Top 5 Tips For Boosting Brain Power
Would you like to:
Improve your work performance?
Enhance your memory?
Prevent diseases associated with ageing such as Alzheimer’s and Dementia?
Support your child to maintain attention at school or university?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, then the good news is that there are lots of different tools and methods available to you. Here we explore 5 scientifically proven ways to boost your brain power by driving neuroplasticity in a positive direction, which have the added benefit of improving your general health too!
What is neuroplasticity you ask? Neuroplasticity refers to the ability of the brain to be plastic or pliable, which allows it to change and adapt in response to experiences such as learning or injury.
1. Newness, challenge and perception
Evidence: Research shows that stimulation in the form of novelty, focussed attention and challenge are essential for enhancing and maintaining cognitive function (Shaffer, 2016). To put it simply, think of your brain as a muscle; the more you use it the stronger it gets.
Challenging yourself by engaging in a new skill has been linked with significant improvements in learning, working memory and processing speed, lengthening healthy lifespan, improving neuroplasticity, and decreasing or potentially reversing age-related cognitive decline (Shaffer, 2016)!
Dr Hart, the author of ‘The Brain Book’ highlights that once new learning has occurred and has been effectively programmed, it becomes less challenging and less stimulating for our brains. The best mental exercise is acquiring new knowledge and doing things you have not done before. Life-long learning keeps neurons (nerve cells that transmit information throughout the body) firing, makes it easier for them to fire, and keeps the synaptic connections (how neurons communicate with each other) healthy (Hart, 2016). Indeed, Benjamin Franklin had it right all those centuries ago when he said, “When you’re finished changing, you’re finished!”.
And here’s an interesting fact; research also demonstrates that those who hold negative perceptions and stereotypes about ageing have greater cognitive decline! Yes, that’s right, you can “think” your brain into ageing. In the wise words of Buddha, “All that we are is a result of what we have thought”.
Try new things and challenge yourself mentally every day
Find ways to ‘switch things up’ to make things you are already doing ‘new’, for example if you play bridge – try joining a different group to create some ‘newness’. Remember, if it has become routine it is no longer challenging you! Similarly, you could try changing up some routines (take an alternative route to work, go somewhere different this weekend, cook something new tonight)
Learn a new language, musical instrument, or sport such as dancing or basketball
Study something new and interesting
Sign-up to brain-training exercises
Try to actively reverse any negative thought-patterns you have related to your health and brain function. "Your body hears everything your mind says" - Naomi Judd
Online courses (everything from astrophysics to fine art)
Meetup groups https://www.meetup.com/en-AU/
Evidence: Your brain is a part of your body. Your brain works best when you are healthy. And exercise is an absolute key component of health. Agreed? Agreed. Exercise, particularly aerobic exercise, stimulates the production of serotonin and endorphins (which are chemicals in the brain that reduce stress), and has been associated with increased neurogenesis (production of new brain cells) in humans (Pereira et.al., 2007), and more importantly exercise helps these new born brain cells survive and mature (Snyder, 2009). Research also shows that exercise can improve information processing, cognitive performance and executive functioning, as well as improve the integrity of brain structures related to memory (and in turn improve memory), and increase grey matter (the very stuff our brains are made of, and what shrinks with time in Alzheimer’s Disease) (Shaffer, 2016).
For added benefits, try doing your exercise in the sun! Bright light exposure has been shown to maintain circadian rhythm, improve mood and boost Vitamin D (a great anti-inflammatory). So, try getting outside and taking off the sunglasses - but leave on the sunscreen (University of Kansas, 2017)! Playing music at the same time you are exercising is also great for improving cognitive functioning (Shaffer, 2016).
Aim to be physically active for about 30 minutes (for adults) or 60 minutes (for children) each day
Aim for 15-30 minutes of bright light exposure per day, or investigate options for getting a special light box that emits the same amount of light (10,000 lux)
If you are currently doing little or no exercise, then start small and gradually build up. Consider seeking the advice or your GP or other health professional
Try walking or cycling on short trips rather than taking the car, using the stairs instead of the lift or escalators, taking a lunch-time walk (with some skin exposed to the sun), or joining a walking group or exercise class
To take your brain exercise to the next level, try doing exercises that include cross-laterality (movements in which your arms or legs cross over from one side of your body to the other) such as dancing, badminton or tennis, step classes or boxing!
