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Secrets and Strategy Behind Good Mental Health and Intelligence
There is no need to rely on prescription medicines to achieve peak performance in your studies, job, sport or lifestyle. Understanding some key dietary and fitness information is the key to long-term sustainable improvements.
Note: Keep reading after the infographic for the complete article.
There is No “Quick Fix” For Peak Performance!
It’s not hard to understand why most successful professional athletes, as they grow older, start to eat better, work out differently and go to sleep earlier.
When elite athletes are in their teens or early 20s, their extraordinary physical abilities allow them to excel despite a diet of Big Macs and pizza, beer, and partying. Time catches up with everyone, though, and the smart pros eventually realize that it makes more sense to work with their bodies than against them.
Very few of us are elite athletes, and many of us don’t have “elite” abilities of any kind. Yet we still deal with the same basic challenge that faces the Bradys, LeBrons and Ronaldos of the world: reaching peak performance levels day after day.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a student or a professor, a laborer or a professional, a store clerk or a CEO. To function at a high level, you depend on the most complex organ in your body – the brain – more than any other. And just as older athletes discover, it makes more sense to work with your body than against it.
You can’t achieve long-term, peak performance with temporary “fixes” like coffee, energy drinks or prescription medications which are more harmful than helpful over time. The right approach, by contrast, lets you sharpen your intelligence and maintain good mental health while treating your body properly.
There’s no magic (or Adderall) involved; the benefits of healthy foods, vitamins, supplements and fitness are no secret. What matters are the specific ways you can support your brain to ensure peak mental health and performance.
Here are the secrets and strategies to use.
The Right Foods
You certainly don’t need a lecture about why you should eat a diet filled with lean protein, fruits and vegetables. Certain foods, though, are particularly beneficial for optimal brain function and health. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it will give you a great start.
– Fatty Fish: More than 60% of the brain is composed of fats that create all of the body’s cellular membranes. A constant supply of “good fats” like Omega 3s means the membranes will be higher-quality, allowing nerves to operate at maximum capacity. Those fats also contribute to ketosis, which provides the brain with the glucose it uses for energy.
Unfortunately, the body can’t manufacture essential fatty acids, so they have to be supplied by food or supplements. Fatty fish like wild salmon, mackerel, fresh tuna, sardines and herring are excellent concentrated sources of fatty acids, and more effective than several Omega 3 supplement pills every day. Don’t overdo it, though, since there are a lot of calories in fatty acids. A total of 12 ounces per week is plenty. One other benefit of fatty fish: it also contains lots of vitamin B12.
– Walnuts: Another great source of the Omega 3 fatty acids known as DHA, regular consumption of walnuts has been credited with everything from increasing cognitive performance to reversing age-related mental decline. A tablespoon of walnuts each day is recommended for optimal benefit.
– Coconut Oil: This is often called the “energy drink of the brain.” The brain primarily relies on glucose for energy. Coconut oil, though, is a great “backup” source of energy because this unique saturated fat can be converted into ketones that fuel brain cells and increase metabolism, and it’s not as bad for the body as butter or fatty meats. The only other substance providing the same benefit as coconut oil? Breast milk. Use this oil for cooking or take it straight, but start slowly and build to a maximum of two tablespoons per day.
– Avocados: These yummy fruits promote healthy blood flow to the brain. Over-consumption of the monounsaturated fats in avocados can mean lots of calories, but two or three per week will work wonders for brain function. Avocados are a great source of the amino acid tyrosine, which contributes to the production of the chemical dopamine which acts as a messenger between brain cells. They also provide high amounts of vitamins B, C, E and K.
– Eggs: You always hear that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and eggs are one important reason why. In addition to being a great protein source, eggs contain Omega 3s and many B vitamins, plus the choline which is said to maintain high levels of communication between brain cells (to enhance learning) and prevent memory loss. At least two and as many as six eggs per day are optimal.
– Sea Vegetables: The Western world is largely unfamiliar with sea vegetables, with the exception of people who regularly eat sushi. Edible brown seaweed like kelp, and other vegetables like kombo (found in miso soup) and wakame are high in choline and tyrosine, both beneficial for brain function. One-third cup per day is a great addition to a brain-friendly diet, although you can substitute one teaspoon of flakes instead. Look for these products at organic or Asian supermarkets.
