How would you like to learn faster, have a better memory, think more clearly, and understand difficult concepts more easily? The good news is that it is possible to improve your brain function by applying just a few simple strategies to your daily routine. These brain boosting strategies can work for you whether you’re a massage student preparing for the MBLEx, or you’re just interested supercharging your brain for peak mental performance.
When I say peak mental performance, I’m talking about things that improve your overall brain function in a practical way. This means these strategies can:
- Increase your capacity to concentrate and focus your attention
- Improve your ability to remember what your learn
- Sharpen your reasoning and problem-solving
- Relieve brain fog and mental fatigue
- Enhance your mental clarity and help calm your mind
How do these brain boosting strategies work?
Most of these strategies work by changing your physiology or body chemistry. For example, some foods and exercise can cause your body to produce more BDNF.
Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) is an important protein that influences brain function. It aids in neurogenesis, which is the growth of new neurons. BDNF also aids neuroplasticity, which is the ability of your brain to change and adapt (grow). And it prevents the death of existing brain cells.
Human growth hormone (HGH) is another endogenous compound that can improve cognition. The body produces HGH naturally. One of its functions is to increase neurogenesis, which is the creation of new nerve cells. HGH also has a neuroprotective effect; meaning is protects nerve cells from degeneration and death. Many of the strategies listed below trigger the body to increase HGH production naturally.
Now let’s look at some specific things you can start doing today to improve your mental performance and help you when you study for the MBLEx.
Fuel Your Brain
Good nutrition is critical for healthy brain function. Taking in healthy fats is especially important for brain function because the brain is about 60% fat. This fat is not like the fat cells in subcutaneous tissues that are used to produce energy. It is lipid molecules that protect the nerves and aid in signal transmission, like myelin around nerve axons.
The omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA have been shown to benefit brain health. Omega-3s also have other benefits like decreasing body inflammation and maintaining a healthy vascular system. The body cannot produce DHA so it is considered essential, and must be included in your diet.
Fish are a rich source of omega-3s, particularly cold-water fish like wild salmon, krill oil, tuna, halibut, trout and herring. You can also get omega-3s from plant sources including walnuts, almonds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, flaxseed, and spinach. Some of these are also good sources of vitamin E.
Coconut oil is another source of useful fatty acids. It doesn’t contain omega-3, but it is a good source of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs). There is more and more research coming out about how coconut oil is beneficial to brain function.
Herbs have been used for medicinal purposes for millennia. Some herbs that are thought to improve cognitive function include: turmeric (curcumin), gotu kola, cloves, ashwaganda, nutmeg, black pepper, thyme, sage, rosemary, holy basil (Tulsi), and oregano.
Other superfoods that can enhance and protect your brain include green tea, broccoli (contains choline), and tomatoes. Blueberries have flavonoids that protect the brain from oxidative stress. A mix of blueberries, nuts and walnuts make a great snack while you study for the MBLEx.
The Mediterranean diet includes many of the recommended foods to maximize brain function.
Having a diet that supports gut health is also critical for good brain function. In fact there is a theory called the gut-brain axis that links gut health directly with mental health and cognitive function. Fermented foods like kimchi and apple cider vinegar, and probiotics like kefir and yogurt.
Intermittent fasting is a technique that can improve brain function by reducing inflammation in the body. It also promotes neurogenesis. Both intermittent fasting and decreasing body fat will increase the levels of HGH in the body.
There are some foods to avoid. Start by cutting back on refined sugar to help regulate your blood sugar level. Processed foods contain a lot of ingredients that cause inflammation in the body. Avoid hydrogenated fats and foods that are commonly contaminated with pesticides or herbicides.
Supplementing your diet
Vitamins play and important role in cognitive function. You can get most of the nutrients, vitamins and minerals from a good diet. However if your diet does not contain certain key elements, supplementation may be necessary to avoid deficiencies.
Here are a few common supplements that can help you maintain optimal brain function:
- B12 is important for preserving brain function, particularly as we age. It comes from animal products like milk, eggs, seafood and chicken. So vegetarians may need use a B12 supplement.
- Vitamin D. Research shows that vitamin D supports areas of the brain involved in processing new information and the formation of new memories. Most adults need about 8,000 IU’s of vitamin D per day. 15 minutes in the sun every day with your arms and face exposed is usually sufficient to provide this.
