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6 Ways to Power Up Your Brain

6 Ways to Power Up Your Brain

Everybody knows that it is important to have a healthy body so you live a long, productive life, but what about your brain health? How can you increase your brain power with your everyday activities? How can you fuel up your brain?

Well, you could load up on caffeine and energy drinks for a temporary boost, but I think it is safe to say that we all know that caffeine and energy drinks are detrimental to our health. So let’s look at some sure-fire ways to boost your brain health that are actually good for you and that have scientific evidence supporting their effectiveness.

1. Brain training

Psychologists have known for quite some time that fundamental cognitive skills (for example, the speed at which we process information) are fairly stable throughout our life, and while we can often do more with what nature has given us, it is not so easy to improve our basic cognitive skill levels — at least until recently.

The latest player on the self-improvement scene is brain training, with all its neuroscientific gravitas and promises of genuine improvements to our fundamental cognitive skills, such as working memory and decision-making speed. Brain training is often done online via a person’s laptop, tablet, phone or personal computer. Brain training is often gamified so that it appears to be a leisure activity rather than an educational pursuit or a clinical intervention. And these games can often stimulate targeted areas of the brain that are crucial to intellectual activity.

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Practice at these tasks can lead to the now well-documented process of neurogenesis. The idea is that we can literally boost our brains with the correct types of mental exercises. Because psychologists now know quite a bit about which brain areas are involved in what types of skills, they can devise exercises to target those precise areas so that, at least in theory, we can all become more agile thinkers, have more creative insights and reason more logically.

No doubt the field has become cluttered with all manner of charlatans riding the exciting new wave of interest in what is called “cognitive training” by psychologists. The media have made the lack of evidence for the merits of brain training a recurring theme in their pop science supplements. And it is true that many brain training companies make unsupported promises that have the science community shaking their heads in disbelief. However, this does not diminish the fact that scientists are increasingly aware that the brain is never fully formed and that humans are constantly in a process of growth and change. Stimulating this growth and change with cognitive activities will most certainly make for more fully developed brains on a physiological level.

Psychologists are also as sure as we can reasonably be that brain cell connections really do grow in response to stimulation, and that stimulated brain areas are measurably better developed as a result. We are less sure that we can actually become more intelligent, insightful, and creative in our thinking as a result of brain training, although all the evidence and theory points in the right direction. Some very high-profile research published by Professor Susan Jaegii and colleagues has led to a high degree of confidence among psychologists that a task known as the dual N-back task can indeed raise at least one important dimension of intelligence — known as fluid intelligence — significantly and in the long term (that is, at least several months).

Another report by Cassidy, Roche and Hayes (2011) in “The Psychological Record” found IQ gains of 13 points or so for children with learning difficulties exposed to a behavior-analytic form of intellectual skills training called relational skills training. It can certainly be argued that specific brain training games have not withstood scientific scrutiny and failed to show their efficacy as a clinical tool versus merely a game. However, this doesn’t take away from the basic fact that psychologists are on the cusp of something revolutionary with brain training techniques. These techniques really will give more power to you brain.

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2. Maintain high levels of mental activity

The more conversations you have had as a child or have with your child, the more intelligent you or your child become. So if you want to power up your child’s or your own brain, then have more conversations. Start this form of brain training as early as humanly possible. Simple brain games involving naming objects and solving puzzles make learning a social as well as an educational matter and this improves everyone’s IQ.

Communication increases our vocabulary, which is important for our general intelligence levels. Kids whose parents read to them most days have higher IQs. However, the key to an increased IQ is not just to read, but to read interactively to a child. That means that you should use an interesting and varying tone of voice, showing lots of relevant emotion as you read. Look for signs of interest or reactions in the child and ask those questions as you go, making sure the child understands what is being read. For example, you could stop and ask: “What do you think happens next?” You can also check to see if they can tell you the meaning of a word, or you can provide one for them. This makes reading a fun social activity and this is where the real IQ boost comes from. This is probably the simplest and most important thing you can do for your child and it is why TV and audio stories played from CDs or computers just will not do the trick. It turns out that kids need their parents! Engaging with stories is very good for a child’s intellectual development, as shown in the article “What Reading Does for the Mind” by Cunningham & Stanovich (1998).

