“A man’s mind may be likened to a garden, which may be intelligently cultivated or allowed to run wild; but whether cultivated or neglected, it must, and will, bring forth. If no useful seeds are put into it, then an abundance of useless weed seeds will fall therein and will continue to produce their kind.” ~ As a Man Thinketh
Many of us (particularly high-achieving professionals and students) care a great deal about ‘staying sharp,’ being focused, and having the clarity of mind to stay on our game. We want to put our best foot forward regarding our jobs, families, and the various areas that continually pull our attention.
Although many in business and health can attest to the norm that people tend to focus more on their appearance and superficial health markers than their brains’ health, the latter remains primary in creating optimal physical health and achieving our most sought-after goals.
At the same time, many of us remain distracted, tired, exhausted, and stretched emotionally, physically, and financially.
With the ever-increasing complexity of our technological world and our devices pulling for our attention, it has become harder to remain focused and engaged in what Cal Newport refers to as ‘Deep Work’.
The ability to focus and engage in deep work has become an increasingly sought-after ability as it simply cannot be automated. Deep Work is not manual and, therefore cannot be replaced with technology.
What do we call our ability to remain focused, clear, and mentally healthy?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) define cognition as the “ability to learn new things, intuition, judgment, language, and remembering.”
In their article Cognitive Fitness, Robert Roderick Gilkey and Clint Kilts from the Harvard Business Review define it as a state of optimized ability to reason, remember, learn, plan, and adapt.
They found that certain attitudes, lifestyle choices, and exercises enhance cognitive fitness.
In this article, I’ve broken things down into two main areas that can contribute to your cognitive health overall:
- Optimizing Your Physiology
- Optimizing Your Psychology
You’ll learn a few areas within both that will help improve your cognitive fitness. This may also reduce your risks of Alzheimer’s disease, cognitive decline, ADHD, and other mental health conditions.
Optimizing Your Physiology
We simply can’t talk about cognitive optimization without bringing up sleep.
Sleep is the most significant factor in long-term health.
Many experts now agree that getting a good night’s sleep (about 80% of the time) is critical for overall health and, even more specifically, brain and cognitive health.
Before exploring sleep hygiene best practices, it should be said that if you’re experiencing any sleep issues, you want to get screened through a sleep study. This will help rule out sleep apnea, which can wreak havoc on your overall and cognitive health long-term.
In terms of sleep hygiene, which can often make the most significant difference in sleep quality long-term, the 3-2-1 rule is a great place to start. That is…
- 3 hours before bed, no food.
- 2 hours before bed, no work.
- 1 hour before bed, no screens.
Studies show that short-term sleep deprivation can mimic symptoms of cognitive decline or even alcohol intoxication.
Sleep is a time when new memories are consolidated, and states of sleep deprivation can impair emotional regulation, social skills, and learning. Not only that, but it can also increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and countless mental and physical health conditions.
Dr. John Ratey, a Harvard Psychiatrist who wrote the book “Spark,” has made exploring movement and its positive effects on mental health and cognition a focus of his clinical research.
He showed that cardiovascular exercise improved learning and memory dramatically in students with and without ADHD.
He studied students who incorporated cardiovascular exercise on a treadmill into their physical education program and found significant improvements in academic performance.
Dr. Dale Bredesen, a neurologist and leading expert in Alzheimer’s disease, also emphasizes movement as part of a preventative and treatment protocol for Alzheimer’s disease.
You don’t have to consult the vast and growing body of research to know that movement and exercise will improve your mood and focus.
Suppose you’re a working professional who does much mental work daily. In that case, you can probably attest that a good workout can often put you in a better position to be productive for the rest of the day or even a day or two later.
Consider this your call to action to incorporate movement into your daily routine if you haven’t already!
3. Diet and Supplements
Simply put, a diet high in sugar, inflammatory oils, and highly processed food additives will contribute to metabolic issues and increase the likelihood of chronic diseases (including Alzheimer’s, depression, and other mental and cognitive conditions like ADHD and anxiety).
