"A full belly makes a dull brain."
Food for Thought (Literally)
By Joe Wilkes
Most of us make most of our eating decisions based on how they're going to make our bodies look. But it's worth remembering that our diets affect how our heads operate, too. Brain function depends on an enormously complex system of chemicals and electrical impulses, and the fuel we put into our systems can make a big difference on how we process our information, our moods, and our energy levels. The good news is that what's good for our heads is also good for our tails.
How our brains work (basically)
This isn't a medical journal, but we'll try to broadly discuss what causes some of our major brain functions (or malfunctions). Brain cells communicate with each other through a series of chemical reactions triggered by neurotransmitters. Some of the major neurotransmitters are catecholamines like dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine, speed up brain reaction time, and other neurotransmitters, like serotonin, which cause the brain to relax. Amino acids like tryptophan (found in seafood, soy, meat, eggs, and dairy) can help trigger relaxation, while other amino acids like tyrosine (found in chocolate, beans, nuts, and seeds) can rev things up. So by introducing food and beverages to the mix, you can either excite or inhibit these processes. In essence, if you play your diet cards right, your refrigerator can be as effective as your local pharmacist or bartender.
Brain cell membranes rely heavily on fatty acids, especially omega-3s. It's no coincidence that fish is called "brain food"; the highest, healthiest levels of omega-3s are found in oily fish like salmon, sardines, tuna, and herring. Other good sources include canola, walnut, and extra-virgin olive oils; flaxseed; fresh coconut; nuts; seeds; and avocados. Some studies have shown that upping the omega-3 levels in your diet might help stave off dementia and Alzheimer's in old age. It's still important to remember that while some are healthy, all fats are highly caloric and should be consumed in moderation. As with any food group, too much isn't a good thing. Eating too much of anything can cause unhealthy insulin responses, which can end up doing more harm than good.
Carbs can have the most immediate, noticeable effect on your brain function. In fact, about 20 percent of your daily carbohydrate supply goes solely toward brain function. But the type of carb greatly affects the response. Ask anyone who gives their toddler a juice drink and watches them spin out of control. Just like a hit of sugar can give your body a jolt of energy, it also gives your brain a jolt. But watch out for when the sugar gives out. It may seem like a good idea to swig a Coke before that big test; but while the sugar may give you an initial rush, the following crash can be devastating.
However, carbs aren't the enemy. They are a great source of tryptophan, which affects the brain's serotonin levels—which can then help regulate blood pressure, sleep, and appetite. Carbs are great fuel for the brain, but it's better to get them from complex carbohydrate sources like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes with high fiber contents. The fiber causes you to absorb the energy more slowly and steadily, avoiding the peaks and valleys of many processed snacks. It's one of the reasons that dessert is best saved for after meals instead of between meals. When you have low-glycemic food, like meat and vegetables, in your stomach, dessert will have less of a roller-coaster effect on your mood. Eat sweets in the middle of the day, and watch out! High-glycemic foods like cookies, candy, sodas, etc., can give you a sugar high, quickly followed by a sugar coma, when eaten on an empty stomach. Because of their empty calories, we'd recommend avoiding sweets altogether, but if you must indulge, always do it on a full stomach.
Meals and snacks containing protein are your best bet for maximum alertness throughout the day. That coffee and doughnut might get you out the door in the morning, but there will probably be a dip in energy shortly thereafter. Eating protein raises your tyrosine levels, which provokes chemical messengers to increase brain activity and alertness. Lean meat, poultry, and fish are your best sources as you get the healthy protein without the artery-clogging fat that can restrict blood flow to your brain. Legumes, nuts, and seeds are great vegetable sources that combine good complex carbohydrates and protein without a ton of calories or unhealthy fat. You also don't need to go nuts with the protein. A serving that is the size of the palm of your hand should produce the neurotransmitters necessary to get you through to the next meal. If you have a big test or meeting that you want maximum brainpower for, three chicken breasts aren't going to give you three times the neurotransmitters. In fact, overloading on calories, regardless of whether they're from carbohydrates, proteins, or fats, is going to slow down the brain.
