by using half of all sugar for fuel. Research has certainly shown that glucose and brain functions like thinking and learning are closely linked. Without sufficient fuel, the brain cannot produce neurotransmitters, the chemicals that make communication between neurons possible.
But too much glucose can also be bad for the brain. For example, in studies involving high consumption of fruit juice sugar, the excess glucose was linked to memory and cognitive deficits. This effect has been seen in diabetic patients, where sugar creates harmful inflammation and oxidative stress that impairs the brain.
Try a diet low in sugar to reduce inflammation: meat, fish, lots of vegetables, some fruit, and nuts and seeds. Try to greatly reduce or eliminate refined sugars and grains as much as possible.
Instead of sugar, nourish your brain with antioxidant-rich foods. Antioxidants are natural compounds that protect cells from free radical damage, which brain cells are particularly susceptible to. Free radicals are oxygen molecules that circulate unattached and attack your cells. Have you ever seen metal rust? Or have you cut open an apple, only to see it turn brown after a while? These examples are how oxygen attacks your cells. Yikes!
Free radicals damage every part of the cell—membrane, DNA, proteins—and cells eventually malfunction and die. Your body uses oxygen, and free radicals result naturally from this process, so there’s no way to really prevent free radicals from being produced. The brain uses lots of oxygen, roughly 20 percent of the body’s total intake, so that’s why brain cells are vulnerable.
If your body always has antioxidants in plentiful supply, you’ll slow down your cellular damage. Age spots are free radical damage you can see, but brain cell damage can’t be seen, but people definitely experience the effects due to the inflammation being created that leads to brain fog, memory loss and anxiety.
Antioxidants bind to free radicals, thus removing the harmful free-floating oxygen molecules, so antioxidant-rich foods is definitely a great idea.
Lycopene in tomatoes, beta-carotene in carrots and vitamin C are all powerful antioxidants. You can certainly take supplements, but your best bet is to eat whole foods that contain these compounds.
Vegetables like black beans, carrots, kale, artichokes, spinach and green beans are antioxidant-rich.
Red and purple fruits like blueberries, blackberries, cherries, strawberries, plums, raspberries, apples and currants are loaded with them.
Nuts like pecans, chestnuts and hazelnuts are excellent choices, as are coffee, red wine, beer and dark chocolate, so you can indulge a little. Teas are also power-packed.
These foods are low in sugar and high in antioxidants for a real brain boost to memory, learning and cognitive performance.
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