It’s 2pm on a Friday, you have got a work deadline to hit by that evening and your brain feels like it has gone to sleep. You reach for a source of caffeine or a sugary snack to help wake it up and get the job done. It works! Yay! You have energy again and you can think clearly. But then in one to two hours’ time, you are back where you started, your brain has fluffed up its pillow and gone back to sleep and you are forced to repeat the cycle.
Obviously, in the short term, this method works very well to give you a boost of energy, but relying on it solely to get work done can lead to burnout, addiction and negative health effects brought about by excess caffeine and sugar consumption. So, what else can you do to increase your mental performance without reaching for short term effect stimulants all the time?
First, for an immediate boost, get moving. The more you sit around and do minimal activity, the slower your body goes and the more key areas of your brain responsible for keeping you productive either wind down or switch off completely. Something as small as going for a one-to-five-minute walk can wake these areas up and help you to stay focused. Also, walking around can help you to brainstorm and think through certain ideas. Engaging in regular physical activity throughout the week (think working out, hiking, dancing, etc.) has also been proven to boost brain function and ward off or slow down degenerative diseases. An added bonus is that physical movement also boosts our feel good hormones, and allows us do to more work for longer. We are designed to move and think on our feet, so take advantage of that and it should give you an energy boost.
If you can take a walk or exercise outside, even better, as this allows you to absorb some much-needed Vitamin D from the sun. Vitamin D is crucial for a multitude of different functions in the human body, such as aiding in the absorption of calcium and regulating circadian rhythms. A deficiency in it has been shown to negatively affect cognitive function and energy levels, as well as play havoc with sleep and anxiety. Where you are in the world and what you do daily will impact how much sun exposure you need to get adequate levels of the vitamin. Due to our increasingly indoor lifestyles, eating foods rich in vitamin D and/or supplementation is often necessary. Fatty fish, such as salmon, and eggs are a great source of vitamin D, and can be eaten regularly to help maintain levels.
Eggs and fatty fish are also full of Omega 3 fatty acids. Our brain uses these fatty acids to maintain and build more cells and pathways. By eating eggs and/or fish, you are ensuring that your brain has a steady supply of the necessary materials it needs to build and repair itself, which will lead to better overall function in the short and long term.
Nuts, particularly walnuts, are another great source of omega 3 fatty acids and protein. Walnuts are rich in a plant based fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) which can also help to clear out arteries and lower blood pressure. This can lead to better circulation, allowing more nutrients to be delivered to the brain via the bloodstream, and overall better health.
Other foods to include in your diet that positively impact brain health and function are green, leafy vegetables and berries. Green leafy veggies contain many nutrients, such as vitamin K and folate which help to slow the rate of cognitive decay. The flavonoids contained in berries also slow down cognitive decay, and as a bonus, they help to improve memory retention. Both green leafy vegetables and berries are rich in other nutrients that nourish your brain and body and help you to perform at your best for longer.
Finally, caffeine. Yes, this post was about providing alternatives to short term stimulants, but caffeine taken in the right amount and at the right times can be beneficial to mental performance. Setting an upper limit of 400mg of caffeine (roughly 3-4 cups of coffee) a day can still help to increase cognitive function, while blunting side effects such as increased anxiety and restlessness. Also, make sure to have your last cuppa at least 8 hours before you normally sleep, as to not interfere with sleep quality.
On occasion, there is nothing wrong with using short term effect stimulates to boost performance. However, excessive use of them can lead to dependence and adverse health effects. By implementing some or all the energy boosting/ performance enhancing recommendations above should help to improve your mental performance and allow you to perform better for longer.
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