A reminder to everybrain that we need to take care of that amazing equipment parked between our ears, because it rules our world. When it’s well fed and happy it’s like a playful puppy, but when it’s ignored, hungry or frightened, it misbehaves – naughty brain.
When you get a new pet, let’s say a puppy, you learn how to take care of it. You find out what it needs to be well and happy. You spend time playing with it. You probably buy the best food you can afford and the occasional treat. You take it to the vet for vaccinations and check ups and you walk it and make sure it has enough water. You probably take it along to puppy school because you want to train it to behave so you can enjoy walking it on the beach or through the park, and to stop it eating your slippers and brooms. Most pet owners just do all of that without even thinking about it.
Inside your skull you have the most precious mutt in the universe. That grey matter between your ears is the most amazing pet anyone could own and it’s free for all. Perhaps it’s not as pretty as your silky little Cocker Spaniel or as funny as your Foxy Terrier but it can outsmart them all. And yet it’s likely that you keep it locked up and throw it scraps occasionally but mostly ignore it. Taking care of your brain is probably the most important thing you can do for your own wellbeing. Your brain determines how you experience the world. Yes, it all comes down to few billion neurons firing up sending messages to each other and squirting out chemicals to help you interpret and adapt to changes in the environment, that is how you experience your world.
There’s a whole network of axons, dendrites and chemicals ordering your world and most of it happens without you having to give it a thought. Some pet huh! So, if you want to be well and happy, you need to make sure that grey unlovely pet you own, the one kenneled between your ears that works tirelessly for you, is well nourished, watered, exercised and trained appropriately. You need to give it at least as much as you would give your cute new puppy.
Knowing how to take care of the physical brain-body is as important as knowing how to think well to change your mind-brain. Following are some general principles, but the important thing is to find out what works for you by listening to your body, monitoring your mood, energy, capacity to concentrate, and how easily you can adapt and move through uncomfortable emotions when they’re triggered.
Health and wellbeing are a complex interplay between brain-body-mind that results in a baseline of good mood and energy as you adapt to the varying needs in your day. So, if you’re happy, and have good energy and mood, can manage your emotions, then keep doing what you’re doing it’s working.
But if your mood is erratic, or you often feel anxious or angry or frequently experience other strong emotional reactions, if you’re permanently stressed or overwhelmed, or drag your feet through your day and can’t think straight, then you may want to experiment with your diet and routines to better nourish your brain. And then of course, change your thinking to change your mind to change your brain.
Air & Water
Like everything organic your brain needs air and water. While we all know this it is often overlooked.
If your brain is starved for oxygen even for a few minutes, brain cells start to die. Giving your brain oxygen is easy and free. Exercise. Keeping moving. Getting outdoors is the best way to give your brain a good supply of oxygen, especially if you can get to a park or some bushland.
A daily walk is probably the easiest way to oxygenate the brain – and you can take that naughty puppy with you. And if you can walk mindfully and smell the roses instead of the coffee, all the better.
If you are physically incapacitated for some reason such as chronic illness or have an injury, move to a window or balcony if you can and do some deep breathing. As kids my mother would make us stand outside in the morning before school and do some deep breathing. We all thought it a bit odd but none of us dared argue with Mum, she wasn’t that kind of mother. And we didn’t have any nosey neighbors gawping at our antics because we lived on a farm. But it probably helped our growing brains fire up for the day so we could sit in class and take in what was being said because our brains were bubbling with oxygen.
Why not take a leaf out of my Mum’s book and stand outside and do some deep breathing and have all the kids do it too. Don’t worry about what the neighbors think. Better yet, invite them all over for a “breathe in,” but don’t forget to breathe out. You might have to keep the puppy away while you’re out there, though laughing and chasing a naughty puppy is just as good for oxygenating the brain.
Laughter is one of the best ways to change the state of the brain and flush a few feel good chemicals through it as well as a bit of oxygen.
While you probably know that getting regular exercise is important don’t forget the small opportunities to give your brain a hit of oxygen. Sitting for long periods has been shown to have all kinds of negative health consequences. So if you need to, set a timer to remind you to get up from you desk and have a break. Walk your brain whenever you can.
If you can’t leave the office, just walk up and down the corridor. If the boss asks what you’re doing tell her you’re taking care of your most valuable equipment, doing some brain maintenance. Your brain will be happy and more efficient through the afternoon if you do, especially if you grab a glass of water on the way back to your desk.
The brain needs lots of water, which is also free and readily available and hugely undervalued because it is so free and easy. Drink water! I’m not going to suggest how much you should drink (or whether it’s filtered or alkalinized) because everybody-brain is different with different levels of activity.