But don’t worry if you were never read to as a child.  Exercising the brain and keeping mentally active is always a good idea, no matter what age you are now. Fun activities like crosswords, Sudoku, or whatever similar activity takes your fancy have long been suspected by neuroscientists to help improve your cognitive ability. Even struggling to understand a map or a badly written flat-pack furniture assembly guide will exercise your spatial and reasoning abilities. One of the simplest things you can do to make your brain sweat is to try to understand points of view that you do not agree with. Open your mind and listen to arguments that make no sense to you and try to find some sense in them.

3. Get plenty of physical exercise

Physical exercise is a great solution to a wide range of physical, emotional and even intellectual problems. Exercise is free and there are no side effects. Physical exercise increases your blood flow, which in turn increases the amount of oxygen and glucose your brain is receiving. As exercise also involves physical coordination, the brain gets a workout as it coordinates the physical activity. Exercise helps with the growth of new brain cells (neurons) and the connections between brain cells (neurogenesis) by promoting the production of three essential “growth factors,” called brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), insulin-like growth factors (IGF-1), and endothelial growth factor (VEGF).

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These factors also minimize inflammation, grow new blood vessels, and slow down cell self-destruction. A good workout can also awaken dormant stem cells in the hippocampus, a part of the mid-brain that controls our memory system. Some research seems to suggest that there may be genuine intellectual benefits to exercise in terms of IQ gains.

4. Have a healthy and balanced diet

There are quite a range of food ingredients that are good for your brain and no end of marketing experts who will try to sell you the extracted ingredient in pill form or added to yoghurt. But the truth is that many food components can increase our mental functioning. Ginkgo biloba (extracted from the ginkgo tree) has good effects on memory. Vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, tomatoes, some berries, and the omega-3 oils found in oily fish (and some grains) appear to improve memory and overall brain function, as do green teas and protein in general. Protein, which we take in through meat, eggs and beans and peas (pulses), contain high levels of amino acids, such as tyrosine, which in turn cause neurons to produce the very important neurotransmitters norepinephrine and dopamine, which are associated with mental alertness.

The evidence is getting clearer on the effects of healthy diet and breastfeeding for an increased IQ. Mothers who breastfeed their babies for more than just a few weeks provide them with essential omega-3 fatty acids that are generally not available in baby formula. The same essential oils are also found in fresh fish, so kids fed plenty of fresh food and grains, including fresh fish from as early as possible, have higher IQs than kids fed on formula and processed food.

Perhaps the best evidence for exercise as a technique to fuel your brain power comes from a gold standard Randomized Controlled Trial study published in the journal Pediatrics by Helland, Smith, Saarem, Saugstad, & Drevon in 2003. That study compared the IQs of children fed on omega-3-enhanced milk formula compared to those who were not. The researchers found that the IQs of the omega-3 fed children were several points higher at four years of age — long after milk feeding had stopped.

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A child’s IQ is also helped by the diet of the mother, especially in the last trimester of her pregnancy. If the mother eats a healthy diet high in omega-3 oils and feeds her child well, that child will gain several IQ points for life. A mother and infant diet based on processed meals and processed foods like fizzy drinks, cheap breads and cakes, may actually reduce your child’s IQ below its expected level.

5. Get good quality sleep

The brain does not shut off when we are asleep. The brain is at work while you sleep and much of the work is processing the learning that took place that day (see Walker, Stickgold, Alsop, Gaab, & Schlaug, 2005). Psychologists have long understood that our dreams, for example, are really just a reflection of all the work our brains are doing trying to make sense of all the information we have been taking in but have not yet fully interpreted and made sense of. So if this is true, you really can solve problems and make of sense of things by “sleeping on it.” On the other hand, if you do not sleep properly, you can lose the benefit of your learning experiences. You also will not learn as well the following day. Adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep each night to benefit fully and perform at their cognitive peak each day.

6. Have good personal relationships

One particular form of memory that we practice in relationships of all kinds is known as “transactive” memory, a concept first developed by psychologist Daniel Wegner in 1985. This is a form of memory in which we become expert in one particular type of information and often have sole responsibility for it.

For example, at a party your spouse may be excellent at remembering someone’s job and taste in music once he is introduced, but they may be close to useless at remembering faces and names even if they have met someone before. This is why couples often work as a team, with each being relied upon to be expert in their area of talent. While each partner may struggle without the other, together they appear to have no problems at all remembering anything in social situations. Each partner benefits from the relationship in never feeling forgetful and always knowing what to say.

