Diet and fitness hacks for keeping your brain on its "A" game at all times.
Maggie Young 1 / 11
Striving to boost your 1-rep max is great, but sharpening your mind is something that deserves as much, if not more, of your attention. Richard Carmona, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.C.S., the seventeenth surgeon general of the United States and author of 30 Days to a Better Brain, knows what it takes to expand the capacity of your mind and maintain it for years to come. Integrating these 10 tips will not only boost brain power, but will improve your complete health profile by way of stress management, diet, and exercise.
“By stimulating your brain just like you stimulate your biceps, triceps, and quads, you continue to send messages to your brain to stay young and maintain those neural networks,” says Carmona. “If you don’t use those, your mind will atrophy just like your biceps would, which means your ability to think is going to diminish as well.”
Your brain takes a hit when you are chronically stressed, so finding a way to chill out is essential. Do something that takes you away from your daily routine, like yoga, meditation, or a long walk. Stress produces a rise in hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which are OK when your body needs to be on alert, but not OK all the time. “When the system is turned on all of the time it becomes detrimental to your health because of the perpetuation of inflammation and the stress that puts on your brain,” says Carmona.
Be aware of toxin culprits such as BPA, pesticides, and heavy metals. Exposure to toxins in foods can interfere with the synthesis, secretion, transport, binding, or elimination of natural hormones in the body. Translation: these chemicals disrupt your hormones, which can diminish brain cells.
You should be clocking about seven to nine hours of solid sleep every night. The brain heals and creates new cells through neurogenesis during sleep, so it helps you maintain and strengthen your neural networks. “Your mind is like a computer and it’s on all of the time processing, but just like our computer systems, it needs to be shut down periodically for maintenance,” says Carmona.
If you feel mentally sluggish after eating certain foods, you may be experiencing “brain fog” due to food sensitivities. Common culprits include dairy, gluten, eggs, sugar, and nightshade vegetables such as potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. If you’re sensitive to them, they could increase inflammation and your ability to think. Try eliminating the common foods for four to six weeks and then gradually adding them back in individually to identify the trigger.
Suck up the cardio to stay sharp. Aerobic work bumps up the production of three essential growth factors for neurogenesis. These factors, brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), insulin-like growth factors (IGF-1), and endothelial growth factor (VEGF), aid in the growth of new neurons, stimulate cell growth in the brain, minimize inflammation, grow new blood vessels, and slow down cell self-destruction.
Protein is chock full of amino acids. Some amino acids, such as tyrosine, cause neurons to produce norepinephrine and dopamine, which are linked with mental alertness. You can reap these benefits from all different protein sources, including grass-fed lean meats, fish, poultry, nut butters, yogurt, cheese, and eggs.
Working your muscles against resistance, in addition to aerobic work, is part of the exercise equation that enhances stem cell production in the brain and awakens dormant stem cells in the hippocampus, which improves the memory. As an added bonus, learning new lifts requires mental work that builds neural networks.
This may be the perfect excuse to try out a new sports league. Learning something new adds to your brain’s capacity. “Every step, every new activity, adds to your brain's capacity to stay cognitively young,” says Carmona. “It’s clear that when you stimulate the brain to make new neural networks it keeps your cognitive ability sharp.”
It’s time to upgrade your spice rack. Spices are high in antioxidants, which scavenge for bad stuff in the body and decrease inflammation. Carmona says that excessive inflammation in the body raises oxidative stress, which is detrimental to brain health. Try adding turmeric (curcumin) to decrease the formation of amyloid protein deposits in the brain, which show up in many individuals with Alzheimer’s.
Optimizing your training intensity, whether it’s through lifting weights, hiking, or running, increases your natural production of human growth hormone. This not only grows your biceps, but it stimulates the growth of neurons in your brain. In short, upping your intensity is good for maxing out muscle and mind gains.