Ask your body and listen to what it needs. Often by the time you feel thirsty your brain is already dehydrated. If you get headaches regularly the first thing to do is up your intake of water. And don’t think that drinking tea or coffee or sugary drinks is a substitute. Your brain needs water!
If you routinely forget to drink enough water it’s good to use a jug or water bottle so you can keep an eye on how much you’re drinking. Often we get busy or distracted and don’t remember that we haven’t had a drink of water for a while, especially if you drink a lot of tea or coffee. I always carry a water bottle so I have a good supply of water and it sits on my desk so I don’t have to think about it but sip away all day.
Feeding your brain
Your brain is a hungry beast. It weighs about 2% of body mass but uses 20% of resources, which might give you some idea how incredibly busy it is.
Following are some basic principles about the brain and food. For some of you it’s just a reminder of what you already know. But it’s important to do your own investigation by listening to your body to find out what works because every brain is different.
The brain needs a constant supply of the right food to nourish it. This includes protein, good carbohydrates (fruit and vegies) and good oil such as olive oil or coconut oil.
If your brain and nervous system are frazzled from stress or the usual wear and tear of modern life fish oil and flax seed oil, which provide Omega 3, can help to soothe the split nerve ends. Other important nutrients for good brain health include, Vitamin B and Vitamin D and zinc. While most of these vitamins and minerals are available in a good diet and exercising outdoors (Vit D), if your mood is low or your stress high it may help to add supplements.
A national study of the Australian population showed that almost one-third is deficient in Vitamin D (Journal of Endocrinology 2011). The study indicated you’re more likely to be at risk if you’re elderly, obese, female, physically inactive, or have a higher level of education.
Why is Vitamin D so important? Studies have shown that a deficiency in Vitamin D, considered to be more of a multipurpose hormone than your everyday vitamin, is associated with problems with cognitive functioning, depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. It appears the Vitamin D operates as a protective buffer in the brain. (Current Psychiatry Reports, February 2009, Volume 11, Issue 1, pp 12-19)
Your brain needs a steady supply of protein to provide the raw material for neurotransmitters, which are essential for good mood and wellbeing. Most of the literature suggests you need a hit of protein about every five hours. But again I’d suggest you experiment with what works for you, some people do better on more (good) carbs (meaning vegetable and fruit), some on a mixture of carbs and protein while some brains are protein lovers, but don’t forget the good fats.
One of the worst things you can do to your brain-nervous system (especially if you decide to diet) is cut out good fat/oil. The brain has a large proportion of fat (myelin the white matter in the brain is 70% fatty acid) and is nourished by fat or good oils including olive oil, coconut oil, fish and flax seed oils, as well as the oil from other grains and nuts. It’s important to minimize bad fats in processed food but not to cut out oil per se.
Poisoning your brain
We can’t talk about feeding the brain and ignore some discussion of things that are toxic for the brain. So, if you do it, reduce the harm.
Give a three year old a bag of red and green lollies and watch them bounce off walls and fall apart. That might give you some idea how sugar affects the brain. Notice how they keep coming back for more and when you say no they sink into a minor world war. Top of the list of poison is sugar.
Sugar affects your thinking but effects can be mitigated by Omega 3 intake.
Recent research indicates that sugar can affect brain volume, which is associated with dementia. While other research suggests that sugar inhibits BDNF (brain derived neurotropic factor), which is essential in neurogenesis or growth of new neurons. In other words sugar stops your brain changing so be wary of that sweet treat you’re about to slip between your lips.
Alcohol is deadly for the brain. But if you love a good glass of red or a few bubbles at a summer party have it with food especially protein or eat something before you go. And one or two is max, and only occasionally that’s about all the brain can handle.
Caffeine is no friend of the brain. Again limit your consumption if possible or don’t have it on an empty stomach. Coffee is especially problematic if you are prone to anxiety as it is hard on the brain-nervous system functioning and replicates the physiology of anxiety.
Here’s an informative and practical article with some tips for managing these delicious and addictive poisons.
Rest & Sleep
The brain needs rest and regular sleep. Although we don’t really understand why we sleep we know it’s essential to good mental and physical health, and important in memory consolidation. So make sure your brain gets to Zzzz.
Becoming a brain scientist
You need to become your own brain scientist if you want to understand what your brain needs to keep it healthy and functioning optimally.
Experiment with what works for you. Just like your new puppy, the needs of your brain-body are a unique interplay between the general principles of health and wellbeing, or what the experts tell you, and your individual metabolic needs, and of course your appetite and likes and dislikes, level of activity and so on.
The bottom line is that your body knows what it needs, so mindfully tuning into your body is one of the most important things you can do on a number of levels for good brain health – to love your brain.