Your brain is a real workhorse. All day, it’s helping you work, study, play the guitar, cook, and read internet articles. It’s managing all your thoughts, speech, and movements, and regulating your breath and heartbeat. And it’s constantly processing new information from your surroundings, your social interactions, and your media screens.
So it’s no wonder if you feel mentally burned out at the end of the day. Our jam-packed, information-loaded modern lifestyles are keeping our brains in non-stop high gear. It takes a huge amount of energy to sustain that kind of activity. And just like your body, your brain needs proper fuel, rest, and exercise to stay in shape and on task.
Whether you are hoping to ace your next exam, perform better at work, or just remember your shopping list, here are a few ways to bulk up and recharge your brain so that you can stay on top of your game.
Food for Thought
Your brain sucks up 20% of your body’s energy at rest. That energy is coming from the food you eat. If your food lacks important nutrients, your brain becomes sluggish from lack of fuel.
Whole grains and beans provide a steady, stable source of glucose that the brain can draw on for energy. Colorful fruits and vegetables are rich in essential vitamins as well as antioxidants, which help protect the brain from oxidative stress that can result in cognitive decline.
Healthy fats are essential for the brain, which is made up of nearly 60% fat. Avocados are rich in monosaturated fats, which promote healthy blood flow to help nourish the brain. Nuts and seeds are a great source of unsaturated fats, as well as brain-boosting vitamin E.
Oily fish like salmon is high in essential omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for healthy brain functioning. Your body can’t produce omega-3s on its own, so if you aren’t getting enough from your diet, consider a supplement, such as fish oil or flaxseed oil.
Recharge & Reboot
It might feel like you’re not doing anything when you sleep, but your brain is working hard behind the scenes. It uses that time to create and consolidate memories, process complex information, mentally rehearse new skills, form creative connections, and clear out harmful toxins.
A good night’s sleep is like a reboot that allows your brain to reorganize and consolidate its information for more efficient retrieval. There’s also evidence that a buildup of toxins from lack of sleep may accelerate neurodegenerative diseases.
So while you may think that staying up late will help you get more studying or work done, the truth is that sleep is one of the most productive things you can do. For 95% of adults, that classic 8 hours is still ideal.
If you have trouble falling asleep, try giving yourself a break from screen time just before bed – that blue screen light messes with your circadian rhythms and confuses your brain about when it’s time to sleep.
Use It or Lose It
Your brain is a like muscle; it needs to be worked out to stay in shape. That means you have to challenge it to form new neural pathways and connections, or your thoughts will be trapped in a closed circuit of well-worn paths.
To stimulate your brain, you have to get outside of your comfort zone and try something new: a new craft or skill, language, piece of music, or yoga routine. Pick something with several levels of difficulty, so that you can build upon your new skills as you learn. And make it something you will enjoy, because triggering your brain’s reward centers is a great way to form a new habit.
Speaking of Exercise…
You are not a disembodied brain, so what you do with your body also affects how you think. Aerobic exercise that gets your heart pumping will boost blood flow to the brain, and has been shown to increase the size of the hippocampus, a brain area associated with memory and learning. Exercise has also been shown to increase BDNF, a protein that stimulates neuron growth.
Physical activities that involve hand-eye coordination and complex skills, like tennis, martial arts, dance, or rock climbing, are especially great for brain-building, as they help to develop more complex synaptic connections. If it’s a social activity, even better: the brain is highly responsive to social stimulation, and will generate more neural connections.
If you want to keep your brain healthy, you need to get good at managing your stress levels. Chronic stress destroys brain cells and damages the hippocampus, affecting your learning and memory centers and threatening your mental health.
One of the best ways to de-stress is to simply take a walk in nature. Natural environments stimulate the senses in a way that quiets the mind and brings your awareness into the present. A number of studies now prove that green spaces reduce stress and anxiety, boost mood, and even make learning easier.
There’s also a growing body of evidence to support the benefits of meditation, with stress reduction topping the list. Different types of meditation offer various other brain benefits, including improvements in attention, cognitive skill, and emotional balance. There are many different ways to meditate, so explore the options and find one that works for you.
Finally, don’t forget the proverbial “best medicine”: laughter relaxes the body, boosts endorphins, and helps the brain regulate stress hormones. Laughing engages multiple regions across the whole brain, and may help to stimulate more creative associations, as the mind has to shift between perspectives in order to get the joke.
It’s simple: give your brain plenty of fuel, rest, and recreation, and it’ll grow strong, healthy, and happy. That’s a plan we can get behind.