Disclaimer: This is educational advice, not health advice. Please consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet and exercise habits. It is not mental health advice. If you think you may be suffering from a psychological disorder, please seek professional help.
Despite all of its mysterious complexity, your brain is simply a physical part of your body. Like every other part of your body, it functions well when its physical needs are met. Improving your brain’s health improves your intelligence, increases your creativity, and expands your willpower.
So how do you keep your brain healthy? The simplest rule of thumb is that what’s good for your body is also good for your brain. It’s slightly more complicated than that, but this rule will almost always serve you well. The opposite is also true: What’s bad for the body is also bad for the brain. Clogged arteries, for instance, make it more difficult to deliver oxygen and nutrients to the brain.1 Let’s look at some details:
Both aerobic and anaerobic exercise are very good for your brain. They improve short-term brain performance and help preserve long-term brain function.2 Exercise improves learning,3 memory,1 focus,1 mental endurance,2 creativity,3 and happiness.4 It also promotes the growth of new neurons.5 Your brain gets the most benefit from a variety of exercise, so mix it up!2 The benefits are cumulative,1 so you should develop a long-term habit of exercising at least three days a week.
If you currently exercise very rarely or don’t exercise at all, please approach it in a careful, sustainable way. That means starting with light, easy exercise. Trying to go from zero to hero is a great way to get injured, and then you won’t be able to exercise at all! Live to work out another day.
Also, please know that you don’t have to maintain a perfect exercise regimen in order to improve your brain’s health. Every little bit counts; every small dose of exercise is beneficial. Quite literally, every step you take is a step in the right direction.
Exercise is very good for children, but you don’t have to take my word for it: You can hear it straight from the children themselves! Check out this short video of local students describing how exercise helps them.
Sleep is critical for brain health. While you sleep, your brain flushes out toxins that build up during the day. Without enough sleep,3 these toxins remain and interfere with brain function.3 Inadequate sleep results in decreased mental endurance, difficulties with focus and memory, as well as increased irritability and anxiety.6 Sleep is also a time your brain uses to consolidate memories of what you learned during the day, so without enough sleep, you’ll retain less of what you’ve studied.3
To get better sleep, get away from bright lights and electronic screens in the hours leading up to bedtime.6 Philosopher and entrepreneur Brian Johnson refers to this as a self-imposed “digital sunset.” Sleep is also improved when you make your bedroom completely dark or use a sleep-mask.6 Eating right before bedtime can cause poor sleep.6 Exercise will help you get a better night’s sleep, unless you exercise immediately before bedtime.6 Avoid caffeine after lunch, because its effects linger for a long time and subtly disrupt your sleep.6
Blocking out light for better sleep:
There are many ways to feel more alert without using caffeine. Regular exercise, for example, boosts overall alertness.6 Exercise can also help you wake up when you’re tired because it increases your heart rate.6 Bright lights can also help you wake up because they signal to the old part of your brain that it’s daytime–the time when our ancestors did most of their activity.6 Naps are a natural, healthy way to make up for lack of sleep.6 Just be aware that if you nap longer than 30 minutes, you’ll wake up groggy.6 Set an alarm!
Your brain needs food to fuel itself, to repair itself, and to grow. For fuel, your brain normally prefers to rely on a steady supply of glucose from slowly-digesting carbohydrates.6 Sugary foods and drinks trigger the release of insulin, which drains all the glucose from your bloodstream, depriving your brain of fuel.6 Your brain also needs protein to supply amino acids – the building blocks of cells and neurotransmitters.7 It also needs healthy fats, especially Omega 3’s, which are found in wild fish, green leafy vegetables, walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds, and many other sources.8
Healthy food promotes a healthy brain, by providing necessary vitamins, minerals, and anti-oxidants.6 Eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables is your best bet. Berries,8 leafy greens,8 and turmeric5 are all classic brain super-foods.
Junk food isn’t just bad for your body; it’s bad for your brain, too. Sugar9 and trans-fat10 hurt both short- and long-term brain function. It’s not necessary to completely eliminate all junk food from your diet in order to see a brain-health benefit. Any amount of junk-food reduction is helpful. Likewise, you don’t have to eat superfoods at every meal. No one maintains a perfect diet. Every shift towards a better diet is a step in the right direction.
Your brain grows stronger when you challenge it, just as a muscle grows when it’s put under strain. And just as your body needs time for rest and recovery after exercising, your brain needs a break after it has been stressed.4 In our go-go modern world it can be hard to find time to take breaks, but it is a critically important thing to do.