– Turmeric: This is the spice that makes curry yellow, and it has great anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Perhaps most importantly, turmeric protects the nerves which transmit messages throughout the brain. It’s also been found to prevent depression and possibly fight Alzheimer’s Disease, by boosting the production of a growth hormone that helps neurons in the brain make new connections. One teaspoon per day, used when cooking, is ideal.
– Fermented Foods: Yogurt, pickles, miso and sauerkraut are good for the brain? Apparently so; researchers believe the good bacteria in fermented foods boost levels of the neurotransmitter GABA which controls anxiety, an enemy of clear thinking and memory. In fact, these foods have been used for centuries in many civilizations to fight depression.
– Blueberries: This suggestion is more controversial, but animal studies have shown that regular consumption of blueberries increases learning capabilities while preventing Alzheimer’s Disease and other conditions related to aging. A cup per day (they don’t have to be fresh) is the ideal amount.
The Right Vitamins and Supplements
Food can provide most of the vitamins and minerals your brain needs to operate on all cylinders – but if you tried to eat all of them, you’d be so stuffed you wouldn’t be able to move.
That’s why supplements are so valuable. They can make up for any deficiencies in your diet and ensure that your body’s getting everything required for peak mental health and intelligence.
We’ll be describing food sources for each of these vitamins and minerals. In most cases, food is a better choice than off-the-shelf supplement pills. But exceeding our recommended dosages won’t do your body any harm, so picking up some of these pills at Amazon or GNC might be the smart (get it?) thing to do for optimal brain health.
– Vitamin B12: This is the most important vitamin for mental function. It ensures brain and nervous system health, and is required for crucial mental functions like concentration and memory. On the flip side, insufficient levels of B12 have been linked to depression and emotional issues, and even psychiatric disorders. Meat, fish, dairy products and eggs are great sources of vitamin B12, and the recommended dose is 2.4 mg per day.
– Vitamin E: Avocados, eggs, nuts, seeds and sweet potatoes are some of the primary food sources for vitamin E. As you might guess, most people don’t get the recommended 15 mg per day from their diet, but it’s important that they get it somewhere. The vitamin’s antioxidant properties protect the fatty tissues in the brain to preserve cognitive function, while protecting against the nerve degeneration that can eventually lead to lowered brain function and Alzheimer’s Disease.
– Vitamins B1, B2 and B9: These essential B vitamins perform similar and important roles: fighting inflammation and oxidation in the brain (as well as elsewhere in the body). B1 is found in beef, asparagus, beans and oranges, and 1.2 mg per day enhances learning ability while elevating mood and protecting the memory. B2 is found in meat, eggs, flour and dairy products, and 3 mg daily promotes focus and high-level brain function while protecting the memory. B9 also regulates the brain and counters depression; the recommended dosage of 400-600 mg per day can be found in spinach, beans, lentils and liver (sorry about that!) – or, needless to say, in vitamin supplements.
– Vitamin B6: Here’s another important B vitamin, crucial for mood regulation and alertness. In the longer term, it fights brain aging and problems associated with nerves in the brain, like migraines and seizures. Fish, sunflower seeds, potatoes, many fruits and beef liver (sorry again!) are great sources, and the recommended dosage is 1.3 mg daily.
– Vitamin D: The natural source for vitamin D couldn’t be more different than the other vitamins we’ve discussed; the body gets its D from sunlight. Those who are stuck indoors most of the time will need a supplement providing at least 1000 to 2000 IU per day, to receive the benefit of its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.
– Magnesium, Iron, Zinc and Copper: All of these minerals have been shown to provide crucial energy, regulation or stimulation of the brain.
- Magnesium (310-420 mg per day, found in spinach, nuts and pumpkin seeds) contributes an energy boost and improves focus while calming the nervous system.
- Iron (8-18 mg per day, found in beef and seafood, leafy greens and nuts) sharpens attention and improves cognitive function while elevating mood.
- Zinc (8-11 mg per day, found in oysters, beef, chocolate and nuts) calms stress and fights depression.
- Copper (1.5-3 mg per day, found in organ meats, lentils, asparagus and almonds) stimulates and regulates the brain’s activities.
