ARTICLE AT A GLANCE
Most common fitness goals involve optimizing your body’s health and function. However, eating healthfully, exercising regularly, and getting plenty of sleep are also essential for optimizing your brain activity, which is just as important to your quality of life.
Almost 1 in 5 adults in the United States lives with a mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Mental illnesses such as depression or anxiety can negatively impact your motivation and drive — especially when it comes to your fitness goals. Such disorders have multiple contributing factors, but for many who suffer from them, the most important factor includes one or more neurobiological mechanisms.
For example, in a 2015 study published by Oxford’s Cerebral Cortex, researchers determined a link between motivation and the activity of premotor brain systems such as the anterior cingulate cortex. Your ACC is responsible for decision-making, reward anticipation, pain reduction, and much more. Another study that same year revealed a strong correlation between mental health and the condition of many other brain connections.
When these vital neurological connections don’t perform optimally, your brain can’t motivate or force your body to perform optimally, either. Aside from your fitness goals, your everyday routines can suffer as your memory declines as well.
What’s Holding Your Brain Back?
The underlying force behind many mental health issues, including anxiety and depression, is stress. By itself, stress isn’t harmful. The enhanced response time and awareness it creates, known as the fight-or-flight response, drives us to succeed in life. The problem is the stress hormone cortisol that it creates. You need cortisol to restore your hormonal balance after a stressful event and to promote memory processing in the hippocampus.
But when you’re chronically stressed, the excess cortisol wears down your brain cells. Over time, it can shrink the prefrontal cortex, where memory processing and learning occur, while simultaneously enlarging the amygdala, making your brain more prone to stress. This creates a cycle of stress, excess cortisol, and memory impairment that is more difficult to break the longer it continues.
Even if you’re generally happy, a poor diet can stress your mental and physical health just as much. Being overweight or obese can influence your confidence, and therefore, certain aspects of your mental health. On a more cellular level, lack of proper nutrients can directly affect your brain’s health and cognitive abilities. For example, a deficiency in omega-3 fatty acids can increase risks of dementia, depression, bipolar disorder, and more.
Excess stress and poor nutrition keep your body from resting properly, further affecting your brain health. Neuroscientists have discovered that the most fundamental memory processes occur when you sleep. When you’re deprived of it, your memory formation suffers, as do your energy levels, motivation, immune function, and general well-being.
7 Steps to a Healthier Brain
Research continues to prove that your brain doesn’t just drive your body; your physical health affects your mental health, too. Fortunately, you can improve your brain’s health by making some conscious changes to your lifestyle and dietary habits. Need to update your routines? Start with these seven tips:
1. Begin each morning with protein and fat.
Your brain needs protein to produce neurotransmitters such as tyrosine and norepinephrine to stay alert. It needs fatty acids like omega-3s to form cell membranes and activate a majority of your brain’s processes. By eating plenty of both for breakfast, you can vastly improve your brain’s activity for the rest of the day. In one University of Missouri study, participants who ate more protein for breakfast also experienced fewer cravings for junk food throughout the day.
2. Consider intermittent fasting.
Controlled intermittent fasting can be a highly effective way to optimize how your brain uses energy. The most common method is to fast for 16 hours each day and then eat within the remaining eight-hour window. The fasting period forces your body and brain to adapt in ways that mimic exercise. For instance, it boosts protein production in the brain as well as the connections between brain cells.
3. Take gluten out of your diet.
Gluten-free meals are another popular meal plan, but most people ignore it if they don’t have celiac disease. However, even if you have no gastrointestinal symptoms, gluten might be hindering your brain function. Gluten is such a complex protein that your brain can’t efficiently pull anything useful from it. Avoid bogging down your brain by simply taking gluten out of your diet.
4. Add weight training to your exercises.
Any form of exercise will provide some benefits to your physical and mental health, but studies have shown a direct relationship between exercise intensity and overall health benefits. By adding weight training exercises to your routine, even moderate sessions will provide maximum benefits such as better learning and memory, reduced risks of depression, more effective stress relief, and better protection against brain injuries and aging.
5. Stop and smell the rosemary.
Relaxation is just as important as nutrition and activity, and one study published by the International Journal of Neuroscience shows aromatherapy can help. The study introduced participants to one of two different therapies — lavender and rosemary — or an odorless control. While lavender made participants more content, rosemary made participants more alert and better able to complete cognitive tests after their therapy.
6. Sweat it out in an infrared sauna.
Saunas are a time-honored tradition for health and fitness aficionados. The prolonged heat stimulates the sweating and increased heart rate you would enjoy with moderate exercise. In a 20-year Kuopio Ischaemic Heart Disease Risk Factor Study, the benefits of frequent sauna use include reducing risks of dementia. An infrared sauna achieves the same results but at a lower temperature than traditional saunas, making it more widely accessible.
7. Sleep long enough to enter the REM stage.
I’ve already covered the fact that many of the brain’s processes occur during sleep. Most of them specifically occur during rapid eye movement, or the stage of deep rest that usually occurs between the sixth and eighth hours of sleep. Research presented at the Western Psychological Association’s 84th Annual Convention showed that lack of REM sleep inhibits memory and cognitive function, making you clumsy, unmotivated, and unhealthy.
As you focus on improving your quality of life through better physical health, don’t forget to focus just as much on optimizing your brain health. The good news is that many of the same principles apply: Eat healthful, nutritious meals; develop an exercise plan according to your goals; make time to relax; and make getting plenty of sleep a priority every night.