Life

Feed your head: Don't overlook the brain in your approach to health

So you eat well and exercise to keep your body in shape, but don't forget that most vital of organs. Dr Jenny Brockis shares top tips from her new book, Future Brain

Read a book of a different genre to what you're used to in order to challenge and stimulate your mind

1. NUTRITION

Our brain consumes 20 per cent of all the energy we put into our body. There is no single best diet or food. It's about including a wide variety of fresh, unprocessed foods, vegetables and fruits, lean protein (including three portions of oily fish a week), seeds, nuts and wholegrains. Water is essential. Even 1 per cent dehydration is associated with fuzzy thinking.

2. EXERCISE

Exercise enhances blood flow to the brain, leading to reduced brain shrinkage and increased neurogenesis and plasticity, so your work performance stays top-notch. It provides improved cognition, learning and memory, improves mood and self-esteem and reduces stress and the risk of anxiety and depression. A 30-minute plus session of aerobic exercise five times a week is ideal.

3. SLEEP

Sleep provides us with greater physical and mental wellbeing; it allows for neurone repair and maintenance and brings mood regulation. It allows us to forget the irrelevant, because we don't need to remember everything forever. Generally, we need between seven and eight hours of uninterrupted sleep for maximum restorative benefit.

4. MENTAL STRETCH

Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to form new connections between existing neurons. The more curious we remain, the more we stimulate our brain plasticity. Start with one small change at a time. If you've always wanted to learn an instrument or paint, it's time to sign up to a class. Make a daily habit: do a cryptic crossword, learn three new words and their meanings, read a book in a different genre.

5. FOCUS

We cannot multitask. Not if we are female, not if we are young. Not at all. Instead, do one thing at a time, give it your full and undivided attention and do it well. Regaining our attention and managing distractions is possible because we can exercise our attention just like a muscle. Pick a quiet place to allow your brain to think in a less stressed state, prioritise the following day's work, fight to get three top priorities done every day and unplug regularly.

6. MINDSET

The attitude we form in childhood will stick with us – and if it's less than stellar, we have to make a conscious choice to change it. Attitude is always a choice. You can change it. Listen to your thoughts or voice when you respond to a challenge. You don't have to buy into the negative. You can 'flip' to look at things differently when you choose to.

7. HEALTHY STRESS

It's not the amount or severity of the stress that harms us; it's our belief in whether or not we will sustain harm from the stress. It's not the stress itself that is the issue, but how you view or share it with others. Putting our feelings into words (labelling) helps to dissipate some of the emotional intensity we experience.

8. MINDFULNESS

Mindfulness takes us off autopilot. When we are being mindful, we are fully conscious of our environment and our thoughts. The essence of freeing your mind from busyness, and giving it room to think, is to make a start – and that involves choosing which form of meditation practice is best for you. Perhaps join a class to help you get into the habit of doing your practice.

9. CHANGE ABILITY

Our brains are designed to adapt constantly, not resist in stasis. Change signals growth, renewal and opportunity. What we have to do is ensure that we keep our threat response under control when it comes to the change management process and our brains.

10. INNOVATION

The brain has two possible pathways to solving problems: insight and logic. Mental flexibility is the ability to alternate rapidly between the two. If we adopt a childlike approach to our thought processes, our curiosity will increase, and therefore so will our creativity. It's about allowing ourselves the freedom to explore the unknown and challenge accepted thinking.

11. COLLABORATION

The outcome of many brains working together is greater than the sum of their parts. Connecting at a social level is highly motivating. Look people in the eye and get physical [when we greet others through some form of physical contact the brain is triggered to release oxytocin, the so-called 'trust' hormone].

12. LEADERSHIP

List the five leaders you most admire and then determine what leadership characteristics or values they hold in common. There are typically five key strategies in bringing out the best in others: listen [give someone undivided attention], speak [choose words carefully], reflect [take time to pause], inquire [stay curious] and connect [follow-up with people to establish trust and empathy].

:: This is an edited extract from Future Brain: The 12 Keys To Create Your High-Performance Brain by Dr Jenny Brockis, published by Wiley, priced £14.95.

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