However, the word “break” can mean different things to different people, and some breaks are better than others. The purpose of a break is to rest your brain, so it’s important to choose activities that actually give your brain a break. Some examples of good breaks include eating a healthy snack, listening to a relaxing song, going for a walk, and taking a power nap. Television, Facebook, texting, and video games all stimulate the brain, wearing it out even further. These activities, though fun, don’t improve your ability to get more work done later. Furthermore, the value of breaks is not an excuse to avoid doing your work. 30 minutes of homework warrants a 5-minute break, not a 2-hour break.
Mindful meditation is the best form of brain-rest.4 Meditating before something stressful can even prepare your brain to handle it better.4 Of course, it’s very hard to start a meditation routine or even make time for it. Like all other aspects of brain health, perfection is not required. You can start with just one minute of meditation each day, make that a routine, and build up from there. And throughout your day, you can sprinkle in microbreaks – tiny pauses in which you take a moment to breathe deeply. Occasionally closing your eyes and taking three deep breaths is a powerful antidote to excess stress.4
It also matters a great deal how you think about stressful situations. If you conceive of difficulties as threatening, then the stress you experience is harmful, but if you instead think of difficulties as challenges, then your reaction to them will be healthier.11 Remember that the stress-response is your brain’s way of rising to a challenge – it’s helpful, so long as you don’t panic.11 If you become overwhelmed by stress, take deep breaths3 and adopt confident body-language.12 Someone with confident body-language spreads out to take up space, looks people in the eye, and smiles.13
For more, read my definitive guide to strategic stress management – how to benefit from acute stress and not be harmed by chronic stress.
A healthy brain is an active brain.2 Your brain likes to be used. If left idle, it will become less healthy. Learn new things every day. Challenge yourself with books, classes, projects, languages, instruments, puzzles, and games – anything that requires thinking.14 Once you’ve mastered a challenge, you’re no longer getting much benefit from it, so move on to a new endeavor.15 It’s the new challenges that improve your brain.15
Learning can become a family value. This is achieved through leading by example. If you demonstrate genuine curiosity about the world, it will rub off on your children. If you sometimes choose to watch TED talks and documentaries rather than television and movies, your children will be reminded that educational media is an option. If you share with your spouse or your children something interesting you learned during your day, they’ll be reminded that learning doesn’t only happen at school. If you’re constantly challenging yourself by pushing your limits, your children will be likely to follow your lead.
Your mental health is, of course, connected to the health of your brain. Brain health and mental health are linked together in a feedback loop. An unhealthy brain is more likely to have psychological problems, and psychological problems can also damage the brain or hurt its function.4 Depression, for instance, often leads to memory problems.16 The good news is that there are many effective treatments for depression, and there are many ways to prevent depression. Take your mental well-being seriously. Don’t leave issues untreated.
Meanwhile, happiness improves intelligence, creativity, and persistence.16 There are many simple ways to boost your happiness, backed up by serious scientific research. We’ve already mentioned two of the most powerful: exercise and meditation.4,16 Getting better sleep and managing your stress are also proven ways to increase your psychological well-being.4
One of the simplest things you can do to become happier is expressing gratitude frequently.4 This can be done through the simple act of saying “thank you,” writing thank-you notes, or keeping a gratitude journal in which you count–and record–your blessings.4 However, these techniques are all trumped by the “gratitude visit.” In a gratitude visit, you write a letter to someone who has helped you in an enormous way but whom you have never properly thanked. Rather than sending them the letter, you visit them and read the letter aloud before giving it to them.4 Having both given and received gratitude visits, I can personally attest to their power.
In a similar vein, research has shown that altruism increases happiness in a big way. Being generous, being helpful, volunteering, and giving to charity all make people feel better about themselves.4 Money, beyond what you need to live comfortably, doesn’t buy happiness … unless you spend it on other people!4 And, of course, you don’t have to be extremely helpful and giving all the time in order to see a benefit. Every little altruistic act is beneficial.
Generosity and gratitude can be incorporated into many aspects of daily life, including work and school. Students can be encouraged to thank their teachers for specific things they’ve learned. They can be encouraged to thank each other, other parents, and service professionals such as bus drivers and waiters. Parents can display that same gratitude toward the people they interact with. There are countless opportunities to give thanks, just as there are countless opportunities to perform small favors. The more often adults model these behaviors, the more often children will do them.
There are many other ways to increase your happiness, which we’ll discuss in the future. Meanwhile, I strongly encourage you to explore the field of positive psychology, which is the science of mental health and happiness. The works of Tal Ben-Shahar, Martin Seligman, and Sonja Lyubomirsky are a great place to start.