Vitamins and supplements
There are lots of micronutrients, especially in fruits and vegetables, that can increase brain function. B-complex vitamins, and choline in particular, are vital for good brain function. Choline, found in eggs, has been found to enhance memory and reaction time and reduce fatigue. This is why it's such a prevalent ingredient in "smart" drugs and supplements. Gingko biloba has also been shown to increase memory. And the benefits don't stop with being book smart. Adding choline and other brain-healthy supplements to runners' diets has been shown to help reduce their running times and increase their physical activity. After all, it's your brain that tells your muscles what to do. It's one of the reasons Beachbody includes choline and gingko biloba, among many, many other brain-boosting ingredients, in
The best brainpower foods
To get the most brainpower for your buck, you should try eating three small meals with three small interspersed snacks to your blood sugar regulated and your brain equipped with a steady, but not overloaded, fuel supply. Any diet should be a balanced supply of protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats, and should be supplemented with a good multivitamin and omega-3/fish oil supplement. The best foods include:
Protein. Lean beef, chicken, turkey, eggs, salmon, tuna, soybeans, peanut butter, nuts.
Carbohydrates. Bananas, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, leafy green veggies like spinach and collard greens, oatmeal, whole-grain bread, brown rice, sweet potatoes.
Fats. Avocados, olive oil, flaxseed oil, walnut oil.
AVOID: Alcohol, processed sugars and flours, high-fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, hydrogenated fats, nicotine.
A good food day for the brain (and your figure)
Two-egg spinach omelet
Whole wheat toast, lightly spread with peanut butter
Small handful of almonds
Salmon filet (4 ounces)
Romaine salad with broccoli, chickpeas, tomatoes, cucumbers, and avocado with tablespoon of olive or flaxseed oil and lemon juice or vinegar for dressing
Small handful of walnuts
Stir-fry chicken breast (4 ounces, chopped) and vegetables (carrots, beans, peppers, onions, garlic, broccoli, etc.) in one tablespoon of olive or canola oil
Banana and yogurt
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10 Steps to Improve Your Brainpower
By Steve Edwards
We know that exercise will help us look better in a bathing suit, but most of us aren't aware of how important it is when it comes to brain function. While common lore suggests that jocks are dumb and brainiacs rarely leave the research lab, science paints a different picture—one wherein the fitter you are, the smarter you become. Let's look at 10 ways to improve your cognitive abilities.
- Aerobic exercise. In the 1990s, a now-famous experiment was done on mice at The Salk Institute of Biological Science in San Diego. Two groups of mice led similar lifestyles, with one difference, an exercise wheel for some to play on. The group with the treadmills dominated the other in a series of cognitive tests.
This should not be surprising, given that oxygen is vital for every human function, and by definition, aerobic exercise circulates oxygen. But, many further tests have been done, and we now know that we can train our brains the same way we train our muscles, and our brains will respond in a similar fashion. In fact, our brains continue to regenerate neurons until we die. The mice with treadmills in their cages produced two to three times the number of neurons produced by the non-treadmill group.
- Anaerobic exercise. Anaerobic exercise includes short bouts of intense movement that don't use oxygen. Most of us know that this is how we build muscle, but the same hormones released during this process also improve brain function. Even training our muscles improves how our brains work. "Muscle activity is a cue to keep a synapse stable, and synaptic inactivity is a cue to disassemble a synapse," stated Jeff W. Lichtman, M.D., Ph.D., at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis in Science Magazine. "So if you lose activity, you lose receptors. But if you regain activity, you get those receptors back."
- Try something new. New activities force an adaptation process on your brain as much as on your muscles. In P90X®, we call it "Muscle Confusion," but the brain is what's stimulated first, and it's exercised just as much as the targeted muscles. If you've ever wondered why we have so many different types of workouts, now you have your answer. New activity stimulates the mind and body alike.
- Visualize. When you don't have time to exercise, don't put it out of your mind. Instead, try focusing on physical tasks that you'd like to do when you have the time. A study in 2001 showed that you can increase muscle strength by just thinking about it. Over a 12-week period, a study done on visualization by the Cleveland Clinic showed that strength could be increased by concentrating on it for 5 minutes a day. Brain scans showed "greater and more focused" activity in the prefrontal cortex after 12 weeks, leading to the assumption that the strength gains were due to improvements in the brain's ability to signal muscle.