Information on Exercise and Light Exposure http://tlc.ku.edu/elements
3. Diet and inflammation
Evidence: Eating a well-balanced, low glycaemic index (GI) diet comprising of vegetables, fruits, fish, polyphenols and healthy fats has been shown to be neuroprotective (protects neurons from injury or degeneration), have positive effects on neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, and influence the reduction of chronic inflammation (which negatively effects brain health and function) (Shaffer, 2016). The Australian Dietary Guidelines also advise that for optimal health, you should limit your intake of foods high in saturated fats, added salt and sugars such as cakes, biscuits, fried foods, unhealthy snacks, confectionary and sweetened soft drinks (National Health and Medical Research Council, 2013).
Craving a sweet treat every now and then? There is hope! Polyphenol resveratrol – say that ten times fast – (found in dark grapes, cranberries and blueberries) increases longevity while preserving memory and parts of the microstructure of your brain (Shaffer, 2016). And cocoa flavanols (such as those found in dark chocolate) are noted for being a powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, as well as increasing blood flow to the brain resulting in improved attention, executive function, memory and mood (Shaffer, 2016; Godman, 2015). Another polyphenol shown to be beneficial is curcumin (found in turmeric), which has been shown to be neuroprotective, anti-inflammatory, enhance neurogenesis, and improve cognition and mood (Shaffer, 2016). Tumeric latte, anyone?
And finally, studies show that Omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) improve working memory performance, have anti-inflammatory properties, help serotonin and dopamine circuits in our brains function more efficiently (which improves mood), and are essential for adequate brain function and development (University of Kansas, 2017; Shaffer, 2016). Omega 3 fatty acids cannot be made in the body and therefore need to be obtained from our diet (found in fish and plant foods) and/or supplementation (University of Kansas, 2017; Shaffer, 2016).
Try treating yourself by savouring a handful of frozen dark grapes, two pieces of dark chocolate or a turmeric latte
Speak to your naturopath, GP or other health professional about an Omega-3 supplement. When selecting a supplement, pick one which provides you with 1000mg of EPA and 500mg of DHA per day (University of Kansas 2017)
Try cooking some “brain-healthy” meals using recipes from books such as those listed below
Australian Dietary Guidelines https://www.eatforhealth.gov.au/ guidelines/about-australian-dietary-guidelines
“Brain-healthy” cook books and recipes
Information on Omega-3 fatty acids http://tlc.ku.edu/elements
Article on choosing Omega-3 supplements http://natmed.com.au/oils-aint-oils/
4. Love and stress
Evidence: Shaffer (2016) reported that love in a laboratory, in the form of a little TLC for lab rats, resulted in continued production of neuroplastic gains that were sustained through a 50% longer lifespan, wow! Imagine how this translates in terms of neuroplasticity and wellbeing in humans. Hugs, cuddles, snuggles are just one type of physical expression of love which release our bonding and reward hormones, oxytocin and dopamine. We can connect to love through meditation too (Cole, 1999).
Meditation and mindfulness have also been linked with anti-inflammatory effects similar to those experienced with prescription drugs, and has been linked with less atrophy (degeneration) of brain gray matter (Shaffer, 2016). Research undertaken by the universities of UCLA, Harvard, Oxford, Monash, Johns Hopkins and Lund have all shown that regular mindfulness or meditation practice helps to combat stress, improve focus and increase resilience (Smiling Mind, 2017).
Hug someone you love for at least 6 seconds (it takes this long to release the “feel good” chemicals) – this can feel like a really long time at first, but stick with it and you will reap the reward!
