Get 7 to 8 hours of regular nightly sleep, with at least 1 hour before midnight (2 or 3 hours are better) if at all possible. Make it a habit to go to sleep and arise at approximately the same time each day. For the greatest benefit, optimal bedtime is around 9:00 pm. Insufficient sleep can cause you to feel drowsy and have poor concentration. A University of Minnesota study showed that students with more sleep on school nights felt more energetic, received higher grades, and experienced fewer depressive feelings and behaviors when compared to their more sleep-deprived peers.
Strategy #2: Mind Your Diet
Nutrition plays a key role in mental performance. To give your brain the most benefit, eat generously of a variety of whole plant foods. Select fruits and vegetables in a variety of colors, making sure some of these are raw. The best plan is to eat two or three regularly timed meals with nothing in between but plain water. Limit or abstain completely from flesh and animal products. Be sure to keep the added fat and sugar low.
A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that the consumption of a diet of whole grains, legumes, vegetables, nuts, and fruits, with the elimination of meat and high-fat animal products, combined with a regular exercise program is associated with reduced blood cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, less obesity and, therefore, less heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer. Meat contains a substance that impairs brain activity and lacks a substance that the brain needs to function well. Arachidonic acid found in meat impairs optimal functioning of the brain center for wisdom, judgment, and foresight – the frontal lobe. Animal foods are devoid of carbohydrates, which is the primary source of energy that the brain can use, but a vegetarian diet contains a plentiful supply.
Strategy #3: Take Yourself for a Walk
Steadily work up to 30 – 45 minutes of brisk walking or the equivalent per day in the fresh outdoor air as much as possible. For individuals under mental stress, exercising 7 days a week is best. Among various types of exercise, walking is especially good for your brain, because it increases blood circulation and the amount of oxygen and glucose that reach your brain. Walking is not so strenuous, so your leg muscles don’t take up extra oxygen and glucose like they do in many other forms of exercise. As you walk, you effectively oxygenate your brain. Maybe this is why walking can “clear your head” and help you think better.
Strategy #4: Eliminate Addictive Habits and Substances
Behavioral addictions (such as video gaming, internet, gambling, and pornography) have been scientifically shown to produce the same physical effects as addictive substances such as alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, and marijuana. In addition to impeding mental performance, addictive habits take valuable time that could havebeen used in more productive activities. Addictions negatively impact the outlook for success, both now andin the future.
Strategy #5: Avoid Negative Statements
In Dr. Neil Nedley’s 10-day Depression Recovery Program, participants are asked to avoid negative statements for 14 days in a row, including the total discontinuation of complaining, critical, or otherwise negative statements. Even “constructive criticism” must be stopped. This is a great way to get out of the negative mental “rut” that so many people find themselves in. Take courage, though this is one of the hardest things to do, it is one of the most important!
Strategy #6: Harness the Power of Positive Classical Music
Classical music, especially baroque music, has a relaxing and organizing effect on the brain. Scientific studies have also shown certain types of classical music improve thinking ability. Dr. Nedley recommends at least 20 minutes per week of classical music therapy. Select pieces that are tuneful and melodic (as opposed to weird, erratic, or strange). Good choices of composers include Mozart, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, or Bach. You don’t even have to like classical music to benefit from this therapy – only listen to it.
Strategy #7: Contemplate Noble, Mentally Challenging Reading Material
It is strongly recommended that you read a chapter of the book of Proverbs each day. Read the number that corresponds with the day’s date. Since there are 31 chapters in Proverbs, this will work for any month of the year. Repetition is good, so do this each month if possible.
Strategy #8: Breathe Deeply!
Try taking 1 breath every 10 seconds (or 3-6 full breaths per minute) for a period of 30-45 minutes, while maintaining erect, proper posture. Using your diaphragm (the large muscle that separates your chest and abdominal cavities), completely fill and empty your lungs with each breath. Deep breathing will naturally have the effect of helping the brain think more clearly.
Strategy #9: Hydrate Yourself!
Drink large quantities of fresh, pure water preferably between, but not during, meals. To calculate the minimum number of ounces your body needs daily, take your body weight in pounds and divide by 2. For example, a 140-pound individual would require approximately 70 ounces of H2O. Add another 6 ounces for each 15 minutes you spend in exercise, vigorous work, or activity in a significantly heated environment. Also use warm water in showers or baths at least once a day, and a very warm 30-minute bath (or 15-minute shower) just prior to going to bed.
Studies have shown that most people are permanently partially dehydrated. This means that their brain is working considerably below its capacity and potential. A study by Trevor Brocklebank at Leeds University in the United Kingdom discovered that schoolchildren with the best results in class were those who drank up to eight glasses of water a day.
Strategy #10: Get Social Support
People without close, healthy family members or friends nearby with whom they interact several times per week need to involve themselves in good community or church projects. By attending regularly, you can build a sense of belonging and self-worth. It is especially helpful to commit to honorable causes that help others.
Neil Nedley, MD, is a full-time practicing physician in internal medicine with emphasis in preventive medicine, gastroenterology, and the difficult-to-diagnose patient. Dr. Nedley is the president of Weimar Center of Health and Education.