Do we only use 10% of our brain? Studies have disproved this popular myth, yet optimising our mental alertness and functioning is still an attractive proposition—one that makes use of our individual potential.

Our challenge this month: utilizes brain boosting nutrition and skill-based activities to sharpen the mind naturally.

BRAIN BOOSTING NUTRITION

The following list of nutrients from natural sources, have all been found to improve the brain’s ability to operate—enhancing cognition and elevating alertness.

Coffee: It is well known that caffeine is a stimulant which works on the brain and can combat drowsiness and fatigue. Previous studies have even suggested three cups of a coffee a day can significantly reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, possibly by triggering a chain reaction in the brain that prevents the damage done by the disease. 

Salmon: Along with other oily fish salmon are high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids. These acids contain DHA, which helps the brain transmit signals. Memory loss can result if there are low levels of DHA, even things like lack of concentration, mood disturbances, depression, schizophrenia and autism. Salmon is also high in the essential vitamins A, E, D and C and important minerals such as zinc, iron, calcium and selenium. When buying fish, opt for wild caught salmon, opposed to farmed. Wild Salmon have higher levels of omega-3′s and aren’t fattened on an unhealthy diet of grain-feed.

Veagn Options: Algal oil, a type of oil derived from algae, stands out as one of the few vegan sources of both EPA and DHA. One study compared algal oil capsules to cooked salmon and found that both were well tolerated and equivalent in terms of absorption. Depending on the supplement, algal oil provides 400–500 mg of DHA and EPA, fulfilling 44–167% of the daily recommended intake.

Oysters: Not just an aphrodisiac, oysters are rich in zinc and iron, which have both been linked to better mental performance.

Vegan Options: Both zinc and iron can be sourced from legumes, seeds, and nuts, and when fermented or soaked the bioavailblity is increased (for example: 100g portion of natto, a fermented soybean product, offers 20% of the RDI for zinc and 48% of the RDI for iron).

Blueberries and Spinach: Early findings suggest that eating plenty of high-ORAC list fruits and vegetables, such as spinach and blueberries, may help slow the processes associated with aging in both your body and brain.

Eggs: Contain selenium which acts as a powerful antioxidant but is also believed to boost brain health and strengthen the immune system. Choline is another impotant nutrient found in egg yolks, and it plays a vital role in helping healthy cell membranes along with its ability to help mental function and memory.

Vegan options: One Brazil Nut will provide daily requirements of selenium. The highest plant sources for choline are flaxseeds which contain 78.6mg per 100g and seaweed (dried) 65.7mg per 100g.

Tumeric: This spice is a powerful antioxidant, shown to help stimulate the immune system. There are many health benefits associated with a healthier immune system such as dealing with allergies, inflammation, Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, asthma, atherosclerosis, diabetes and heart disease.

Kale: A vegetable powerhouse containing Carotenoids and flavonoids which help to slow mental decline associated with aging and help reduce your risk for cataracts.

Nuts: Portable protein, nuts also contain lots of brain-healthy vitamin E, believed to help prevent memory loss due to ageing.

Walnuts are a great choice because, like salmon, they are also packed with omega-3. Cashews are another good one as they are rich in magnesium which has the ability to allow more oxygen into the brain’s blood cells.

Beetroot (also known as beets in US): A study at Wake Forest University in North Carolina has shown that drinking beet juice in a highly concentrated form can boost blood supply to areas of your brain that are important for maintaining healthy cognitive function, especially memory. This is probably due to the high levels of nitrate found in beetroot. A diet high in nitrates have been shown to increase blood flow to the white matter of the frontal lobes in the brain. This is important because it is these actual areas that are commonly associated with degeneration that eventually leads to dementia.

SKILL-BASED ACTIVITIES

You may debate the inclusion of sleep in the following activities, however for those of us for who suffer from insomnia there is no question that it requires skill to master. And even then this is not a static skill but one which must be constantly practised and adapted to reflect the changes in our lives. The global pandemic for example, has disrupted our routines and induced mental and physical stress—consequesnces with impact on our sleep.

