Insider Intelligence: Does Your Brain Need a Tune-Up?

Aug. 30, 2013
Tips on keeping your mind and body sharp and ready for productivity

You have set aside time to do your research, closed the door to your office, and ignored the temptation to check your email. The articles in front of you beg for your attention. You wish that you had the energy to devour these written words, uncover a new insight, learn something new, but you can’t focus. Your mind feels edgy and dull at the same time. You read the same paragraph over and over again without retaining anything. You sigh in muted frustration and decide to take a walk down the hall to refresh your coffee.

Your brain is a system of chemical and electrical means. Without the right fuel and maintenance, it cannot operate at peak efficiency. You probably wouldn’t dream of ignoring the maintenance needs of your vehicle, in fact, you may even pride yourself on the detailed care you bestow on it. You wash, wax and buff the exterior to a glossy sheen, maintain the right pressure in the tires to better your mileage, routinely top off your fluid levels and never miss an oil change. So why wouldn’t you do the same for your own body and mind? What kind of care and maintenance do you keep for it?

If you neglect to tune up your brain, that precious few minutes that you are devoting to research could prove useless.

Java is as Java Does
Actually getting up and walking down the hall to refresh your coffee is not exactly off-base when you feel like it is time to push the mental refresh button. If you enjoy it, you will be happy to know that coffee does contain antioxidants, the compounds that help fight oxidation, a normal chemical process in the body that can cause damage to cells in your brain and elsewhere.

Oxidation can be accelerated by things like stress, cigarette smoking and alcohol. Fortunately, our body is not without defense mechanisms against this damage. Ingesting foods that are good sources of antioxidants can help to improve memory, motor control and cognition. Antioxidants are helpful molecules that our body uses to scavenge the harmful free radicals that start the chain of damaging reactions leading to cell damage.

If you prefer tea to coffee, white and green tea, also antioxidant rich, are less processed than black and oolong teas, leading to higher levels of the compound shown to protect brain cells. Due to their lower levels of caffeine as compared to coffee, they are sometimes touted as the healthier choice, but if you like your coffee and monitor your caffeine intake, sip away and enjoy some brainy benefits.

Eat to Defeat Cellular Sabotage
Just as your car requires refueling, your brain and body do as well to maintain optimum performance. Snacking on nuts, veggies, fruit and hummus will help keep your energy level up and send those brain-boosting antioxidants coursing through your system.
The best way to get a variety of antioxidants is to eat a diet containing foods that embody a full spectrum of colors.

Start your day with some strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and/or blueberries. Beautiful and delicious, consuming these berries provides protection of nerve cells from damage, improving memory and also may be associated with the slowing of cognitive degeneration associated with aging.

At lunch and dinner time, think about adding a few servings of colorful veggies to your plate such as carrots, sweet potatoes, broccoli, spinach or kale, cauliflower or cabbage. You can augment your protein level along with your cellular defenses by adding red, black, pinto and kidney beans or lentils.

Craving a quick lunch? How about a bean burrito? Continuing on the protein theme, oily fish like salmon or trout deliver the essential fatty acids that are good for healthy brain and heart function and contribute to a general feeling of well-being (stress busters). On that note, the dark leafy green salad with the salmon on top might be a nice choice as well for that quick meal.

Chill Out
While a healthy diet is essential, it is not the only course of action you should consider to bolster your brain function. In light of all of the stimuli and distractions we have bombarding our psyches, there seems to be a renewed interest in the topic of mindfulness as it relates to effectiveness at work.

Mindfulness involves focusing one’s attention on the present moment and on the matters at hand — attuning to the nuances of what you are reading, hearing, speaking and feeling. People are turning to mind/body practices like yoga and meditation in addition to nutrition to optimize their ability to achieve and maintain focus and to increase productivity. Physical disciplines like deep restorative breathing, meditation and yoga may not be a part of your daily routine but maybe they should be.

A Shakespearean actor and presentation coach who lived and worked in Cambridge Mass., once shared with me that meditation vastly helped improved his performances. Not only did it improve his capability to memorize his own lines but also the lines of the other players in his scenes. He told me that he initially turned to meditation to calm himself before a stage appearance. He said that his commute in breakneck traffic on his way to a show didn’t exactly help his anxiety level any.

As we compared notes for a minute on the woes of commutes in cities with perpetual traffic — me in Atlanta at the time, he in Boston — he shared with me that he learned that he could effectively “meditate the traffic away” during his drive. Now this is something that got my attention. Well, of course what he meant was, when faced with the frustrations and delays of traffic, he would work on de-stressing by rechanneling his thoughts.

That’s something we all could use when faced with corrosive culprits like overflowing email inboxes, unexpected issues and last minute demands preying on our peace of mind.
His methods harken to those most meaningful to him, and thus easy to motivate himself to do. His favorite, given his talent, involved reciting beloved sonnets. What also worked for him was yoga chanting. Most of us are acquainted with the popular yoga chant “Om”. Sound hokey? Bearing in mind the positive neurological effects of calming music and chanting include improved immune response and brain function, you may want to reconsider.

The sound “Om or AUM” produced repetitively (sort of like humming it through your nose) serves up a few immediate healthy physiological benefits. First, it helps you to focus on the breath (deep and relaxed vs. short and shallow), secondly as the mind becomes absorbed by the sound and vibration, it quiets itself and the release of endorphins provides a nice sense of calm.
We cannot control frustrating scenarios like traffic or the pressures of deadlines and pressing commitments, but we can control our response to it. Other suggestions include quietly repeating a favorite poem, prayer, inspirational phrase or lovely song. You’ll find that, just as my Shakespearean friend did, choosing something personal and meaningful will motivate you to maintain your practice.

Yes, You Should Exercise
If you have ever done anything athletic, you have probably already discovered that getting moving increases the release of endorphins in your brain — the chemicals that produce that feel-good sensation, the “runner’s high.” Thus, besides being a good physical tune up for your body, exercise tends to provide a therapeutic mental diversion from stressful thoughts as well. Benefits include lowered anxiety and depression and improved sleep.

Without intervention, sluggishness and a lack of concentration can continue to adversely affect your performance at work and ultimately, your erode your self-confidence. Feeling out of shape is not doing much good for your self-confidence either. Get moving just a few minutes a day and you will begin to accumulate those paybacks.

Breathe Your Way to Cerebral Bliss
Yoga has become popular as a method to achieve both mind and body benefits at the same time. It involves both exercise and meditation. If you have been meaning to try yoga but hesitate, imagining a room full of old ladies in weird poses wearing spandex, think again. That’s not exactly the case anymore.

Most mainstream health and fitness clubs offer yoga classes that attract golfers, runners, tennis players and cyclists trying to improve their performance by increasing their range of motion, flexibility and for injury prevention and rehabilitation. It goes without saying that you should always check with your physician before embarking on any physical regime, especially one that involves injury rehabilitation.

Along with movements to build strength and flexibility, most good yoga classes train you how to be aware of your respiration and inform you on the therapeutic benefit of breathing exercises.

Deep breathing is one of the best ways to reduce stress. Inhaling slowly to a count of ten, and then exhaling slowly to a count of ten sends a message to the brain to calm down and relax. As a result, the production of stress hormones are reduced, and your body moves from a fight or flight state of tension to a calmer state of general well-being.

This state of the brain is referred to as the alpha state. In the alpha state, we are disposed to fresh creative energy and problem solving. Achieving the alpha state each day for at least a short period of time helps to increase focus and concentration.

Barbara Shaw, CPLP, is Director of Education for PSA Security Network. To request more info about PSA, visit