I grew up on a ten-acre ranch, and when I get the chance to go back home for a few weeks, I’m always amazed at how easy it is to get things done even when I’m tired. That’s because the things that have to be done are mostly physical—tossing hay to the horses, hauling water buckets, shoveling out grain, moving animals from one pen to the other, etc.
I can wake up groggy and still get in a good day’s work and feel even better by the time I head back to bed.
Compare that to waking up groggy on a day that requires creative work and you have an entirely different picture. If I try to approach my writing day with droopy eyes and a slow brain, it will take me three times as long to do anything, and my day drags on and on. By the time it’s done, I feel worse, and I’m likely to go through progressively more difficult days until I can catch up on the weekend.
That means that tired, groggy days are deadly to my productivity and my bottom line, and are to be avoided like the plague.
Here are seven tips that work for me to keep my brain from crashing when I need it most. If you have others, please share them below!
Exercise stimulates the brain much as it does the rest of the body, and is critical not only to having enough energy to make it through the day, but to making new creative connections. In fact, a 2013 study found that exercise is critical to creative thought. Cognitive psychologist Professor Lorenza Colzato of Leiden University in The Netherlands, reported that those who exercised four times a week were able to think more creatively than those with a more sedentary lifestyle.
Every time I skip exercise, I can tell it the next day. I have less energy, and my brain is slow to react, as if I have sludge sloshing around up there. It only takes 30 minutes, but stick with it on a daily basis to make sure your brain is ready when you need it.
Sugar is bad for your mental health.
You’ve heard of the “crash” that can follow a high-sugar snack or dessert. Suddenly all you want to do is sleep. But sugar does more than slow you down. Studies have tied high intakes to an increased risk of depression, which can definitely mess you up when you’re trying to create. It can also worsen anxiety, increase stress, and compromise learning and memory.
Cut back on sugary treats, but watch the ingredient lists on all your foods. Yogurts, soups, breads, and other innocent looking foods can all be full of high fructose corn syrup, which has also shown in studies to affect your brain. A 2012 study, for instance, reported that a diet high in high fructose corn syrup hampers memory and learning.
Eat more fish, tuna, walnuts, flaxseed, anchovies, and olive oil, as these all contain healthy omega-3 fatty acids that are not only critical for good brain function, but can actually help protect it against the detrimental affects of sugar.
According to the high fructose study mentioned above, adding omega-3 fatty acids to a meal high in high fructose corn syrup helped to minimize the damage.
“Our findings suggest that consuming DHA regularly protects the brain against fructose’s harmful effects,” said study author Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, a professor of neurosurgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “It’s like saving money in the bank. You want to build a reserve for your brain to tap when it requires extra fuel to fight off future diseases.”
According to a 2007 study, aging people who consumed more omega-3s had increased gray matter brain volume in an area of the brain associated with happiness. Keep your mood up and your productivity high with more omega-3s.
There are cloudy days of course, but on the sunny ones, get out under the rays if you can. Sunshine helps support our natural circadian rhythms, helps us produce vitamin D, and lifts our mood. If your brain is crashing, it could be because you’re not getting enough.
In a 2009 study, for example, researchers studied data from over 16,000 participants and found an association between decreased exposure to sunlight and impaired cognitive function. An article in Scientific American published the same year noted a couple of studies that revealed a deficiency in vitamin D—which we get mostly from sun exposure–can also reduce cognitive function.
From the article:
“The scientists found that the lower the subjects’ vitamin D levels, the more negatively impacted was their performance on a battery of mental tests. Compared with people with optimum vitamin D levels, those in the lowest quartile were more than twice as likely to be cognitively impaired.”
There is some vitamin D in meat and dairy foods, but not enough to meet your requirements. You need sunshine. If you can’t get it (you’re extra photosensitive), try supplements instead, but the rays will get your brain going.
You know this one, right? But it’s so very important to your brain that there’s no way this list would be complete without it.
We have many studies on how sleep deprivation affects brain performance. In 2007, researchers found that it impairs attention and working memory, as well as long-term memory and decision-making. A 2010 study agreed with these results, and added that more creative, divergent and innovative thinking were also degraded by lack of sleep.