Get your Game On: Play games that challenge and stimulate your mind including Picture Puzzles, Strategy Games, Crossword Puzzles, Japanese Logic Puzzles (ex. The Puzzle Ninja by Alex Bellos), Card Games, Deduction Games (such as Clue), Visualisation Puzzles and Optical Illusions.

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Read: Reading stimulates the brain as it activates your imagination. Reading also helps with memory retention and problem solving, especially if youre reading a mystery. Also, self-help books stimulate your brain by helping you to think for yourself, as well as find solutions in your mind.

Listen to Music: Studies have proven that listening to music strengthens the right hemisphere of the brain and actually changes the structure of it. Also, people who listen to music are shown to be more emotionally intelligent than those who don’t.

Write: In the movie ‘Limitless’ the main character is a writer a practice that improves memory and thought expression. Writing articles, blogs, or journal entries stimulates thought processes, which also enhances brain function.

Become an Artist: Painting and drawing are both effective brain boosters, shown to stimulate the creative side of your brain.

Photo © Igor-Kardasov / iStock

Exercise: Exercising helps circulate blood that carries oxygen to your brain. Over the long-term, exercise is proven to increase brainpower and even create new neurons.

Breathe Deep: Deep breathing helps deliver oxygen to your brain. Oxygen helps you be more alert and awake. As little as 10 to 15 minutes of deep breathing daily can increase brain functionality.

Meditate: Meditation has been shown to increase your IQ, relieve stress, and promote a higher level of brain functioning. Meditation also stimulates the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the area of the brain responsible for advanced thinking, ability and performance.

Sleep: Clear mental clutter and avoid brain fog with sleep. When you dont get enough sleep at night, your memory and normal brain function suffers. Professor Alice Gregory peels back the covers on the science and skill of sleep in her book ‘Nodding Off’.

The following tips for a better night’s sleep are adapted from: Nodding Off: The Science of Sleep (published by Bloomsbury Sigma).

Consume carbohydrates before bed: When we consume carbohydrates, our bodies undergo changes, making the amino acid tryptophan more accessible to the brain. Tryptophan is a precursor of serotonin and melatonin. Given the process by which high-carbohydrate foods can influence sleep, foods containing tryptophan directly—such as turkey, nuts, fish and milk—could potentially be usefulin promoting our sleep.

Keep your Core Cool: To get a good night’s sleep we are advised to sleep in a cool environment. For people who like practical advise, a typical recommendation is that we set the temperature in our home to an arctic 16-19℃ (around 60-67°F) for the ideal sleeping temperature in adults. Given the advantages of a cool environment for a happy trip to dreamland, perhaps we should be concerned about the effects of global warming on our sleep. In a study led by a scientist from Harvard, self-reported information about insufficient sleep in 750,000 participants was analysied alongside data on night-time temperatures. There was an association between greater temperature at night and poorer sleep. The authors predict that with a projected increase in global temperature this could lead to elevated sleeplessness. Perhaps achieving blissful sleep is just another reason to do what we can to protect our beautiful planet.

An updated edition of Alice’s book was released this month, covering the latest science on sleep. Chapters reveal gems of insight on the biological and environmental factors influencing the state, with practical advice on how to utilise the research to benefit from the restorative virtues it has on our health.

Alice Gregory is a highly respected expert on sleep throughout development. She has been researching sleep for more than a decade and has published more than 100 articles on this and associated topics. She completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Oxford, her PhD at the Institute of Psychiatry, London, and is currently a Professor at Goldsmiths, University of London. Gregory collaborates widely with other sleep experts throughout the world, and has the latest research on sleep at her fingertips. As a parent of two young children herself, she is well qualified to provide an informed, friendly and amusing narrative on the important issue of sleep.