The most efficient way to get all of these minerals is through daily supplements.
– Omega 3 Fatty Acids: We’ve already discussed the importance of fatty acids at length. About 250-500 mg per day is the minimum necessary for the brain, and walnuts, wild rice and chia seeds are good sources in addition to fatty fishes.
The Right Fitness Activities
The Latin phrase “mens sana in corpora sano” is attributed to the Roman poet Juvenal and dates back 2000 years. It translates as “a healthy mind in a healthy body” and has been misquoted many times, in many ways. The theory, though, is an important one: physical and mental health are inextricably linked.
There are many ways to exercise, naturally, but some are particularly beneficial for mental health and intelligence.
– Swimming: You give your body a good workout when you swim, but the exercise is even better for your brain. Swimming boosts the body’s production of a hormone called ANP which reduces stress, anxiety and depression. The repetitive motions of swimming also put the brain into a mental state similar to meditation. Swimming in warm water is even better, because it increases blood flow in the brain to promote concentration and wakefulness. That’s why you’re likely to feel so refreshed when getting out of the water afterward. 30 minutes of swimming per day will work wonders for your mental function.
– Yoga: Don’t have 30 minutes or access to a pool? A 20-minute yoga session is excellent exercise for your brain. It increases the body’s immune response, plus circulation and oxygenation of the blood, for optimal focus and a lot less stress.
– Weight Lifting: It might not seem that weight lifting would help mental function, but lifting twice a week does the trick. The secret is that your body needs extra oxygen when you’re working out with weights – and the first place that oxygen goes is upstairs, improving blood flow throughout the brain.
– Kickboxing: The coordination and quick movements required in kickboxing don’t just give the body a workout. The brain is required to react quickly and decisively, and that trains it to perform just as efficiently in everyday life. A go or two on the mat each week also releases stress, fights depression and builds self-esteem.
– Isometric Workouts: The mental and physical discipline needed to hold isometric poses for long periods of time provides almost as much benefit for the brain as it does for the muscles fighting gravity. Research has shown that these regular workouts do everything from building new neural connections in the brain, to fighting the cognitive effects of aging.
– Trampoline Workouts: Even using a mini-trampoline for half-an-hour three times a week works much the same way as kickboxing to increase the brain’s ability to focus and concentrate. It’s great for the rest of the body too, from the heart to the lungs.
Why Using Off-Label Prescription Meds Is The Very Wrong Approach
College students facing exams, shift workers working through the night, and professionals trying to beat difficult deadlines are often tempted to try off-label use of prescription medications for a temporary jolt of focus or attention. It’s a very bad idea.
Drugs like Adderall, Ritalin or Concerta used for brain stimulation, or Provigil used for concentration, bring with them a host of undesirable side effects. Here’s a quick look at each.
– Adderall is the stimulant commonly prescribed for ADHD and narcolepsy, but it’s often seen in dorms and on trading floors, among many other places. And it does indeed stimulate the brain through the increased release of dopamine and norepinephrine, boosting alertness and energy.
It also can be extremely addictive and has been known to cause issues from insomnia to heart problems. Doses above 30 mg per day, especially when they approach 70 mg, are extremely dangerous.
– Ritalin and Concerta are versions of the stimulant known as methylphenidate, which are prescribed for the same reasons as Adderall. They perform basically the same functions although the jolt is stronger, similar in many ways to cocaine.
Dependence on these drugs develops quickly and is extremely difficult to overcome. The stimulants often create other serious issues throughout the body, including permanent damage to the heart, lungs and brain. Problems are most likely when taking doses over 60 mg per day, or 30 mg at one time.
– Provigil and other forms of modafinil are prescribed for people with sleep disorders like narcolepsy and shift-work disorder, because they increase the amount of dopamine in the brain, sharpening focus and helping users fight off fatigue. They’ve also been widely touted as a miracle “smart drug” which can improve attention spans and concentration.
Modafinil is not generally as hazardous as Adderall or Ritalin when used off-label, but can have many negative side effects. The minor ones include insomnia, dizziness and anxiety, and major issues such as infections, angina and even suicide have been reported. Doses over 400 mg per day are considered dangerous, and a doctor should always be consulted before use.