Train Your Brain: 5 Tips for Improving Brain Functioning

Did you know that you can train your brain to be better, stronger, and faster than ever before? Neuroscientists have discovered that the brain is capable of changing itself if given the proper input. Diet, exercise, stress reduction via yoga or meditation, as well as activities that stimulate brain cell growth and repair are the key.

Researchers have long known that brain health was a use it or lose it proposition. Similar to your body, which requires nutrition and exercise to function at optimal levels, your brain needs a steady dose of activity and nutrients to keep it in top form.  Mental couch potatoes experience higher rates of cognitive decline, memory loss, and age-related dementia than mental athletes. Stopping that process at any age is a matter of training and determination.

In 2007 Norman Doidge, M.D. published his breakthrough book, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. Drawing from the latest neuroscientific research, Doidge published numerous accounts of individuals with “hopeless” brain conditions, injuries and illnesses who were able to rewire their brains through targeted brain exercises. His accounts provide strong evidence that the once held belief that the adult brain is hardwired, fixed, and unchanging is simply not true.

You can build a healthier brain. Here are 5 steps to get you there.

1. Food for thought: Nutrition is key: If you’ve ever noticed that you’re famished after spending time thinking through a difficult problem, it’s no surprise. The brain burns more fuel than any other organ in the body, and requires a consistent supply of glucose to keep it energized. It thrives on fiber, lean sources of protein, antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids.

Researchers have found that foods that are high in fiber like whole grain breads; rich in protein such as eggs; loaded with antioxidants, beta-carotene and vitamins C and E including dark, leafy greens and berries; and dense with omega-3s like salmon are key to giving your brain the fuel it needs to function optimally.

2. Workouts to build mental muscle: Scientists have discovered that successful brain functioning is strongly linked to working memory. Working memory refers to the system in the brain that is responsible for problem solving and storing short-term information. Simple mathematical problems, word search puzzles, many card games, and Sudoku all flex working memory muscles.

A team led by Torkel Klingberg at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, discovered that the neural systems related to working memory change in response to training. They measured brain activity in a sample of adults before and after 5 weeks of working-memory training that involved memorizing the positions of a series of dots on a grid, and other tasks.

Results from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans revealed that participants’ brain activity had increased in the regions associated with working memory. A steady dose of memory challenging games and puzzles may be just the ticket to your mental muscle workout.

3. Kick stress to the curb: Take up yoga, meditation, or Tai Chi: The same regions of the brain that play a role in quick thinking and memory are also central to the stress response. J.D. Bremner, M.D.’s book, Does Stress Damage the Brain: Understanding Trauma-Related Disorders from a Mind-Body Perspective, details the impact of stress and trauma on brain function. He contends that, “stress has detrimental effects on memory and cognition that can lead to long-term dysfunction.”  But stress can be managed.  Researchers have discovered that individuals who participate in activities such as yoga, meditation, and Tai-Chi that emphasize mindful awareness report reductions in stress and improvements in mood and other measures of mental health. Even short practices can have lasting effects if practiced consistently.

4. Exercise your inner kid: Learn a new skill: Brain training doesn’t have to be painful, strenuous, or boring. According to Norman Doidge, picking up a new musical instrument, learning a language, or trying a new hobby can be equally as effective in stimulating brain cell growth and improving mental functioning.

Depending on the activity, adults learning a new skill may experience improvements in memory, motor skills, hand-eye coordination, linguistic and spatial memory, and many other abilities related to healthy brain function. Studies also suggest that pleasurable activities are linked with the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in cognition, motivation, motor control, and other key functions. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you enjoy the activity and do it consistently.

5. The power of a good night’s sleep: It is no wonder that people feel mentally foggy after a poor night’s sleep. Sleep is essential for effective learning, concentration, working memory, problem solving, and attention. “If you have been awake for 21 hours straight, your abilities are equivalent to someone who is legally drunk,” says Sean Drummond from the University of California, San Diego.

Fortunately, the effects of a poor night’s sleep can be remedied by a nap or a good night of sleep. For those suffering from chronic sleep problems, the solution may require a change in sleep hygiene. For a better night’s sleep, turn off the computer, cell phone, or other light generating devices 1-2 hours before bedtime. Limit the use of alcohol, caffeine or other stimulants, particularly in the evening hours. Trade in your TV crime drama for a good book, a cup of herbal tea, or a brief yoga or meditation practice. Calming the mind before bed leads to a better night’s rest.   

It’s important to introduce these changes slowly, and to do so in a way that ensures success. If you attempt to alter your diet, take up an exercise routine, and learn a new skill at the same time you’re likely to increase your level of stress and overwhelm your brain rather than train it. Consider change a work in progress. Approach it one day at a time, one step at a time, and with a lot of self-compassion.  Give your brain time and patience and it will reward you with health and happiness.

B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT 500 is a psychologist, research scientist, educator, author, yoga and mindfulness expert and creator ofBREATHE: 7 Skills for Mindful Relationships. Her mission is to reduce stress, increase health and wellbeing and improve the quality of relationships. She offers classes, workshops, writing and research that combine the wisdom of applied neuroscience, psychophysiology, psychology and contemplative science and practice. Her goal is to empower individuals, groups, leaders and organizations to reduce chronic stress and increase awareness, attention, compassion, mindfulness and effective communication to strengthen relationships, release dysfunctional patterns and unlock new and healthy ways of being. Dr. Bullock is a Certified Viniyoga Therapist and Faculty at the Integrated Health Yoga Therapy (IHYT) Training program. She is the former Senior Research Scientist at the Mind & Life Institute and former Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. For more information see www.bgracebullock.com

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