Healthy Brain Habits

Feeding Your Brain
Studies have shown that what we eat affects how we feel, how we think, and how much energy we have. Memory, thinking, and attention are strongly influenced by food.

According to neurologist David Perlmutter (author of The Better Brain Book), “The standard American diet is a nightmare.” He goes on to say, “If I were to design a diet for the sole purpose of creating an epidemic of poor brain function, accelerated brain aging, mood disorders, and other neurological problems, it would be the one that most Americans are already following.” ( Page 62)

Believe it or not, the most important nutrient for the brain is fat because the brain is actually made up of fat. The problem is, if we eat a lot of unhealthy fats, we end up with an unhealthy brain.

Fats that support brain health are monounsaturated fats (found in foods like olive oil, canola oil, nuts, and avocados), and some forms of polyunsaturated fats, including the Omega 3 essential fatty acids which are particularly important for brain function. Omega 3 fatty acids can be found in cold water fatty fish, deep green leafy vegetables, some grains, and pumpkin seeds. Many people find it helpful to supplement their intake of these essential Omega 3s by taking fish oil capsules.

The fats to stay away from are saturated fats and trans-fatty acids. Saturated fats are found in meat and full-fat dairy products. We need protein in our diet, much of which comes from these sources, but limiting the amount of saturated fat to about 10 percent of our daily caloric intake is wise as saturated fat makes the brain cells sluggish. According to Dr. Perlmutter, a diet high in saturated fats can result in memory problems and moods disorders for individuals of any age. It is not just seniors who are having “senior moments” these days.

Trans-fatty acids are probably the worst fats for our brains and should be on our diet black list. These are found in nearly all processed foods (partially-hydrogenated vegetable oil or partially-hydrogenated vegetable shortening) and fried foods.

Trans-fatty acids are used to increase the shelf life of food, but inhibit our learning and performance because they make our brain cells rigid, tough, and slow. They keep cells from being able to get nutrients, make energy, and communicate with other cells.

Carbohydrates are important foods for providing energy for the body . But just as with fats, there are good and bad choices. Sugar and white flour are two of the worst. They are simple carbohydrates so they enter to bloodstream very quickly. They rapidly raise blood sugar levels (which is associated with memory problems).

Sugar robs our bodies of B vitamins and nutrients needed to support a stable nervous system and blood sugar balance, affecting health, moods, attention, memory, and behavior.

Be aware that there is an extremely high sugar content in juice (eating the whole fruit is better) and that our bodies react to artificial sweeteners other than Stevia in the same way as sugar.

Maintaining consistent blood sugar levels allows the brain to get the steady flow of sugar (glucose) needed to keep it fit and functioning. Spikes and fluctuations in blood sugar cause sugar overload which can cause an individual to have very high, sometimes excessive energy, followed by low energy, sleepiness, or moodiness.

Over time, chronic sugar overload can lead to serious illnesses. William Duffy (REFINED SUGAR The Sweetest Poison of All) says, “Excessive sugar has a strong mal-effect on the functioning of the brain. Too much sugar makes one sleepy; our ability to calculate and remember is lost.” This is definitely not a good prescription for learning!

Since we do need carbohydrates for energy and to help protein (in the form of tryptophan) enter the brain cells, complex carbohydrates will be the better choices. These digest more slowly, enter the bloodstream more gradually, and create a gentler rise in blood sugar. Whole grains, fruits, legumes, and vegetables are complex carbohydrates.

Protein is extremely important to our brain function and learning . It helps increase serotonin in the brain which improves feelings of well-being, hopefulness, organization, and concentration.

Many children go to school after having a sugary carbohydrate breakfast and many teens choose to go to school with no breakfast at all. A low sugar breakfast and lunch with 12-20 grams of protein can make a vast difference in a learner’s performance.

Move Your Body, Energize Your Brain –
Have you ever sat in a long meeting or seminar and found yourself getting sleepy, antsy, and dying for a break so you could get up and move around?

Research shows that physical movement can enhance clarity, attention, and readiness for learning. Physical movement increases oxygen flow to the brain, improving alertness, concentration, and receptivity. Adding movement or physical action to a learning activity increases recall.

At the Learning Center, we find that integrative movements that cross the midline of the body are extremely helpful in bringing students to a calm, alert, and mentally and emotionally ready state for learning.

Periodic brain breaks that involve movement throughout the school day and homework time will also improve learning, productivity, and attitude.

Here are some references for fun, quick movement exercises that can be easily integrated into the classroom, clinic, or home:

Brain Gym Teacher’s Edition by Paul E. Dennison and Gail E. Dennison
(www.braingym.com )

Hands On: How to use Brain Gym in the Classroom by Isabel Cohen and Marcelle Goldsmith  (www.braingym.com )

Move It: Physical Movement and Learning by Alistair Smith (www.networkpress.co.uk/MI)

Brain Breaks (www.alite.co.uk/information/brain_breaks)

Deep breathing and water are also great brain energizers. Deep breathing immediately brings more oxygen to the brain and encourages relaxation, improving thinking and focus. Water improves the electrical transmissions in the brain and nervous system, providing energy for learning and attention.

Words for the Heart –
Every decision we make and everything we do is driven by our beliefs and by our emotions. Research shows us that there is physiological communication between the heart and the brain and that the thinking part of the brain is highly affected by the emotional part. We also know that our words are very powerful.

Feeling valued and in control will dramatically impact a person’s learning. Give specific comments to students about what you observe, like, and appreciate about them. These include:

  • Have student’s tell or write what they appreciate about themselves. True feelings of appreciation actually create chemical changes in the brain that empower us to have more clarity and calmness, a good combination for learning (and good health)!
  • Always keep in mind how powerful words are. Negative words and comments can also trigger chemical changes in the brain that can stay with a student for many hours, disrupting learning and upsetting self esteem.
  • Validate students’ efforts and achievements during as well as after completing the task . Break tasks down into smaller, more easily achievable units as needed so students can feel successful often.
  • Help students to see how far they have come by remembering where they began. This helps them to see and value their accomplishment.
  • Remember that a little success goes a long way. Pushing a resistant student in a negative way will likely get more resistance. But sincerely celebrating even the smallest success can make that same child sit taller and encourage him to try again.