- Tyrosine is an amino acid found in meat, dairy, eggs, beans and wheat. Tyrosine supplements are commonly used to improve memory, alertness and learning.
- Choline is a nutrient that is important for many body functions, including supporting the nervous and endocrine systems.
Nootropics are supplements that may improve cognitive functions like memory and creativity. Some nootropics are natural like certain amino acids or vitamins.
However some are chemical compounds concocted in a lab somewhere. Be cautious with these since the supplement industry is largely unregulated. It is difficult to ensure that these chemicals are high quality and free of contaminants. They can be expensive too. The claims are usually misleading and the long-term effects have often not been researched. I believe that the strategies in this post increase your alertness, creativity, and ability to focus more than any of these.
Exercise increases blood flow to the brain as well as the muscles. This brings more nutrients and oxygen to the brain. Exercise helps to regulate the body’s chemistry and hormone levels, including those that affect brain function. It also triggers the release of BDNF.
Both aerobic and resistance exercise is beneficial for improving brain function. Aerobic exercise should be between 60% and 75% of your maximum heart rate. It should be for at least 30 minutes. However exercise sessions as short as 10 minutes before you study for the MBLEx can improve focus and problem solving.
The benefits are cumulative, increasing over time with consistent exercise. Resistance exercises and vigorous exercise like HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) is particularly effective.
It is important to get plenty of quality sleep every night. Some people have chronic mental fatigue because they habitually get inadequate sleep. The lucky few only require 6 hours or less. But the majority of us need about 8 hours every night to sufficiently rest our brain and body.
Taking a midday nap can also improve your ability to learning capacity, and make your afternoon study sessions more productive.
To increase the quality of your sleep, keep your bedroom at a cool 60-70 degrees. Keep it as dark and quiet as possible. It’s also best to be consistent with what time you go to bed and what time you wake up.
Avoid eating a heavy meal within 2 hours of bedtime. Also avoid alcohol. A glass of wine in the evening may make you feel sleepy, but can disrupt your sleep cycles.
The effects of caffeine can last for hours. So avoid taking this stimulant past lunchtime.
Blue light frequencies can interfere with our body’s ability to produce melatonin. So avoid screens (TV, computer or phone) during the last hour before going to bed. The settings on some monitors can be adjusted to emit less blue light and display in a “warmer” color.
Keep your cell phone at least an arm’s length away while sleeping. It is still not definitive what effect the electromagnet frequencies (EMF) from cell phones have on the body and brain, but I’m betting it isn’t good.
Meditation and relaxation
One of the most obvious benefits of meditation for students is that it helps the practitioner to stay focused. Holding your focus on your breath or a single object is the core of mindfulness meditation. The ability to maintain a singular focus while letting go of all other distractions is very practical for students taking exams or studying for them.
Meditation also helps to decrease stress. Stressed brains don’t work as well, particularly those dealing with chronic stress.
Numerous studies show that meditation has a positive effect on brain function. In fact, many of the benefits that meditation advocates have long claimed are now being proven using EEG and functional MRI studies.
A recent study showed that 8 weeks of mindfulness practice resulted in increased gray matter in the part of the brain associated with learning and memory.
Another research study suggested that a mindfulness training program of just two weeks was enough to improve cognitive performance. The results showed that the meditation program was beneficial for students taking the GRE to help improve their working memory and ability to stay focused.
Experienced meditators often state that the benefits of meditation have a compounding effect. Daily practice over months and years will continue to benefit the dedicated practitioner.
Bonus brain boosting tips
There are a few other things you can try that may help you focus while studying for your massage exams in school or preparing for the MBLEx.
- Listening to instrumental music while you study
- Essential oils like rosemary, sage or peppermint
- Stop trying to multitask
You can condition your brain to strengthen your focus and cognitive performance. The brain has the ability to change based on how it is used. This phenomenon of re-wiring the brain is called neuroplasticity.
Brain-training games like those on Luminosity use the brain’s neuroplasticity to help it perform better at specific tasks. Massage students preparing for the MBLEx should include active learning strategies like participating with study groups and taking practice exams.