- Eat better. Your brain only weighs about 2 percent of your body weight but uses 20 percent of the oxygen and nutrients you take in. If your body is starving for nutrients and needs those that it's getting for survival functions, your brain activity will suffer.
- Relax. Finding ways to de-stress is vital for efficient brain function as anxiety and stress destroy neurons. Meditating or having fun with friends (especially if you laugh a lot) can keep your anxiety levels under control. The same goes for beginning your day with a relaxing morning ritual, like this Good Day Sunshine routine, which will stimulate your brain with positive thoughts that can proactively reduce your stress levels.
- Travel. The forced stimuli that travel induces have been shown to have a great benefit on your brain function. There is nothing quite like immersing yourself in a foreign culture wherein you don't understand the language to force your brain into a survival mode that leads to accelerated adaptation.
- Stay hydrated. Our bodies are nearly 70 percent water, but the brain is closer to 90 percent. Water composes more of the brain than any other organ, which is why you find it hard to think when you're extremely hot and/or dehydrated.
- Stretch. In daily life, our muscles contract and become tighter. We become less flexible. Most of us are at least somewhat aware that this hinders our physical abilities, but it also reduces our mental capacities. There are many books that advocate "brain exercises," and while certainly helpful, most of these are fairly simple stretches that we wouldn't need to do if we actually exercised properly. Stretching helps oxygen transport, helps you de-stress, and actually aids every physical process discussed above. Taking a few minutes a couple of times a day to lightly stretch and thoroughly warming up and cooling down after exercise will keep your brain feeling supple and sharp.
- Break routines. Doing things differently helps keep your brain from getting complacent. Small acts like getting dressed differently, closing your eyes during mundane tasks, using your computer mouse with your opposite hand, and so on are part of something called Neurobics™, a system to exercise your brain created by Lawrence C. Katz, Ph.D., a professor of neurobiology at Duke University Medical Center.
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Test Your "Brains" IQ!
By DeLane McDuffie
Sure, you've thought about brain food before, but have you ever thought about the brains behind the food? Doesn't sound too appealing at first, I know. I'm referring to the people who were responsible for some of the most successful food ad campaigns, making their products standouts in a market full of competitors. Match the "brains" behind the particular food that's probably in your cupboard, refrigerator, or stomach right now.
- Lorraine Collett Petersen – raisins. After being spotted drying her hair, Petersen was asked to be the subject of a painting. In the pose, she held a tray of grapes and wore her mother's bonnet. The northern Californian company that commissioned the painting was Sun-Maid. And Petersen's pose has been the basis of the enduring Sun-Maid Girl image since 1915.
- Sam Porter Goldsmith – cereal. Back in 1952, Sam Goldsmith sketched a character that would compete with three other characters in a contest to become the official mascot of a then brand-new breakfast cereal. The public would be the judge. The contestants were Newt the Gnu, Katy the Kangaroo, Elmo the Elephant, and Tony the Tiger. Guess who won?
- Marvin Potts – drink mix. In 1954, Mr. Potts got stuck with the daunting task of creating a new pitchman for General Mills' new drink. Inspired by his son drawing smiley faces on a window on a chilly Chicago day, he decided to put a smiley face on a pitcher of this new beverage, known as Kool-Aid. This was the beginning of Pitcherman, who later became Kool-Aid Man in 1975, after Kraft Foods (who had recently bought General Mills) slapped some appendages on him.
- Antonio Gentile – nuts. The year: 1916. A Virginia goober company was looking for an indelible image for its logo. So, they held a public contest. A 14-year-old boy named Antonio Gentile won $5 (that's somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 in today's money) for his drawing of a peanut with arms and legs. The company: Planter's Nut and Chocolate Company. The advertising icon: Mr. Peanut.
- O. D. McKee – snacks. Mulling over ideas of what should be the face of his company, O. D. McKee came across a photograph of his 4-year-old granddaughter. The cuteness of her wearing a straw hat and a blue checkered shirt was irresistible to McKee. Little Debbie's own parents were clueless of their daughter's image becoming the company logo, until they saw the first packages in 1960.
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