A 2011 study found that changes in sleep duration (decreasing from 6-8 hours a night, or increasing over 8 hours a night) were associated with poorer cognitive function in middle-aged people, specifically. A 2014 study reported that middle-aged and older people who got 6-9 hours of sleep per night were able to think better than those sleeping fewer than 6, or more than 9 hours.
The studies go on and on. If you want to avoid a brain crash, get 7-8 hours of sleep per night, ideally between the same hours. The more consistent you are with your sleep times the better your body and brain will respond.
Adequate hydration is critical to your brain’s ability to respond as you want it to. You may have noticed it—your brain starts to slow down the closer you get to lunch. It could be that you’ve forgotten to drink a couple glasses of water over the last few hours.
A 2009 study found this to be true. After participants had a drink of water, their memory and attention improved. A later 2013 study reported that participants who drank about three cups of water performed better on a reaction time test than those who didn’t drink the water.
Feel your brainpower leaving you? Get up and fill your glass with ice-cold water, drink it, and then return to your desk. The water and the break to move around will likely get you going again.
Laughter wakes up your brain in ways few other things can. Fortunately, we all have access to YouTube these days, and can insert a quick 3-minute laugh just by bringing up our favorite comedians, movie clips, or cat antics.
A 2011 study, for example, reported that laughter had positive effects on depression and sleep quality, and a 2014 study found that laughter enhanced attention, motivation, and memory, which in turn enhanced learning.
You need things in your work area to help stimulate laugher. It helps reduce tension and increases focus, as well as clearing up the mind and stimulating creativity. In addition to YouTube, try stacking your shelves with joke books, funny stories, comics, and other things that put a smile on your face.
How do you keep your brain going all day long? Please share your tips.
Sarah Knapton, “Lacking inspiration? Exercise found to boost creativity,” The Telegraph, December 3, 2013, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/10491702/Lacking-inspiration-Exercise-found-to-boost-creativity.html.
David Sack, M.D., “4 Ways Sugar Could be Harming Your Mental Health,” Psychology Today, September 2, 2013, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/where-science-meets-the-steps/201309/4-ways-sugar-could-be-harming-your-mental-health.
Elaine Schmidt, “This is your brain on sugar: UCLA study shows high-fructose diet sabotages learning, memory,” UCLA, May 15, 2012, http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/this-is-your-brain-on-sugar-ucla-233992.
Conklin SM, Gianaros PJ, Brown SM, et al. Long-chain omega-3 fatty acid intake is associated positively with corticolimbic gray matter volume in healthy adults. Neurosci Lett. 2007 Jun 29;421(3):209-12.
Julius Goepp, “Omega-3 Fatty Acids Increase Brain Volume,” Life Extension, August 2010, http://www.lifeextension.com/magazine/2010/8/omega-3-fatty-acids-increase-brain-volume/page-01.
Shia T Kent, et al., “Effect of sunlight exposure on cognitive function among depressed and non-depressed participants: a REGARDS cross-sectional study,” Environ Health, July 28, 2009; 8:34, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2728098/.
Diane Welland, “Does Vitamin D Improve Brain Function?” Scientific American, November 1, 2009; http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/does-d-make-a-difference/.
Paula Alhola and Paivi Polo-Kantola, “Sleep deprivation: Impact on cognitive performance,” Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat., October 2007; 3(5):553-567, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2656292/.
Kilgore WD., “Effects of sleep deprivation on cognition,” Prog Brain Res., 2010; 185:105-29, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21075236.
“Sleep quality and duration improve cognition in aging populations,” University of Oregon, June 16, 2014, https://uonews.uoregon.edu/archive/news-release/2014/6/sleep-quality-and-duration-improve-cognition-aging-populations.
David Benton, “Dehydration Influences Mood and Cognition: A Plausible Hypothesis?” Nutrients, May 2011; 3(5):555-573, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3257694/.
Rachel Rettner, “Drinking Water May Provide Mental Boost,” LiveScience, July 16, 2013, http://www.livescience.com/38212-drinking-water-mental-performance.html.
Ko HJ, Youn CH, “Effects of laughter therapy on depression, cognition and sleep among the community-dwelling elderly,” Geriatr Gerontol Int., July 2011; 11(3):267-74, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21241447.
Rana Esseily, “Humour production may enhance observational learning of a new tool—use action in 18-month-old infants,” Cognition and Emotion, May 12, 2015, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02699931.2015.1036840?journalCode=pcem20&.