Joanna Savarese, Ph.D.
In a busy world with multiple responsibilities and various stressors, our health and well-being oftentimes fall to the wayside. As students, parents, professionals, and human beings, managing our lives while trying to stay sane is a balancing act. That balancing act often looks “unbalanced’ as we navigate through our lives. Either directly or indirectly, we may come to a point where we decide that our health, our brain, our body is actually more important than anything. And with proper care and attention, we can improve the quality of our work, our relationships, our health, and our lives!
Our brains are made up of billions of neurons that produce various neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters are responsible for what’s known as our “brain chemistry.” Epinephrine, norepinephrine, serotonin, dopamine, acetylcholine, and endorphins are neurotransmitters that affect how we think, feel, emote, attain, and retain information. Certain foods, exercises, activities, stressors, and general mental attitude can increase or decrease the quantity of these chemicals and the overall quality of our lives. “The mental and the physical, the mind, the brain, and the body are intrinsically linked by means of these chemicals” (Restak, 1994, p. 206).
So, where do you start? Below are some practical ways to start taking care of brain and body and start paying attention to YOU!
Exercise – Exercise doesn’t only make you feel good physically, but it has multiple and significant effects on the brain. Recently, research has found that exercise increased blood flow to areas that are connected to the hippocampus. This is important because the hippocampus is an area of the brain associated with the formation of memories. Exercise also increases the performance of most human functions because exercise increases blood flow across body tissue which in turn stimulates blood vessels and nitric acid (Medina, 2008). Exercise increases chemicals in the brain responsible for depression. Specifically, exercise increases levels of serotonin, which low levels of serotonin has been linked to symptoms of depression and mood disturbance (Young, 2007). Exercise decreases anxiety, increases concentration, and improves self-esteem. Overall, Medina sums it up best when he writes, “physical activity is cognitive candy” (Medina, 2008, p. 22). It most certainly is!
Sleep - It’s no new news that sleep deprivation impacts cognitive and physical functioning. Mood, fatigue, alertness, concentration – sleep deprivation affects it all! Internal and external factors influence the quality and quantity of our sleep. Part of being healthy is becoming aware of these factors. External factors like stress, anxiety, caffeine and internal factors, such as your intrinsic biorhythm or “internal clock” are a few ways to get in-tune with YOU. For example: Are you a lark or owl? Do you like to wake up early or stay up late? Understanding your natural rhythm unlocks a whole new world of how to manage your day. Larks are more alert around noon and are most productive a few hours before they eat lunch. Owls are most alert around 6pm and are most productive in the late evening (Medina, 2008). The point of all this: If your schedule permits, work with what you have. If you like to stay up late and get your best work done at night, then do it. Don’t waste those morning hours trying to accomplish a task that is going nowhere. If you like to study in the morning, then study first thing. If that is the time that you are most functional, take advantage of it – work with your rhythm, not against it! And of course, cut down on caffeine, decrease your stress (take several deep breaths before bed), and get the sleep you need – because without this basic necessity, your car is running on empty.
Food - Yes, the age old saying “you are what you eat” is quite true. What you eat is directly related to how you feel and how you feel is directly related to the chemicals that are producing in your brain J Tyrosine, an amino acid in your brain that makes the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine play in important role in alertness, quick thinking, fast reactions, attention and conscious awareness. Tyrosine is found in protein rich foods, such as milk, meat, fish, eggs, and tofu (Jensen, 2008). What this tells us: eat a healthy protein-rich breakfast to start your day off right. Sugar, the oh so sweet deliciousness, has also been directly linked to mood. Researchers have found that eliminating sugar improves mood and also can decrease symptoms of depression and lethargy (Somer, 1995). Vitamin and mineral deficiency are a result of insufficient food intake or inadequate absorption in the body. Lack of necessary vitamins and minerals contribute to fatigue, loss of appetite, poor concentration and memory, hostility, depression, and insomnia (Jensen, 2008). Specifically, deficiencies in vitamin B6, B1, B2, B12, vitamin C, and folic acid have been linked to depression (Somer, 1995). If you aren’t already taking a multi-vitamin or eating spinach, oranges, bran cereal, seafood, chicken, and vitamin packed foods (Jensen, 2008) it’s time to start! Go to your local farmers market, grab some nutrient rick veggies and start getting those greens.
Be good to your brain, in turn your body will thank you.