If you’ve been judging your fitness simply on how far you can run or how much you can lift, chances are you’re ignoring the most powerful muscle of all–your brain. The truth is, improving memory and cognitive performance should be as important to your daily workout as how you fuel your body.
Maybe healthy grey matter isn’t as noticeable on the beach, but it plays a central role in your health and fitness. In fact, there is a “reciprocal relationship” between the health of our brain and our body, according to Professor David Goldberg. Writing in the Journal of World Psychology, Goldberg notes: “not only do many chronic illnesses cause high rates of depression, but depression has been shown to antedate some chronic physical illnesses.”
Turns out, the mind is a lot like any other muscle. Through time, attention, and the right diet and supplements, you can train your brain as well as you train your body.
Eat a Brain Balancing Diet
One of the biggest negative influences on the brain is stress, which can wreak havoc on your hormones. Stress is linked to an increase in both cortisol and adrenaline (the fight or flight hormone). Unfortunately, it is all too easy to use substances like sugar, carbohydrates, or alcohol to manage our energy and moods.
Approximately 80% of Americans use some sort of caffeine to give themselves a boost, but Harvard Medical School associate Dr Stephen Juraschek has warned anything more than four cups of coffee a day can be unhealthy. Instead, The Mayo Clinic recommends stocking up on low-fat protein in fish, beans and skinless poultry. Meanwhile, a study published in the journal Neurology found that those who ate six pieces of fruit and vegetables a day showed fewer signs of age-related brain dysfunction.
It’s understandable that fish oil supplements are a billion dollar industry—a study in Frontiers of Physiology found that Omega 3s in fish oil can help prevent mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. One of the important functions that Omega 3’s play is to build cell membranes through the body and the brain, which Harvard medical school neurologist Dr. Scott McGinnis suggests can help the brain regenerate faster. However, not all supplements are created equal. The Omega 3’s found in fish oil are DHA (which the body only makes a small amount of) and EPA (which helps cells regenerate). Look for a formulation with a 3:1 DHA to EPA ratio to get the most potent brain boost.
Train Your Brain
According to Dr Celeste Campbell, Neuroplasticity is the “changes to the brain that happen as a result of our interactions with our environment.” To improve your memory through brain training, The Mayo Clinic suggests activities like learning to play an instrument, changing up your commute route, or even volunteering for a local charity. For the greatest effect, you may need to take things offline. Dr Bobby Stojanoski of Western University's Brain and Mind Institute surveyed apps that help you improve your memory, but concluded that there were “no transferable benefits of brain training” from the popular online tools.
The National Health Interview Survey found that the number of Americans who have tried meditation has risen from 4.1% in 2012 to 14.2% in 2017. There is ample evidence that practicing mindfulness – trying to keep the mind in the present moment – can have a very real effect on your brain. One study found that an eight-week meditation program actually shrinks the amygdala, keeping that fight or flight response in check. According to Scientific American, “As the amygdala shrinks, the pre-frontal cortex – associated with higher order brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision-making – becomes thicker.” If you’re not sure where to start, apps like Headspace and Happy Not Perfect can give you a step by step guide, right on your phone.
Making your mental health a priority will pay dividends from the inside out. It can be daunting to train your mind but, the brain is resilient and can improve under the right conditions.