After the rest and relaxation of holidays and summer days, the brain may have some difficulty in motoring back into optimal work/school mode. So this month’s article discusses some tips on how to get it back to optimal performance. The advice here is also useful for exam preparation and has the extra benefit of optimising overall health.
I can’t go on enough about the importance of good sleep and have already written or touched upon this subject several times. In terms of brain performance, some interesting recent research has shown additional benefits of sleep. For instance, the brain:
- “cleans” itself during sleep, removing chemical and toxin build-up from brain function during the day. It is thought that the waste chemicals are actually carried away during sleep by the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) that surrounds the brain.
- processes information gathered during the day in sleep and much of it gets “stored” to memory during this time.
- rests and “repairs” itself
- “reboots” metabolism, immune functions and endocrine processes
These processes also play an important role in preventing risk factors to disease. But more importantly for the purpose of this article, they allow the brain to perform under optimal conditions. During sleep, the brain slows down, taking time to restore and recharge so that it is ready to go the next morning. So it is really important to get your hours in daily. In a past article on travel and circadian cycles, I gave some tips on plants and supplements that can help regularise sleep – you can read this here. Finally, I recently saw this TED talk on sleep that I think would benefit everyone to watch. For the link to it, click here.
Stress, as we all know by now, is a major factor affecting brain function, especially concentration, learning, memory and focus. Furthermore, stress’ effect on the gut has indirect effects on brain function due to the role of gut and gut flora in brain health – for instance in the manufacture of serotonin – and the link between gut and nervous system function.
In addition, stress promotes inflammation which can result indirectly in damage to neurons, serotonin pathways, and other parts of the brain that are involved in mood and cognitive function.
When returning from the holidays, take a few days before school or work begins to acclimate to back-to-work/school rhythms, and put a flexible programme in place to help you manage schedules and stress. Start building activities within your work/school schedule to help you manage potential stress: sports, fresh air and Nature, art, date nights and nights out with friends, meditation, cooking healthy meals etc. All of these things are vital to balancing work/life and decompress from stress. Programming time out in your schedule and sticking to it is simply a matter of habit – you do have time for it. And more importantly, having breaks to do relaxing or fun activities between work improves mental cognitive efficiency and mood, and supports immunity. Don’t forget about taking short breaks during work or after a long time sitting or focusing on a job too. Remember that your brain is more efficient and can achieve more when not in a state of chronic stress.
Breathe + Move
The average adult brain accounts for about 2% of a person’s total body mass, yet it uses about 20% of the oxygen in the blood. Oxygen is needed to fuel brain activity. There are two ways to improve oxygenation: breathe properly and move! A lot of people don’t actually breathe deeply enough and I often suggest breathwork for patients. Breathwork practice helps improve oxygenation and stress management. Breathwork also allows the diaphragm muscle to relax which helps the organs held within its ambit and in the abdominal cavity to expand, and therefore function more efficiently and improve congestion. There are many breathwork meditations available on the internet, including guided ones which are really helpful when getting started.
Movement gets the blood flowing which allows for better oxygenation to all parts of the body. In addition, it releases “pent-up” physical energy that can come with a lot of brain activity and also helps let go of mental thoughts and worries. This release helps balance different aspects of the sympathetic nervous system. From a physiological perspective it is a necessity! Remember what I wrote in a previous article: Exercise is optional but movement is essential!
Healthy nutrition plays a very important role in optimal brain function just as it does for the rest of the body. The brain is the most energy-demanding organ in our body, using about 60% of glucose energy in a (resting-state) body. Brain functions such as thinking, memory, and learning are among the activities demanding the most energy. Food choices but also gut health will therefore impact on ensuring the brain has access to the glucose it needs and how efficiently it can use it.
I’ve written on serotonin before and its role in many physiological functions. Besides helping regulate mood, serotonin is also essential in cognitive function. More recent research shows that serotonin has a role in sugar/fuel management, not only in the body but also in the brain. Specifically, serotonin plays a key role in controlling insulin secretion, and brain-derived serotonin helps in glucose management and facilitates glucose “fuel” into the brain cells. Since 95% of serotonin is produced in the body, mainly in the gut, it is essential to have a well-functioning digestive system with a balanced gut flora. Research has shown that a healthy gut flora can improve serotonin production by serotonin-producing cells.
