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How To Boost Your Brain Power
by Dr. Jessica Nagelkirk
While you’re awake, your brain generates 10-23 watts of power. That’s enough power to light up a lightbulb. If you ever feel like your mental power could never produce a dim glow of a light bulb, read on for simple steps you can take to boost your brain power.
Hundreds of research studies over the past decade have found that physical exercise leads to changes in the brain that improve its function. The hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in learning and memory, has been found to increase the number of nerve cells with exercise. In a study of mice, it was found that mice that were allowed to exercise had double the number of new nerve cells in the hippocampus compared with mice that were sedentary. Not only does exercise increase the number of neurons in your brain, but it also increases blood flow to the brain, which allows it to be bathed in the nutrients needed for optimal functioning. Monkeys who exercise for one hour a day, five days a week, have demonstrated increased alertness, attentiveness, and the ability to learn new things faster, regardless of age.
Neurotransmitters are chemicals that communicate with the nervous system, including the brain. You have probably heard of serotonin and its association with depressed mood, but it, along with other neurotransmitters including acetylcholine, plays a role in memory. In order for neurotransmitters to function properly, they require additional nutrients called co-factors. These cofactors are nutrients such as B vitamins, magnesium, zinc, and other vitamins and minerals. Many of these cofactors can be found in green leafy vegetables and protein. Including a healthy fat in your diet is also really important, as your brain is 60% fat! Healthy fat sources include avocados, olive oil, flax oil, nuts and seeds, grass-fed organic butter, and oils from fatty fish.
You might also want to steer clear of processed foods and pesticides, choosing organic whenever possible. A study of students in New York showed that students who ate lunches free of artificial flavors, preservatives, and dyes scored 14% better on IQ tests than students who consumed those additives.
While you sleep at night, your brain works hard to consolidate your memories from the day. Not getting enough good quality sleep actually decreases your ability to form new memories. Set yourself up for success by having a bedroom designed for sleep. Try to sleep in total darkness, with blackout drapes if possible. Your bedroom should also be free of electronics that produce electromagnetic frequencies . If you sleep with your phone next to your bed, try moving it across the room. Millions of Americans watch TV and work on their computers in bed, a bad habit if you’re trying to get good quality sleep. The bedroom should only be used for sleeping and intimate moments.
Supplements and Herbs
There are many products out there to enhance brain function. Some ingredients that I occasionally use temporarily to support the brain are:
- Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) found in fish oil or krill oil: An omega-3 fatty acid found in fish oil, called DHA, is the primary structural component of the human brain. Low levels of DHA are associated with cognitive decline.
- B Vitamin Complex: B vitamins are important co-factors for millions of processes that happen in your body every day which help support mental and cognitive health. Choosing methylated forms of B vitamins like folate and cobalamin are important for some individuals, as a common genetic defect prevents some of the population from turning the inactive forms of these vitamins into active, usable forms.
- Rhodiola Root Extract: This plant is used in traditional medicine in Eastern Europe and Asia to enhance physical and mental performance. Studies of the plant have actually shown improved physical and mental performance, reduced stress-induced fatigue in humans, and improved stress symptoms in general. I typically use this herb with the “worn out student” type person.
- Probiotics: Health begins in the gut. Probiotics can help restore the balance of good bacteria and improve the assimilation and absorption of the nutrients you need for proper brain function. If you can’t digest food well, it makes getting the nutrients you need for brain function difficult.
There are many medical conditions that impair mental function, such as attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dementia, or even clinical depression. Low iron stores (serum ferritin), zinc deficiencies, food allergies, and heavy metal toxicity have all been associated with ADHD symptoms and poor cognition. If you or your family member experiences difficulty with brain function or completing tasks, it’s important to have an evaluation by a physician to make sure the underlying problem is identified and addressed before you self-treat with herbs or supplements.
Dr. Jessica Nagelkirk is a licensed Naturopathic Physician (ND) specializing in integrative primary care medicine. She is a current faculty member at National College of Natural Medicine in Portland, Oregon and sees patients privately at U.P. Holistic Medicine in Marquette, MI.
Reprinted with permission from the Fall 2014 issue of Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine, copyright 2014. All rights reserved.