Have the dog days of summer left you feeling a little fried, both physically and mentally? Is the upcoming school year and busy fall season causing you additional stress in your fragile state? Don’t worry, we’re right there with you. We’ve put together some tips and exercises you can do to recharge the brain and help both you and your family increase focus, attention, memory and mental stamina!
1) Sleep – A solid 8 hours of sleep (10 or more for teenagers) is crucial to optimal brain function, memory and focus. Did you know that losing just a few hours of sleep (i.e. sleeping only 4-6 hours) can lead to impairment similar to being intoxicated? Many studies have shown that sleep deprivation has a predictably negative impact on attention, working memory and problem solving. For all you night owls, it is also worth noting that not all sleep is created equal. Following a natural circadian rhythm (asleep by 10pm and awake by 7am) is more beneficial than sleeping the same 8-9 hours starting at 2-3 am.
2) Amino acids and co-factors – Neurotransmitters are the chemicals in our brains that allow us to focus, balance our moods and sleep. The amino acid tyrosine is helpful in increasing focus and concentration, especially if the brain is feeling sluggish. If poor concentration is due to anxiety, depression or poor sleep, supplements such as Neurogistics 5-HTP and GABA+ may be helpful. Glutamine is a great source of fuel for brain, muscle and intestinal cells. It reduces sugar cravings while helping to feed our brains. The amino acid glycine calms down an over-stimulated brain while enhancing frontal lobe brain functions such as memory and learning.
3) Diet – More than anything else, a healthy diet is critical to optimizing brain function and learning.
- Protein – The amino acids mentioned above are abundant in a balanced diet but are especially prevalent in proteins such as fish, meats, legumes and whole grains.
- Healthy fats – The brain is made primarily of fat, so it is no wonder that healthy oils such as fish oil (rich in EPA and DHA), coconut oil and avocado oil are essential to optimal mood, focus and mental function. Several studies have found that below average students tend to have low omega-3 levels and that supplementing these students with omega-3 oils resulted in clear improvement in learning, mood and behavior. Wild-caught, cold-water fish (Vital Choice wild Alaskan salmon, halibut and cod) are great sources of protein and omega-3s. Coconut oil is a rich source of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) which act as quick, non-sugar fuel for the body and brain (it is also delicious!).
- B-vitamins – Essential to energy, mood, metabolism and learning. Vegetables are rich in B-vitamins and as well as many other vitamins and minerals. If getting the vegetables down is a difficult task, an excellent alternative supplement is Premier Research Labs’ Max B-ND.
- Fiber – Keeping the blood sugar stable is also essential for optimal brain function and maintaining good energy. Foods that are high in fiber (legumes, vegetables, fruits and grains – in that order) help keep blood sugar balanced.
- Avoid sugars and starches – When it comes to treats, keep the refined sugars and flour to a minimum and ALWAYS avoid the artificial sweeteners like Nutrasweet (aka. aspartame). Aspartame contains a molecule (aspartate) that acts as an excitatory neurotransmitter, usually leading to excessive stimulation and possibly damage to brain and nerve cells. Simple starches (white flour, white rice, potato) and sugars (sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, glucose) trigger a cascade of metabolic effects that are harmful to the body, immune system and concentration.
4) Herbs – Herbs such as gingko, rhodiola, astragalus, gotu kola, rosemary essential oil, bacopa and panax ginseng all have proven benefits to focus, memory, attention and mental stamina. Gingko and gotu kola are both known to increase circulation to the brain. Rhodiola has been documented to improve both physical and mental stamina. Astragalus and panax ginseng are known in China as “the great Qi tonics” and are both used to support energy, immune function and alertness. Bacopa is used in traditional Indian medicine in much the same way. The essential oil of rosemary has a long history of traditional use to enhance memory: “rosemary for remembrance”. Many of these herbs can be found in Gaia Herbs’ line of single ingredients and blends.
5) Brain exercises – Meditation has been used for centuries as a way of calming and focusing the brain. Benefits of meditation include decreased anxiety, improvements in sleep, improved memory and mental focus. If the high-tech route sounds like more fun, there are a plethora of new programs that use digital games to enhance memory, learning capacity, and focus. Some of the big names are Lumosity, Fit Brains and Brain Metrix.
In summary, eating a well rounded, whole food diet and getting enough sleep are key to good brain function. The addition of a few herbs, nutrients or supplements can give us that extra edge, and brain exercises can take you to the next level.
Here is a simple, tasty recipe that you can take with you when you need a quick brain and energy boost.
- 1.5 cups raw cashews, almonds or walnuts (soaked for 1 hour and then drained). May substitute ½ cup nut butter for some of the raw nuts.
- ¾ cup raisins, figs or dates
- ¼ cup shredded coconut
- dash of sea salt
- Put nuts in food processor 1st and chop to a “meal” consistency. Then add rasins/dates/figs and coconut and salt and process into a thick paste.
- Empty into a mixing bowl. You can now “meatloaf in” (knead in by hand) any number of other therapeutic foods. Try adding 2 tbsp to ¼ cup of any combination of these:
- Raw cacao powder
- Carob powder
- Flax seeds
- Other dried fruit or nuts
- Maca powder
- Spirulina or Chlorella
- Finely powdered adaptogen (energy-boosting and stress-reducing) herbs such as Astragalus, Ashwaganda, Rhodiola, or Ginseng
- Cinnamon (less is more with this one)
- Roll into balls and keep refrigerated.
by Becky Andrews, ND*
*Naturopathic doctors are not currently licensed in the state of Texas.