The optimal diet is quite individual. However, one that is ‘anti-inflammatory’ and leaning towards high vegetable content, higher protein, and lower glycemic (i.e., not spiking blood sugar) will promote cognitive fitness.
Due in part to soil nutrient depletion, poor food quality standards, and living in non-conducive environment, supplementation is generally key to health optimization, which most definitely includes our brains’ health.
Working with a certified functional health coach or physician can help you determine more precisely what the optimal diet looks like and the ideal supplements to complement your unique physiology.
On the whole, however, a few essential supplements are helpful for most people on a cognitive level and will support the overall health of your body in turn:
- High-quality, high-EPA fish oil is the number one supplement supporting cognitive function.
- Vitamin D has been shown to improve cognitive function positively.
- Magnesium supports muscle relaxation and sleep, which can, in turn, lower stress levels (we typically suggest taking it at night).
- Due partly to the brain-gut axis connection, a probiotic with lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidobacterium strands may benefit your gut health while positively affecting your cognitive health.
4. Lifestyle and environmental exposures
Our lifestyle can play a critical role in our cognitive health in the long run.
Factors such as chronic exposure to mold or heavy metals in our environment for example, can play a role in our risk of Alzheimer’s disease and create other symptoms such as anxiety and brain fog.
Other lifestyle factors can include our work-life balance, our social and spiritual connection, whether we have time in nature, etc.
Lifestyle factors can encompass quite a bit and impact our physiological and mental stress levels, affecting our cognitive health.
A certified functional medicine coach or physician with training in cognitive health is in an excellent position to tease apart the lifestyle factors that likely inhibit your cognition and clarity of mind in the short and long term.
Optimizing your Psychology
1. Stress Management
One of the first suggestions our coaches often recommend for stress management is breathing exercises. They may be deep diaphragmatic breathing, alternate nostril breathing, or breathing with a breath pacer.
Other effective stress management techniques in research are the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT/tapping) and mindfulness meditation.
2. Maintaining Mental Health
Maintaining our mental health is often multi-faceted. With increased isolation during the pandemic, the strained economy, and an increasing reliance on technology, many factors have skyrocketed the rates of mental illness.
The first step would be ensuring treatment of any mental health condition you may have, whether it be anxiety, depression, or ADHD. Then, improving on the factors contributing to mental health, such as social and spiritual connection, a balanced diet, adequate sleep and rest, and a sense of purpose or meaning.
Underlying trauma or mental health conditions can wreak havoc on our nervous systems, which will play a part in our ability to focus, execute judgment, and have long-term memory.
3. Social and Spiritual Health
Physicians sometimes overlook the last factor in our psychology - a sense of purpose and connection to others. Whatever form it takes is integral to a balanced life and optimal psychological health.
As busy and driven professionals, sometimes these factors can be overlooked. Still, the social and spiritual connection in whatever form that takes, whether it be time in nature or meditation practice, can go a long way in contributing to an optimal state of mind. This, in turn, plays a significant role in our clarity of mind and executive functioning.
Change Your Brain, Change Your Life
Cognitive health is multi-faceted and encompasses our ability to focus, clarity of mind, memory, and flexibility in thinking. It directly affects our decision-making, leadership skills, and ability to live happy, healthy, long lives.
It can seem complex, and often the physiology and psychology can be, which is why Tiger Medical Institute has professionals such as coaches, MDs, NDs, and psychologists to examine its various aspects.
Tiger Medical Institute breaks down improving our physical and mental health with some of the suggestions in this article.
For further reading, view our articles on:
- Is Alzheimer’s Genetic or Hereditary?
- How Can I Improve My Memory and Remember
- Who Should I See if Alzheimer’s Runs in my Family?
You have what it takes inside you to make a definite choice that will change the future trajectory of your cognitive health.
The coaches, psychologists, and licensed physicians at Tiger Medical Institute have the experience, clinical skills, and coaching acumen to help you improve your cognitive and overall health trajectory.
To talk to one of our professionals, click here to schedule your call!