It also turns out that the more diverse your friends are in type, the more they challenge you to think creatively. They provide you with information you would not normally have and they give you different perspectives on everything. Your friends figuratively keep your mind open.

Having a strong, healthy and fit brain is increasingly important as we are now living longer than ever before. We can do most of these things every single day and they are scientifically proven to benefit us in the long term, not just in the here and now. The best news is that you don’t need to wait for the New Year to start having a fit and healthy brain. And you don’t need a gym membership or a self-help guru to guide your way to good brain health. All you need is a brain and the motivation to start powering it up!

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Published on November 14, 2018

Why You Suffer from Constant Fatigue and How to Deal with It

Why You Suffer from Constant Fatigue and How to Deal with It

With our busy, always on lives, it seems that more and more of us are facing constant tiredness and fatigue on a regular basis.

For many people, they just take this in their stride as part of modern life, but for others the impact can be crippling and can have a serious effect on their sense of wellbeing, health and productivity.

In this article, I’ll share some of the most common causes of constant tiredness and fatigue and give you some guidance and action steps you can take to overcome some of the symptoms of fatigue.

Why Am I Feeling Fatigued?

Fatigue is extreme tiredness resulting from mental or physical exertion or illness.  It is a reduction in the efficiency of a muscle or organ after prolonged activity.[1]

It can affect anyone, and most adults will experience fatigue at some point in their life. 

For many people, fatigue is caused by a combination of lifestyle, social, psychological and general wellbeing issues rather than an underlying medical condition.

Although fatigue is sometimes described as tiredness, it is different to just feeling tired or sleepy. Everyone feels tired at some point, but this is usually resolved with a nap or a few nights of good sleep. Someone who is sleepy may also feel temporarily refreshed after exercising. If you are getting enough sleep, good nutrition and exercising regularly but still find it hard to perform, concentrate or be motivated at your normal levels, you may be experiencing a level of fatigue that needs further investigation. 

Symptoms of Fatigue

Fatigue can cause a vast range of physical, mental and emotional symptoms including:

  • chronic tiredness, exhaustion or sleepiness
  • mental blocks
  • lack of motivation
  • headache
  • dizziness
  • muscle weakness
  • slowed reflexes and responses
  • impaired decision-making and judgement
  • moodiness, such as irritability
  • impaired hand-to-eye coordination
  • reduced immune system function
  • blurry vision
  • short-term memory problems
  • poor concentration
  • reduced ability to pay attention to the situation at hand

Causes of Fatigue

The wide range of causes that can trigger fatigue include:

  • Medical causes: Constant exhaustion, tiredness and fatigue may be a sign of an underlying illness, such as a thyroid disorder, heart disease, anemia or diabetes.
  • Lifestyle-related causes: Being overweight and a lack of regular exercise can lead to feelings of fatigue.  Lack of sleep and overcommitting can also create feelings of excessive tiredness and fatigue.
  • Workplace-related causes: Workplace and financial stress in a variety of forms can lead to feelings of fatigue.
  • Emotional concerns and stress: Fatigue is a common symptom of mental health problems, such as depression and grief, and may be accompanied by other signs and symptoms, including irritability and lack of motivation.

Fatigue can also be caused by a number of factors working in combination.

Medical Causes of Fatigue

If you have made lifestyle changes to increase your energy and still feel exhausted and fatigued, it may be time to seek guidance from your doctor.

Here are a few examples of illnesses that can cause ongoing fatigue. Seek medical advice if you suspect you have a health problem:

Anemia

Anemia is a condition in which you don’t have enough healthy red blood cells to carry adequate oxygen to the body’s tissues. It is a common cause of fatigue in women.

Having anemia may make you feel tired and weak.

There are many forms of anemia, each with its own cause. Anemia can be temporary or long term, and it can range from mild to severe.[2]

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS)

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) is a condition that can cause persistent, unexplained fatigue that interferes with daily activities for more than six months.

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This is a chronic condition with no one-size-fits-all treatment, but lifestyle changes can often help ease some symptoms of fatigue.[3]

Diabetes

Diabetes can cause fatigue with either high or low blood sugars. When your sugars are high, they remain in the bloodstream instead of being used for energy, which makes you feel fatigued. Low blood sugar (glucose) means you may not have enough fuel for energy, also causing fatigue.[4]

Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder where sufferers briefly stop breathing for short periods during sleep. Most people are not aware this is happening, but it can cause loud snoring, and daytime fatigue.

