It’s wellbeing week, a time when we can reflect on mental, physical and spiritual health. Although wellness has received more attention in recent years, there is still more we can do to raise awareness and acceptance for people who are suffering with mental or physical health issues.
In this blog, we will focus on six elements that impact wellbeing and, as a consequence, brain performance. Performance is directly associated with health: the poorer our health, the poorer our performance; the better our health, the better our performance. Therefore, improving these six elements will enhance wellbeing and performance at the same time.
If you are looking to boost your wellbeing and brain performance, try tackling these six drivers. Which one do you think will make the most difference to you? Set yourself the target to improve only one of the six to begin with. When you achieve your set target, challenge yourself to enhance another one or raise the bar on the one you are already working on.
Take the free Mini Brain Fitness Quiz to discover how brain fit you are and take action to improve your score.
A fit brain is able to switch and alternate between functions with ease and speed, undertaking more that one task at a time without reduced performance. For example, try to pat your head with one hand and rub your tummy with the other – do you find it easy? If you do, your brain is fit, but if you find it tricky, chances are your brain is not as fit as it could be.
Brain fitness is not about multitasking, instead it’s about the readiness of all brain regions to process incoming information. From a neuroscientific perspective, the brain is composed by two hemispheres that communicate with each other, but process different types of information in specialised ways. This means that the left hemisphere specialises in analysing sense data in a sequential and logical manner, whereas the right hemisphere specialises in analysing the same data in a holistic and creative way.
In a similar manner, other areas of the brain specialise in other functions, such as receiving and reflecting, or expressing and verbalising information; analysing data in an emotive or rational way. People tend to have a dominant way of processing inputs, for example focussing on the logical details, discussing and verbalising these in a rational way. In a second instance, they will consider the holistic picture in a reflective way with the emotional implications.
A fit brain will be faster at integrating the dominant, default processing with the complementary non-dominant processing. In the example of tapping your head and rubbing your tummy, you are using your right brain hemisphere to control your left hand and your left brain hemisphere to control your right hand. Using both hemispheres simultaneously to control different movements stimulates the integration of brain areas.
Other ways to improve your brain fitness are:
- Cross lateral movements, where you cross your body’s midline
- Brain exercises, like sudoku, chess, eye-tracking
- Stretching and yoga to improve spinal fluid circulation
Stress is the brain’s worst enemy and it is believed that 75-90% of all doctor visit are stress related. The reason is because stress stimulates the production of chemicals that inhibit connections between brain cells, which causes a suppression of the immune system. It is easy to see how stress impacts both physical and mental health and brain power.
Evolutionarily, stress was vital to our survival, as it alerted us of imminent danger. However today’s world is very different from the one our ancestors lived in and constant pressure means stress doesn’t have the survival function it once had. Instead of keeping us alive, it makes us weaker and more susceptible to diseases.
We need to learn to manage stress so that it becomes useful when we really need a cortisol and adrenaline boost (e.g. to complete a tight deadline, to keep us alert on a romantic date, or to stay focused in an important interview). Some ways to cope with stress are:
- Take time to walk in nature and take in sensory data to produce neurotransmitters which nurture brain cells’ connections
- Exercise regularly
- Practice mindfulness
- Breathing exercises
- Strengthen your social relationships
- Laugh and have fun
- Maintain a natural and healthy diet, drink plenty of water
For a deep breathing exercise, click here.
Sleep is very important to our health because it allows our bodies to restore depleted resources are repair damaged cells, it preserves energy and rests muscles. During sleep, we produce chemicals responsible for happiness and healing, and when we dream, “brain clutter” is cleared. A report (2007) showed that a single night of sleep deprivation reduces the ability to commit new experiences to memory; some experts argue that you can’t catch up on sleep.
For a healthy night’s sleep, most people need between 6-8 hours a night, although it varies depending on your age and other factors in your lifestyle. Not only it is important that you sleep for long enough, but good quality sleep is essential too. Quality of sleep is determined by how deeply you sleep and EEG waves your brain functions in, i.e. how long you are in delta mode for.
If you’d like to learn more about sleep and why it is so important to our health, we recommend reading Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker (PhD).
Movement and exercise
Everyone knows that physical exercise is good for you health, yet it’s not enough to convince many people to do sport or go to the gym. Why is exercise so important? It activates and energises the brain and the body, induces the production of feel-good hormones, increases concentration, induces the secretion of stress hormones and improves the strength of connections between brain cells.
A good book on how movement enhances brain performance is Spark!, Dr. J.J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman.
Dance the Brain Boogie to activate your brain with cross lateral exercises.
Attitude is the way we habitually think. People say that someone is an optimist or a pessimist, but in reality people choose to be one or the other rather than being born with that mindset. Of course, genes and educations can influence our propensity to positive or negative thinking, however it is ultimately up to us to decide what mindset we want to have.
A positive attitude is good for health and brain performance, as it stimulates the production of hormones that enhance our immune system and reinforce brain connections. On the other hand, a negative attitude has the opposite effect, inhibiting immune functions and brain cells connections.
Tips for a positive attitude:
- Choose to find purpose and meaning in every situation
- Choose to think more positive thoughts than negative
- Maintain a growth mindset
- Contemplate things that you are thankful for
- Spend time with positive people
- Challenge yourself with new experiences
- Seek counsel and support when you feel stuck
- Be hopeful for the future and create clear visions
The food we eat has a massive effect on our body’s and on our brain’s health. Studies that prove links between what we eat and how well our brains work are emerging. “Traditional” Diets (e.g. Mediterranean, Japanese) where people eat “clean” result in better mental health and cognitive functioning, while western style diets, higher in saturated fats and refined carbohydrates seem to have a negative impact. To keep your brain healthy, include lots of nutrient dense foods, such as vegetables, fruit, whole grains and fish and stay hydrated.
How and what you eat have an impact on your mood and your mental wellbeing, not only on your physical health. Serotonin is a chemical that helps regulate sleep and appetite, mediate moods, and inhibit pain. Since about 95% of your serotonin is produced in your gastrointestinal tract, and your gastrointestinal tract is lined with a hundred million nerve cells connected to the brain, it makes sense that the inner workings of your digestive system don’t just help you digest food, but also guide your emotions.
Improve your wellbeing
Changing your habits to improve your wellbeing is not easy. Habits are continually reinforced in our brains and breaking those connections in the brain is challenging. If you want to make improvements to your lifestyle, make one change at a time, make sure the new habit is created before you try creating a new one. This will allow you to manage and commit to your resolutions in a realistic way. Find someone who can hold you accountable and support you.
To find out more on Neuro-agility, please click here. If you would like to boost your wellbeing, complete your Neuro-agility report to find out how you are using the six factors affecting your brain performance. Take the free Mini Brain Fitness Quiz to discover how brain fit you are and take action to improve your score.