How to maximize brain power and focus: Why you are never too young to start
-Nov 21, Hannah Hargrave , Mind -
Sara Davenport, author of the upcoming book ‘Reboot Your Brain’ speaks to Lumity about how to maximise your brain power and the importance of making mental workouts a priority.
When you are in your 20’s and 30’s brain health is often the last thing on your mind, but Sara insists the earlier you start caring for what’s up top, the better.
“When you’re that age, it simply doesn’t register as an issue,” she explains. “The odds are that your brain is working at optimal capacity – sharp and clear – no memory problems, no mind blanks. So why would you not presume that it would always stay that way? The epidemic of dementia, looming as large as cancer now, affecting 1 in 8 of the population, is simply not on your radar. Like cancer, most people tend to think that it will simply never happen to them. An older people’s issue, it may feel like you have a few decades before you need to focus: a million miles from your reality, not something that will come your way.
“But think again, because, as the latest science shows, the environment, and the way we live now, can be overwhelming for the brain and without the right food and fuel, its sharpness can only fade with time and age.
“Pollution, household chemicals, pesticides and eating processed foods all have an effect on the mind. So do bacteria, viruses and parasites and the electro-magnetic stress from the computers, phones and wifi that surround us. The state of your ears, eyes and teeth can make a difference too. Who knew?! So, what to do to keep your brain fit and functioning?”
Brain Gym: a 21st century health essential
“What are your current health priorities? Exercise? Diet? We all know we need to look after our body, but have you ever considered your brain to be a crucial part of that equation?” Sara asks. “How often do you work-out in the gym? Once a week? Three times a week? Daily? And in comparison, how often do you give your brain a work-out?
“If you fed your body badly you would expect it to struggle. Logically then, why would your brain not similarly struggle without focus and care? Studies show that exercising your body regularly to keep it fit and strong will up your odds of a healthy older age – but have you ever considered that ‘brain gym’ might be every bit as essential as the years go by? Boosting your brain in your youth can set up habits that may well carry it healthily into old age.”
A year ago, Sara, who also writes the blog www.reboothealth.co.uk, found out that her father had been diagnosed early stage Alzheimer’s.
“Although he was otherwise fit and well, I had suspected for some time that his memory slips and occasional forgetfulness were a more serious concern than the brain fog that often comes with age,” she tells Lumity. “At first, I felt hopeless about it. There’s no cure for Alzheimer’s and it’s difficult not to receive the news of a diagnosis with sadness and resignation. Acceptance seems like the only appropriate reaction when dealing with a disease where the experts predict a cure is likely to be many decades off. However, I wasn’t prepared to give in entirely and I resolved to support my father by doing what I do best: researching and exploring what was going on outside of conventional medicine to meet the challenge.”
Related: How to reduce your Alzheimer’s risk
Her mission to find alternative natural health solutions for his problems resulted in her writing her book, ‘Reboot Your Brain’, showing you how to improve and strengthen your cognitive function and state of mind. The book’s number one conclusion is that working in a regular dose of ‘Brain Gym’ is every bit as crucial as scheduling your ‘normal’ gym sessions if you want to live healthy and happy into your 80’s and 90’s.
And it needn’t be difficult: you are probably already doing it
“If your heart sinks into your boots at the thought of adding yet more ‘stuff’ to your already jam-packed day, don’t panic,” says Sara. “You are probably already engaging in some of the most effective strategies for brain health. You may just need to do a little bit more.
“It’s interesting to know that what you are doing can really make a difference. And reassuringly, neuroscience, the rapidly growing science of the mind, shows that brain cells can be grown at any stage of life, though getting into daily habits early on is key.”
5 Simple Steps to maximise your Brain Power
Improving your neural circuits and boosting your brain can be very simple.
The brain benefits of:
“Going to the gym is the perfect brain booster,” Sara suggests. “Exercise keeps your body and brain connected, making sure that messages run smoothly between them and there is no delay between the time your brain instructs an action and your body carries it out. Even 30 minutes of moderate exercise daily has been shown to increase the production of new synapses in your brain and studies have demonstrated that regular cardiovascular exercise that elevates your heart rate is one of the best ways to encourage neuroplasticity in the brain.”
“HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) stimulates BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor), the ‘brain fertilizer’ protein that triggers new brain cell growth. BDNF increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain, and boosts the mitochondria in your neurons, the tiny ‘batteries’ that power your brain. Regular exercise – even half an hour three times a week – can increase its levels by 300%.