Being overweight, smoking, and drinking alcohol can all worsen the symptoms of sleep apnea.[5]

Thyroid disease

An underactive thyroid gland means you have too little thyroid hormone (thyroxine) in your body. This makes you feel tired and you could also put on weight and have aching muscles and dry skin.[6]

Common lifestyle factors that can cause fatigue include:

  • Lack of sleep
  • Too much sleep 
  • Alcohol and drugs 
  • Sleep disturbances 
  • Lack of regular exercise and sedentary behaviour 
  • Poor diet 

Common workplace issues that can cause fatigue include:

  • Shift work: Our body is designed to sleep during the night. A shift worker may confuse their circadian clock by working when their body is programmed to be asleep.
  • Poor workplace practices: This may include long work hours, hard physical labour, irregular working hours (such as rotating shifts), a stressful work environment, boredom or working alone. 
  • Workplace stress – This can be caused by a wide range of factors including job dissatisfaction, heavy workload, conflicts with bosses or colleagues, bullying, or threats to job security.
  • Burnout: This could be striving too hard on one area of your life while neglecting others, which leads to a life that feels out of balance.

Psychological Causes of Fatigue

Psychological factors are present in many cases of extreme tiredness and fatigue.  These may include:

  • Depression: Depression is characterised by severe and prolonged feelings of sadness, dejection and hopelessness. People who are depressed commonly experience chronic fatigue.
  • Anxiety and stress: Someone who is constantly anxious or stressed keeps their body in overdrive. The constant flooding of adrenaline exhausts the body, and fatigue sets in.
  • Grief: Losing a loved one causes a wide range of emotions including shock, guilt, depression, despair and loneliness.

How to Tackle Constant Fatigue

Here are 12 ways you can start tackling the causes of fatigue and start feeling more energetic.

1. Tell The Truth

Some people can numb themselves to the fact that they are overtired or fatigued all the time. In the long run, this won’t help you.

To give you the best chance to overcome or eliminate fatigue, you must diagnose and tell the truth about the things that are draining your energy, making you tired or causing constant fatigue.

Once you’re honest with yourself about the activities you’re doing in your life that you find irritating, energy-draining, and make you tired on a regular basis you can make a commitment to stop doing them.

The help that you need to overcome fatigue is available to you, but not until you tell the truth about it. The first person you have to sell on getting rid of the causes of fatigue is yourself.

One starting point is to diagnose the symptoms. When you start feeling stressed, overtired or just not operating at your normal energy levels make a note of:

  • How you feel
  • What time of day it is
  • What may have contributed to your fatigue
  • How your mind and body reacts

This analysis may help you identify, understand and then eliminate very specific causes.

2. Reduce Your Commitments

When we have too many things on our plate personally and professionally, we can feel overstretched, causing physical and mental fatigue.

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If you have committed to things you really don’t want to do, this causes irritability and low emotional engagement. Stack these up throughout your day and week, then your stress levels will rise.

When these commitments have deadlines associated with them, you may be trying to cram in far too much in a short period of time.  This creates more stress and can affect your decision making ability.

Start being realistic about how much you can get done. Either reduce the commitments you have or give yourself more time to complete them in.

3. Get Clear On Your Priorities

If working on your list of to-do’s or goals becomes too overwhelming, start reducing and prioritizing the things that matter most.

Start with prioritizing just 3 things every day. When you complete those 3 things, you’ll get a rush of energy and your confidence will grow.

If you’re trying to juggle too many things and are multi-tasking, your energy levels will drop and you’ll struggle to maintain focus.

Unfinished projects can make you self-critical and feel guilty which drops energy levels further, creating inaction.

Make a list of your 3 MIT (Most Important Tasks) for the next day before you go to bed. This will stop you overcommitting and get you excited about what the next day can bring.

4. Express More Gratitude

Gratitude and confidence are heavily linked. Just being thankful for what you have and what you’ve achieved increases confidence and makes you feel more optimistic.

It can help you improve your sense of wellbeing, which can bring on feelings of joy and enthusiasm.

Try starting a gratitude journal or just note down 3 things you’re grateful for every day.