Healthy fats are also important for brain function. Approximately 60% of the brain is is made up of fat so essential fatty acids are important to brain function. They are not only used in building the brain structure, but also help repair brain cells, are involved in the synthesis and function of neurotransmitters, and as antioxidants reduce cellular stress and inflammation.
In order to support a healthy brain, ensure your diet is rich in foods containing Omega-3 fats, vitamin B12, zinc, magnesium, and iron to boost brain health and lower inflammation. This translates into foods like eggs, oily fish, nuts, seeds and avocados, as well as whole grains and vegetables. In addition, eating at regular intervals (but not necessarily snacking), not skipping meals, especially when stressed, and finding a calm moment to sit down and eat mindfully are all important for a happy brain.
Herbs + Supplements
Subject to individual considerations and needs, there are a few supplements which I think are essential for effective brain function and which I would recommend taking especially in high brain stress periods or adaptive periods such as the autumn and spring. These include:
- Vitamin D (along with omega-3 fatty acids) helps facilitate serotonin production. if you haven’t checked your levels since the end of the summer, take a maintenance dose of about 2000IUs/ at least 3 times a week during the winter months at least (both in acute and chronic states). September time is the best time to get levels checked to see how much of a store you have for the winter and something I recommend you do if you get a blood workup on a regular (even if once yearly) basis.My recommended vitamin D supplement is Liquid Vitamin D3 from Viridian (vegetarian) which you can find here.
- Omega 3 EFAs – necessary for nerve and brain cell structures, and help improve cognitive function. 500-800mg per day during times of stress, exams, special projects or even as a general supplement. This is one supplement that can usually be taken long-term. My personal favourites are the Minami and Nordic Naturals – when it comes to Omega 3s you need to buy a quality supplement due to the potential for oxidation of the fats. Both brands carry different mixes of EPA/DHA mix, variants for pregnancy and other situations, and also include vegan options. You can find them here or here.
- B vitamins are essential for nervous system function. I usually recommend a good quality vitamin B complex, to take for 1-2 months or for several weeks before and after moments of high stress or brain function. Here is my favourite B complex which has methylated forms of B12 for those who have a difficult time braking the vitamins due to genetic factors.
You can use my practitioner code at Natural Dispensary (Terra10) to receive 10% off your orders.
As for herbs, I often get asked for a boost for students to help during exam times, and the herbs below are the ones I most often include in a mix. It’s important to include herbs that not only work directly on brain function but also help regulate the adaptive stress response.
- Brahmi (Bacopa monnieri): my favourite “brain” adaptogenic herb. Indeed it has a specific tropism for brain function and helps protect brain cells against oxidative stress. It also works on the HPA (adrenal) axis to help manage cortisol levels during stress.
- Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea): this adaptogenic herb not only helps your body deal with stress and anxiety better but also helps it regulate the body and the brain’s use of serotonin. Furthermore, it works at the mitochondrial level to improve energy levels, endurance and improve cognitive function. In some people I’ve noticed this plant can cause restlessness in the evenings – if this is the case, take a dose earlier in the day (latest around 4pm).
- Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis): Rosemary is a “superplant” with many actions. In terms of brain function its actions are primarily twofold: firstly, it helps improve blood circulation and who says improved blood circulation, says better oxygenation, more nutrients to the cells, better hormonal function and better elimination of waste. Secondly, research on rosemary has shown that it can improve brain cognitive performance. Specifically it is the compound 1,8-cineole which holds the key to this action. It is best found in essential oil form but ensure that the rosemary essential oil you buy is the cineol chemotype. You can put a couple of drops on a handkerchief and sniff it 15 minutes before exam times and during the exam too, 2 or 3 times at regular intervals. Diffusing it for 20-30 minutes while you work is also an option. Note however, it should be avoided in people suffering from epilepsy and asthma. Rosemary also protects brain cells from oxidative stress.
- Sage and Clary sage (Salvia officinalis or salvia sclera): sage family plants are also “superplants” with many actions and some of these include their ability to enhance ‘head and brain’ function, improve memory, quicken the senses, and delay age-associated cognitive decline. Sage and Clary sage have phytoestrogenic compounds and as such you should check with your practitioner about using them regularly.
If you have any questions on how to use the herbs or would like a more bespoke mix, do get in touch!