“Exercise also boosts strength, balance, reaction time and hones coordination skills, and older people who exercise have been shown to have less deterioration in their brains than their peers who don’t.”
Spend more time outdoors
“Research shows that the more time you spend in nature the better the boost for your brain. A study from the University of East Anglia that looked at data relating to 290 million people world-wide found that living close to green spaces and spending time there daily, reduced levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) dramatically, boosting mood and reducing anxiety. Get gardening. Plant a window box, or simply invest in a few house plants. Go for long walks in the park or the countryside.
“A study from the New Mexico Highlands University found that ‘foot impact’, the striking of your foot on the ground, increases blood flow to the brain. So, although cycling or rowing can increase oxygen levels to your brain, walking and running (which has an even stronger foot strike) had additional benefits, building grey matter volume and strengthening overall cognitive skills.”
“Ever more sophisticated brain scanning has enabled us to observe what is going on inside our brains when we meditate, and has allowed us to observe how new brain cells grow (neurogenesis) in the brains of regular meditators over time. It is now possible to document the physical changes in key brain regions that happen as a result of regular meditation. This explains why meditation has been found to make us more empathetic, better attuned to the feelings of others and better able to regulate our own moods and thoughts. Meditators have also been shown to have higher volumes of brain tissue, reduced brain inflammation, well balanced neurotransmitters and less stress.
Sara continues: “Meditating is highly recommended if you are one of the one in four people who suffers from mental ill health, including anxiety or depression. In a study from 2013, 93 people who had been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder were assigned to a mindfulness group for 8 weeks, whilst the others received stress management advice. Those that did the mindfulness-based programme experienced a significantly greater reduction in their symptoms. Similarly, research from the University of Oxford found that a mindfulness intervention was more effective at helping prevent a recurrence of depressive episodes than antidepressant medication.”
“How many hours do you sleep each night? Like the Three Bears in Goldilocks tale, you have to find ‘just right’. Too little or too much and your brain simply doesn’t work properly. 7-7.5 hours seems to be optimal.
“In one study of more than 9,000 people, less than six hours sleep or more than eight hours sleep resulted in a reduction of memory function and decision-making ability.
“While you sleep too, your brain is washed by cerebrospinal fluid, which pumps toxins and waste proteins out of the areas between the cells, cleaning up the previous day’s ‘rubbish’ in preparation for the next and for optimal brain function. If you can’t sleep, this process simply doesn’t happen and the resulting build-up slows your brain function down over time. This ‘sleep deficit’ will up your rate of cognitive decline, and trigger a build-up of the beta-amyloid plaques in the brain that are associated with Alzheimer’s.”
Drink more water
“Dehydration slows your brain, adversely affecting your memory and clarity of thinking. Your brain is 73% water and even loss of fluid equal to 2% of your body weight has been shown to affect decision making and create problems with focus and memory. 75% of us are regularly dehydrated, which slows the metabolism and increases feelings of anxiety and tiredness. Dehydration can trigger depression, chronic fatigue and attention deficit disorder (ADD). Yet the answer is simple – drink more water and you will sharpen up your brain function and speed up your re-action time. Keep a bottle or a jug of water on your desk and sip regularly throughout the day.”
Related: Is your skin getting enough water?
Take Action in your Twenties and reap the benefits later
Think of it like your pension. Put in the work now and reap the benefits when you really, really need them. Start young, and give your brain the ‘fuel’ it needs to thrive, and like getting into fitness and exercise, the habits of your youth will stand you in excellent stead in later life. A healthy physical body is one half of a happy old age, but keep your mind healthy too and your eighties and nineties look a less difficult stage of living.
About the author
Reboot Your Brain by Sara Davenport is available on Amazon priced at £12.99 or from www.reboothealth.co.uk.
Sara Davenport is the founder of the cancer charity Breast Cancer Haven and author of Reboot Your Health: Simple tests and solutions to assess and improve your health. Through her work with doctors, nutritionists and therapists Sara has an unrivalled overview of both traditional and complementary medicine. She writes the blog www.reboothealth.co.uk which offers a weekly dose of digital wellness that shows you how to listen to your body, tweak your lifestyle and improve your health. Sign up this month and receive a free copy of the e-book ‘Understanding Alzheimer’s’.