Pull-ups, check. Burpees, check. Walking lunges, check. Deadlifts, check. Brain exercises — wait, huh? If you’ve been concentrating all your efforts on muscle-building supplements and pumping iron in the gym but have neglected to nourish your brain, do your best impression of The Thinker while you ponder this: The gradual deterioration of cognitive skills begins at age 24, and for every 15 years thereafter, cognitive speed drops by about 15 percent.
“Many people do not focus on the brain because they may not be aware that they can impact and improve its performance,” says Rhonda Freeman, Ph.D., a licensed neuropsychologist. “They may not realize that this organ is not completely ‘set,’ but rather there are regions that are very responsive to the environment and experiences.”
Freeman says we can capitalize on the brain’s neuroplasticity — its ability to change in structure and organization — to function at peak performance. In fact, she has used supplements, aromatherapy, brain entertainment and brain training to optimize the functioning of her own brain, allowing her to meet the high demands of her previous role as an NFL cheerleader and current professional endeavors. Let’s explore some of the most popular, and scientifically backed, options:
Studies suggest that the long-chain fatty acids EPA and DHA are helpful with respect to mood and improved cognitive functioning — DHA makes up a large portion of the gray matter of the brain, and both omega-3s promote healthy blood flow, which is fundamental to optimal brain function. One study found that after taking EPA-rich supplements, participants’ brains worked “less hard” and achieved a better cognitive performance than before supplementation.
This supplement has an impact on the energy region of cells (the mitochondria), which can be helpful in improving the brain’s responsiveness. Freeman says that this, coupled with its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant impact, helps to function at a younger state. Supplemental doses for adults range from 30 to 100 milligrams per day — because it’s fat-soluble, CoQ10 is most effective when taken with a fat source during mealtime.
This amino acid has shown health benefits in neuroinflammation, a common denominator in various neurodegenerative diseases. It also shows promise in the treatment of aging by slowing the progression of mental deterioration. “Not only does acetyl-L-carnitine have neuroprotective properties, it can have a positive impact on current mood and cognition,” says Freeman, who experiences improved focus when she takes it.
Research at MIT produced a study in 2004 that elevates magnesium to the position of memory and focus enhancer. Particular brain receptors important for learning, memory and focus depend on magnesium for their regulation. The researchers describe magnesium as an absolutely necessary component of the cerebrospinal fluid in order to keep these learning and memory receptors active. “Magnesium is instrumental in opening brain receptors to important information yet at the same time being able to ignore background noise,” says Carolyn Dean, M.D., ND, a medical advisory board member of the Nutritional Magnesium Association and author of The Magnesium Miracle (Ballantine Books, 2017) and 365 Ways to Boost Your Brain Power (Adams Media, 2009). “I consider 600 milligrams a day of elemental magnesium to be necessary — which is above the 350 to 400 milligrams RDA.” Just be careful not to go overboard — too much magnesium may result in a laxative effect.
“Aromatherapy allows us to take advantage of the prime location of our olfactory bulbs — the sensory region for smell,” says Freeman, whose personal favorites include bergamot orange to aid with relaxing and peppermint when she needs to boost concentration. “It is located near and interconnected with the emotional system of our brain. Therefore, by inhaling certain essential oils, I can immediately impact my mood or cognition. The brain releases certain neurotransmitters and can activate different brain regions based on the smells.”
Scientists estimate that the brain is about 73 percent water, so it stands to reason that keeping the brain hydrated is essential. Being dehydrated by as little as 2 percent may impair a person’s ability to perform tasks that involve attention, memory and motor skills. So make sure you’re drinking enough water. The Institute of Medicine recommends that men should drink at least 104 ounces of water per day and that women should drink at least 72.
“Physical activity improves the functioning of the brain from a cognitive and mood stance,” Freeman says. “Even just taking a walk can boost serotonin, which can contribute to feelings of calmness.” One session of aerobic exercise can impact the prefrontal cortex, the region associated with regulation/balance. Another study, published in Neurology, found that Swedish women with a high level of midlife fitness were 88 percent less likely to develop dementia than those who were moderately fit.
“The brain has tasks to perform, and some of that is done when you are sleeping,” Freeman says. “Consistently robbing it of that time can put one at increased risk of developing a cognitive disorder.” In fact, studies show that trouble falling or staying asleep and poor sleep quality are potential risk factors for cognitive decline and dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.
9. Brain Training
Several types of experiences — including action video-game experiences, musical training and athletic training — have been shown to create widespread effects on perception, motor skills and cognition. Essentially, through brain training, a person can engage in exercises that will activate specific neural pathways. “We use interventions of this type in neurology when we have patients who have suffered a stroke or brain trauma. However, they can be helpful for those with healthy brains, as well,” Freeman says. “The trainings can be fun and feel like playing games. They can be helpful with cognitive functions such as working memory, processing speed, language and executive functions.”
Because of neuroplasticity, our brain can change throughout our lives based on the lifestyle we choose to lead and our environment. “We have the ability to facilitate peak performance through healthy habits,” Freeman says. “Take advantage of the malleability of the brain — it is never too late to start.”