As we are preparing our children and ourselves to take on the new academic year, our attention may naturally turn to brain function. How can we equip our children to do their best? And how can we function optimally, as well? Less rest, greater cognitive demand and a more hectic schedule increase stress and unbalance. Starting the school year with a plan for wellness and optimal brain function can make all the difference.
Sleep is our best friend when it comes to stress reduction and mental fitness. Quality sleep can be complicated by anxiety, depression, hormonal changes and a host of other concerns, and the cause of these underlying issues should be addressed. Beyond these issues, though, good sleep hygiene (habits that encourage good sleep) can help, regardless of underlying cause.
Teenagers need eight to 11 hours of sleep per night, while younger school-aged children can use nine to 12. Adults function optimally with at least seven hours. Set a routine bedtime and waking time for each member of the household. This can be monumentally challenging, but the payoff is worth the effort.
When needed, take a short power nap. Longer naps can interfere with nighttime sleep, but short ones can help with mood, alertness and performance. Avoid later afternoon stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine, and remember: no amount of caffeine can compensate for a good night’s sleep.
Fuel Up and Hydrate
Good fats, clean protein, fewer carbs and seriously limited sugar consumption are the best dietary approaches for a functional brain and body.
Fats are the structural matrix for every cell membrane in our body (including the brain), thereby impacting the function of every cell. In our diet, fats stabilize blood sugars and increase satiety. Bottom line: they matter and should be incorporated into every meal and snack. Consume the good fats derived from plant sources and carefully chosen organic dairy as well. Make fats like avocados, coconut and olive oil, nuts, seeds and organic grass-fed butter a part of every meal. When the body is fueled by fats, not sugars, the mind is clear, and energy is robust.
Protein is muscle building, immune-empowering, and provides the substrate for neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin. Eat clean protein from organic and grass-fed sources that are humanely raised and free of pesticides, added hormones and growth factors. If you are a vegetarian, adequate protein consumption can be tricky. Be sure to consume adequate protein through organic, non-GMO nuts, seeds and vegetable sources. Beans and legumes can cause spikes and dips in blood sugars, so proceed with caution and combine these foods with fats to stabilize blood sugars.
The sugar high, sugar low phenomenon is real. Unfortunately, processed and simple carbohydrates (breads, cereals, rice and corn) break down, rapidly, into sugars. They generally provide a short burst of energy, and even euphoria, soon followed by sleepiness, brain fog and depressed mood. Whole food vegetable and fruit carbs (root vegetables, summer and winter squashes and lower glycemic fruits) are best for blood sugar modulation. Gluten-free whole grains, and even beans, are best consumed in limited moderation as they can make us feel foggy and fatigued.
As we know, hydration is necessary not only when exercising. Students are brain-athletes and energy and focus are best when the body is hydrated and flushed free of toxins. Begin the day with a few large glasses of water and aim to consume an average of six to eight ounces of healthy fluids every waking hour. You will feel better during the day and sleep better at night.
A wide range of supplements improve clarity and focus. I generally draw from five categories:
Lithium orotate is neuro-protective and neuro-proliferative, and can help with stress reduction, focus, memory and sleep. It creates mental resiliency and, in the long term, can slow cognitive decline and delay or improve dementia.
Herbs such as Bacopa, Ginkgo, Ashwagandha, Rhodiola and Rosemary can boost memory and mental clarity, while Passionflower, chamomile and lavender calm anxiety and promote sleep.
As the base for neurotransmitters, amino acids balance brain chemistry. Tyrosine can help with focus, lessen reactivity and compulsion, while Tryptophan, Theanine, Glycine, and Taurine can have anxiety and stress reducing effects.
B-vitamins and antioxidants provide the cofactors to build neurotransmitters, the “juice” to keep the brain firing, and protection from free-radical damage caused by dietary and environmental stressors.
Stress dramatically impacts memory and cognitive function and our best brain is not hypervigilant and cortisol-driven, but relaxed and engaged.
Limiting screen time to essential use (and not entertainment) can change the structure of your day and provide radically improved peace of mind. Family time enjoying meals or doing chores, projects, games, reading or exercise together can give us the morale boost we need when time is spent in meaningful connection and accomplishment.
FInally, mindfulness and meditation are powerful ways to enhance focus and decrease stress. There are many resources to get started and keep going, including books and magazines devoted to the practice as well as classes and formal training. Begin your day with mindful intention and practice gratitude when the going gets tough. The simple act of deep breathing decreases cortisol and radically relaxes the mind. Ready. Set. Ahhhhhh.
You’ve got this. FBN
By KŠren van der Veer, N.D.
Dr. KŠren van der Veer has more than 20 years of experience as a physician, acupuncturist and educator.Her career has been defined by her passion for and devotion to serving others.She currently teaches at Northern Arizona University and sees patients at Aspen Integrative Medical Center, located at 323 N Leroux, Suite B, in Flagstaff. For more information, call 928-213-5828.