Thursday, February 20, 2014

Brain Boosting: The Physical Factors

Brain Boosting: The Physical Factors

In a mental fog?  Feeling sluggish or forgetful or distracted? I’ve been there, too! Our brains are amazing, complicated organs, affected by so many factors. I’ve been working on various areas of brain boosting over the past few years and thinking lately about how to increase my mental accuity and focus even more.  

I've been planning to write this post for a while, but my memory was jogged this morning by these electronic sign messages outside my son's high school about preparing for the upcoming standardized writing tests.

Great reminder, but it's not just for students preparing for tests!  We all need to remember to care for our brains!

Before we take a look at the physical factors affecting brain function, I want to mention two books that I am currently reading.  Please note that I haven’t finished either of them yet, and I’m sure I would not endorse everything in them, but they are extremely helpful for both inspiration and practical ideas.  Next time, we’ll cover mental, emotional, and life management factors. 
  • How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day by Michael J. Gelb: This book takes a long look at how da Vinci approached life and learning, incorporating curiosity, learning through experience/persistence, cultivating sensory attention, embracing ambiguity, balancing between the arts and sciences, nurturing the physical body, and an appreciating interconnectedness.
  • No More Brain Drain: Proven Ways to Maintain Your Mind and Memories by Readers Digest: Based on more than 100 scientific studies, this easy-to-read, visually pleasing book is full of practical and innovative ideas for boosting your mental edge – foods, exercises, mental games, sleep tips, etc.  Please note that there are other books with similar titles.  Maybe they're good, too! 

Ready for a little tour through the brain factors?  


If I don't go to bed on time, then I pay for it with grogginess the next day – and even for a few days sometimes. Working too late on the computer is also said to overstimulate the brain, though I don’t seem to have much problem getting to sleep once I’m in bed, so that’s not as much of an issue for me.

The other thing that affected my sleep for years is that I have a severe case of obstructive sleep apnea, which means my airways get blocked while I'm in bed at night, and my brain doesn't get the oxygen it needs. Untreated, this would cause me to wake up briefly at least once per minute.  Even though I am not conscious of it when it happens, it definitely prevents a good night’s sleep and creates other health risks, including heart attack. Last year, I finally went to do an overnight sleep study at Florida Hospital, and started using a CPAP machine with a breathing mask every night. I breathe so much easier and sleep so much better with it!

If I find myself getting foggy or cranky during the day, I will lie down for a nap. Sometimes it is just five minutes to close my eyes, and sometimes I need to crash for a few hours to get my brain back. I guess it should also be said that too much sleep can also impair brain function. Find out what works for you.

Some people take sleep medicines, but many of these are known to cause serious side effects or make you feel groggy in the morning. Melatonin is a more natural supplement for assisting healthy sleep.

Aim for eight hours of nightly sleep in a cool, dark, quiet room.  The ideal hours are before midnight!

What is affecting your sleep?  Going to bed too late? Chronic pain? Anxiety? Too much caffeine? Too much household noise? Small children? Too much screen time? What can you do to get more ZZZZ's?


This is probably the other biggie for me, but it’s very confusing.  There are so many opinions out there about what we should eat and how it affects brain function.  You have the paleos and gluten frees on the one side, and the vegetarians and whole grainers on the other side.  I think all agree that junk food is detrimental to clear thinking!  I don’t have much to say about nutrition at this point, except for try to be aware of how individual foods affect you personally.  I do best with protein first thing in the morning.  My biggest struggle is sugar.  I keep saying I want to cut it out, but then I go right back to it.  Blech. (Note: I did cut out sugar in the fall of 2014 and only eat minimal amounts now. It wasn't nearly as hard as I thought, and I have lost a good bit of weight!)  Some of the brain-happy foods listed in the No More Brain Drain book are olive oil, nuts, fish, whole grains, fresh produce (blueberries, apples, bananas, spinach, brocolli), flaxseed, garlic, low-fat dairy products, and green tea.  What I'm confused about is that Dr. Perlmutter, the medical consultant for this book is also the author of the book Grain Brain, in which advocates a low carb, gluten free, higher fat diet with minimal grains.   You can read his article 5 Keys to Eating for Better Brain Health. I guess the jury is still out on brain nutrition!  Like I said, I'm not sure quite what to think. I guess I will stick to what is generally known as healthy food, and all in moderation. Other brain foods I've seen on multiple lists are almonds, coconut oil, eggs, avocados, dark chocolate (yes!), salmon, kale, strawberries, curry/turmeric, rosemary, sage, apple cider vinegar...

Oh, and don't forget to drink plenty of clean water!   A body that is not properly hydrated can feel sluggish and tired! How much water? Take your weight in pounds. Divide that in half. Drink that many ounces per day. That's a lot of water, but your body needs it for so many reasons!


Exercise - especially aerobic - gets your blood and oxygen flowing to the brain, and improves mood and general stamina. It also increases physical awareness, such as hand-eye coordination, that is crucial to strengthening your mental muscles. It helps posture and flexibility, and, done correctly, can alleviate pain. It releases calming hormones like serotonin and dopamine, reducing stress. All of these will help you think better, too.

Can't afford a gym membership or just can't get out much? Lace on your sneakers and take a brisk walk in your own neighborhood! Walk with a friend for extra motivation. Or buy yourself an exercise DVD to use in your own home!  I just bought the "Keeping Fit in Your 50's" DVD set at Sam's Club. 

Health & Medications

Other health issues that affect my own mental powers are low thyroid, seasonal allergies and Attention Deficit Disorder. (See ADD and Me? We’ll Manage!)  Fortunately, there are medications for these and other maladies.  

Unfortunately, some medications have side effects which hinder brain power.  For example, some allergy medicines cause drowsiness.  Make sure you buy one that specifically says it is non-drowsy or daytime. (I use loratidine, and my children use chewable Alavert.)  

Some pain medications and anti-depressants can make you more tired and foggy brained.  According to friends who take it, Wellbutrin, an anti-depressant stimulant, doesn't seem to have that effect.  It is known for helping people with ADD focus better, as well as promoting energy level and weight loss. For my occasional aches and pains, I use ibuprofen. 

Other health factors which commonly effect brain function include high blood pressure, vision/hearing problems, smoking, alcohol or drug use, migraines, brain injuries (even mild ones), and neurological & psychiatric disorders, etc. Be sure to go in for regular physical exams, and, if needed, ask for referrals to a specialist such as a nutritionist, optometrist, audiologist, allergy doctor, chiropractor, endocrinologist, neurologist, psychiatrist, or cognitive behavioral therapist. This goes for your kids, too! If your child has a health issue which impairs learning, better to catch it and treat it early!
Other supplements are also used to increase brain power.  Vitamin B complex, vitamin E, fish oil, potassium, magnesium, calcium are all ones listed in the No More Brain Drain book. Gingko biloba is another one commonly used, but I don't know much about that. Caffeine can be either positive or negative. I only use the sugar-free drink packets when I really need to be able to focus for a few hours. It's not good to drink a lot of it, get dependent on it, or use it within a few hours of bedtime.

Stay tuned!  I'll try to write about the mental, emotional, and life management factors of boosting brain power.

Virginia Knowles

1 comment:

  1. I don't know if you've heard of Trim Healthy Mama.....if not look them up on fb. It may be a huge help to you. :) Love your blog.