5. Focus On Yourself

Exhaustion and fatigue can arrive by focusing solely on other people’s needs all the time, rather than worrying about and focusing on what you need (and want).

There are work commitments, family commitments, social commitments. You may start with the best intentions, to put in your best performance at work, to be an amazing parent and friend, to simply help others.

But sometimes, we extend ourselves too much and go beyond our personal limits to help others. That’s when constant exhaustion can creep up on us.  Which can make us more fatigued.

We all want to help and do our best for others, but there needs to be some balance. We also need to take some time out just for ourselves to recharge and rejuvenate.

6. Set Aside Rest and Recovery Time

Whether it’s a couple of hours, a day off, a mini-break or a proper holiday, time off is essential to help us recover, recharge and refocus.

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Recovery time helps fend off mental fatigue and allows us to simply kick back and relax.

The key here, though, is to remove ourselves from the daily challenges that bring on tiredness and fatigue. Here’s how.

Can you free yourself up completely from work and personal obligations to just rest and recover?

7. Take a Power Nap

When you’re feeling tired or fatigued and you have the ability to take a quick 20-minute nap, it could make a big difference to your performance for the rest of the day.

Napping can improve learning, memory and boost your energy levels quickly.

This article on the benefit of napping is a useful place to start if you want to learn more: How a 20-Minute Nap at Work Makes You Awake and Productive the Whole Day

8. Take More Exercise

The simple act of introducing some form of physical activity into your day can make a huge difference. It can boost energy levels, make you feel much better about yourself and can help you avoid fatigue.

Find something that fits into your life, be that walking, going to the gym, running or swimming. 

The key is to ensure the exercise is regular and that you are emotionally engaged and committed to stick with it.

You could also walk more which will help clear your head and shift your focus away from stressful thoughts.

9. Get More Quality Sleep

To avoid tiredness, exhaustion and fatigue, getting enough quality sleep matters. 

Your body needs sleep to recharge.  Getting the right amount of sleep every night can improve your health, reduce stress levels and help us improve our memory and learning skills.

My previous article on The Benefits of Sleep You Need to Know will give you some action steps to start improving your sleep. 

10. Improve Your Diet

Heavy or fatty meals can make you feel sluggish and tired, whilst some foods or eating strategies do just the opposite.

Our always on lives have us reaching for sweets or other sugary snacks to give us a burst of energy to keep going. Unfortunately, that boost fades quickly which can leave you feeling depleted and wanting more.

On the other hand, whole grains and healthy unsaturated fats supply the reserves you can draw on throughout the day.

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To keep energy up and steady, it’s a good idea to limit refined sugar and starches.

Eating small meals and healthy snacks every few hours throughout the day provides a steady supply of nutrients to body and brain. It’s also important not to skip breakfast.

Eating a balanced diet helps keep your blood sugar in a normal range and prevents that sluggish feeling when your blood sugar drops.

11. Manage Your Stress Levels

Stress is one of the leading causes of exhaustion and fatigue, and can seriously affect your health.

When you have increased levels of stress at work and at home, it’s easy to feel exhausted all the time. 

Identifying the causes of stress and then tackling the problems should be a priority. 

My article on How to Help Anxiety When Life is Stressing You Out shares 16 strategies you can use to overcome stress.

12. Get Hydrated

Sometimes we can be so busy that we forget to keep ourselves fully hydrated.

Water makes up about 60 percent of your body weight and is essential in maintaining our body’s basic functions.

If we don’t have enough water, it can adversely affect our mental and physical performance, which leads to tiredness and fatigue.

The recommended daily amount is around two litres a day, so to stay well hydrated keep a water bottle with you as much as possible.

The Bottom Line

These 12 tips can help you reduce your tiredness and feeling of fatigue.  Some will work better than others as we are all different, whilst others can be incorporated together in your daily life.

If you’ve tried to make positive changes to reduce fatigue and you still feel tired and exhausted, it may be time to consider making an appointment with your doctor to discuss your condition.

Featured photo credit: Annie Spratt via unsplash.com

Reference

[1]Oxford English Dictionary: Definition of fatigue
[2]NHS Choices: 10 Reasons for feeling tired
[3]Verywellhealth: What is chronic fatigue syndrome
[4]Everyday Health: Why does type 2 diabetes make you feel tired
[5]Mayo Clinic: Sleep apnea
[6]Harvard Health: The lowdown on thyroid slowdown

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