Take some time to identify the key “stressors” in your life and try implementing some strategies to reduce or manage these better – check out the This Way Up free coping with stress course https://thiswayup.org.au/how-we-can-help/courses/coping-with-stress/
Take some time every day to relax; perhaps listen to your favourite music, read a book, or do some mindfulness or meditation
Spend more time with people that make you feel happy
Learn HRV biofeedback techniques to use at home or at work
‘How To Make Stress Your Friend’ TED Talk https://www.perthbraincentre.com.au/neuroknowledge/blog/how-to-make-stress-your-friend-kelly-mcgonigal
HRV Biofeedback information https://www.perthbraincentre.com.au/services/hrv-biofeedback/
Meditation and mindfulness links
Beyond Blue website
Evidence: Sleep is essential for brain health. Research shows that lack of sleep is associated with impaired supply of nutrients and oxygen to brain cells, atrophy (deterioration) of certain parts of the brain and decreased neurogenesis and decreased BDNF production (crucial to many components of neuroplasticity) (Shaffer, 2016).
Sleep deprivation and lack of sleep has also been linked to deficits in attention, learning and memory, low mood, lower quality of life, inflammation and cognitive decline (Shaffer, 2016)! Perhaps Sleeping Beauty was onto something?! Creating an evening routine (and sticking to it) as well as keeping to regular times for going to bed and getting up has been shown to aid in getting a good night’s sleep (Sleep Health Foundation, 2017).
Relax for one hour before going to bed and avoid caffeine, alcohol and using screens during this time, instead try something relaxing like having a bath or reading a book
Create a ‘sleep sanctuary’ by keeping distracting items out of the bedroom (televisions, mobile telephones, computers, gaming devices etc.)
Get some sunlight during the day (to assist in maintaining a good circadian rhythm and release of melatonin and the correct times) (University of Kansas, 2017)
If you snore or have sleep apnoea consider seeking the advice of your GP or other health professional
Sleep Health Foundation fact sheet http://www.sleephealthfoundation.org.au/pdfs/Good-Sleep-Habits.pdf
Information on Sleep Hygiene http://tlc.ku.edu/elements
Guided stories for children
Let’s Imagine: The Crystal Castle https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/lets-imagine-the-crystal-castle/id449782861
Let’s Imagine: A Journey Though Time https://itunes.apple.com/au/album/lets-imagine-a-journey-through-time/id449731481
The Little Elephant Who Wants to Fall Asleep (available as an audiobook or hardcopy) https://itunes.apple.com/gb/audiobook/little-elephant-who-wants-to-fall-asleep-new-way-getting/id1156033369
The Rabbit Who Wants to Fall Asleep (available as an audiobook or hardcopy) https://itunes.apple.com/au/audiobook/rabbit-who-wants-to-fall-asleep-new-way-getting-children/id1042522854
So, there you have it, our Top Tips for boosting brain power (and overall health)! Would you like to do or know more about what you can do for your brain? At the Perth Brain Centre, we conduct thorough assessments which measure a variety of cognitive functions including working memory, executive function, processing speed, attention, and episodic memory, and provide evidence-based lifestyle and dietary recommendations paired with neuroplastic therapies (where required) based on your individual results and goals.
For further information about how lifestyle interventions and neuroplastic therapies can help boost your brain function, please contact Lynda Gibbs (Occupational Therapist) or any other member of team at the Perth Brain Centre www.perthbraincentre.com.au.
Cole, R. (1999). Mission of Love – A Physician’s Personal Journey Towards a Life Beyond. Lothian Books, Melbourne, VIC.
Godman, H. (2015). Cocoa: a sweet treat for the brain? Harvard Health Letter.
Hart, J. (2016). The Brain Book. New Holland Publishers: London, UK.
National Health and Medical Research Council. (2013). Australian Dietary Guidelines. Canberra: National Health and Medical Research Council.
Pereira, A., Huddleston, D., Brickman, A., Sosunov, A., Hen, R. & McKhann, G. (2007). An In Vivo Correlate of Exercise-Induced Neurogenesis in The Adult Dentate Gyrus. Proceedings of the National Academy.
Shaffer, J. (2016). Neuroplasticity and Clinical Practice: Building Brain Power for Health. Frontiers in Psychology. Vol 7: 1118.
Sleep Health Foundation. (2017). Good Sleep Habits. http://www.sleephealthfoundation.org.au/pdfs/Good-Sleep-Habits.pdf
The University of Kansas. (2017). Therapeutic Lifestyle Change. http://tlc.ku.edu/elements