Brain Health at a Glance: Do’s and Don’ts
We just covered a lot of ground, so here’s a quick look at the big ideas. Even if you think you got everything, remember that we have to review and repeat ideas or they won’t stick!
- Exercise regularly.
- Get a variety of exercise.
- Get enough sleep.
- Take short (less than 30-minute) naps.
- Turn down lights before bedtime.
- Eat a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Eat Omega-3’s and turmeric.
- Rest and recover after stressful situations.
- Think of stressful situations as challenges.
- Combat overwhelming stress with deep breaths, meditation, and confident body language.
- Seek out mental challenges.
- Learn every day.
- Do things the hard way.
- Take your mental health seriously.
- Take steps to become happier. Anyone can improve their psychological well-being!
- Don’t be a couch potato.
- Don’t just do one type of exercise.
- Don’t short yourself on sleep.
- Don’t consume caffeine after lunch.
- Don’t look at electronic screens before bedtime.
- Don’t eat processed food.
- Don’t eat sugar or trans-fat.
- Don’t run from one stressor to the next.
- Don’t think of stress as threatening.
- Don’t believe all the negative thoughts that come up when you’re overwhelmed by stress.
- Don’t avoid challenges.
- Don’t just do the things you already know.
- Don’t do things the same way repeatedly.
- Don’t ignore psychological problems.
- Don’t believe you’re stuck with your current level of happiness. You’re not!
Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014.
Chris also offers habit coaching, helping busy adults with habit formation and productivity.
He lives in Issaquah, WA, where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.
1 Hospital, Craig. “Exercise and Your Brain.”
2 Medina, John. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Pear Press, 2008.
3 Oakley, Barbara. A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra). Penguin, 2014.
4 Ben-Shahar, Tal. Psychology 1504: Positive Psychology. Harvard Open Course, 2009.
5 Perlmutter, David, MD. “Neurogenesis: How to Change Your Brain.” The Huffington Post. November 2, 2010.
6 MacDonald, Matthew. Your Brain: The Missing Manual. O’Reilly Media, 2008.
7 Lawson, Willow. “Brain Power: Why Proteins Are Smart.” Psychology Today. January 3, 2003.
8 Aubele, Teresa, and Susan Reynolds. “Have You Fed Your Brain Today?” Psychology Today. September 7, 2011.
9 Reynolds, Susan, and Teresa Aubele. “Why a Sugar High Leads to a Brain Low.” Psychology Today. October 18, 2011.
10 Willet, Walter. “The Scientific Case for Banning Trans Fats.” December 13, 2013.
11 McGonigal, Kelly. “How to Make Stress Your Friend.” TEDGlobal 2013.
12 Cuddy, Amy. “How Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.” TED Global 2012.
13 Navarro, Joe and Marvin Karlins. What Every BODY is Saying. William Morrow Paperbacks, 2009.
14 Restak, Richard and Kim, Scott. The Playful Brain: The Surprising Science of How Puzzles Improve Your Mind. Riverhead Trade, 2011.
15 Kuszewski, Andrea. “You can increase your intelligence: 5 ways to maximize your cognitive potential.” Scientific American. March 7, 2011.
16 Achor, Shawn. The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work. Crown Business, 2010.
Soccer: USAG- Humphreys Follow. “Soccer – Army Youth Sports and Fitness – CYSS – Camp Humphreys, South Korea – 111001.” https://www.flickr.com/. Creative Commons 2.0.
“Smart Food” Collage: Images cropped and combined; text added.
- Veggies: Ziai, Arya. “May 12, 2013 at 12:53PM.” https://www.flickr.com/. Creative Commons 2.0.
- Berries: Re:group. “Blueberries, Raspberries, and Blackberries.” https://www.flickr.com/. Creative Commons 2.0.
- Spices: JayJay, Sammy. “medicineboxx_600x450.” https://www.flickr.com/. Creative Commons 2.0.
- Nuts: Pino, Darya. “nuts.” https://www.flickr.com/. Creative Commons 2.0.
- Salmon and Salad: Vogelsang, Clemens v. “First course.” https://www.flickr.com/. Creative Commons 2.0.
Sleep Mask: Goehring, David. “Sleeping OMG.” https://www.flickr.com/. Creative Commons 2.0. Image Cropped.
“Taking a moment for mental recovery:” Parpais, Leo. “Arts and Works #4.”https://www.flickr.com/. Creative Commons 2.0. Text added.