Is your brain always working at full capacity, or do you struggle to get it into gear some days? Read why caffeine and sugar energy fixes don’t work, and learn five easy tips to help you boost your brain power.
As working or business mums, we expect a lot from our brains. We’re often juggling about 10 different tasks at once (or trying to remember the 10 different things we should be doing at any given moment!), while trying to balance a career or business, run a home and raise a family.
So it’s easy to see how we can start skipping meals (or falling back on easy, but less healthy options), missing sleep and relying on boosts of energy from caffeine and sugar to get us through the day.
But none of this is doing our brains a bit of good – as Claire Stone, nutritional therapist and founder of the Healthy Business Retreat explains.
A warning tale about sleep, sugar and caffeine!
Once upon a time, around 20 years ago, there was a young language student. She was fairly good at her subject – German and Spanish. She was never going to get a First Class Degree, but an Upper Second was definitely within reach.
We meet this student in the final year of her degree course and she’s busy whiling away her time being pretty darned studious, writing up her two theses from her year abroad. The German one comes pretty easily so she gets that one done first.
The Spanish one, being a newer and more tricky language for her, takes up a lot of time. In fact, with just a few days before the deadline, she realise that she has been procrastinating a lot and needs to get the thesis finished. So she does what all good students do, and pulls a few all-nighters fuelled by copious cups of tea and spoonfuls of sugar.
As the day of the printing deadline looms, our student is feeling confident. Just the last few paragraphs need to be finalised, and then all that remains is the checking and double checking. Simple.
Full of (nervous caffeinated) energy, she gets it finished. The checking and double checking is swiftly done. The thesis is sent off to the printer in all it’s glory A DAY EARLY and is returned in a beautifully printed book with her name is gold lettering.
As our thoroughly relieved student marches off to campus to hand in her German and Spanish theses, she flicks quickly through them. Ah, such a good feeling to be handing these works in with well over an hour to spare.
But then something catches her eye: there are NO accents on any of the Spanish words – in her fuzzy, caffeinated speed-check, she forgot one of the key aspects of writing in Spanish.
To an outsider, the accents probably don’t mean anything. To a native Spaniard, the accents matchmake the word. And to a Spanish language student, the accents are vital. It’s the difference between a good mark and almost no marks at all. In other words, it’s HUGE.
Our caffeinated, fuzzy-headed and downright dishevelled student begins to panic. She has less than an hour to fully accent her thesis. She grabs a pen, sits on the steps of the languages building, and adds accents to any word that looks in need.
It’s tricky – she’s tired, buzzing with stress and caffeine and she’s poorly dressed.
Our student does her best, but she knows for sure that this one mistake will cost her. It will, without doubt, lower her final degree score from a predicted upper second class to a lower second class at the least, and possibly even down to a third.
And all because her brain wasn’t properly engaged. It wasn’t engaged because she was relying on the energy from the caffeine and the sugar, and she wasn’t looking after herself – she was just getting through the day (and night) to get the job done. Only, the job wasn’t done, at least not properly because her fuzzy brain missed a key part of the work.
Is your brain working at full capacity?
Does this sound familiar? Do you ever feel that your brain isn’t working at 25%, let alone 50% or higher? Do you wish you were able to access all the parts of your mind so that you work more efficiently?
Our student (who is now a grown woman, with two gorgeous children and who is busy running her very own nutrition business – yes, it’s me!) wants to share with you some of the tips that she really wished she’d known at the time and which have served her well in the years since almost messing up her entire degree (luckily, her ability in exams meant that she did, actually, scrape by with an upper second class degree – whoohooo).
Five easy tips to boost your brain power
So, here they are – my five top brain-boosting tips!
1) Don’t skip sleep
Never EVER give up your sleep time to ‘get a job done’. If you are anything other than a fully certified night owl, please consider this time absolutely key. And it’s not just because you need your sleep (if you’ve got kids, or a snoring other half, you’ll know how precious sleep is).
It’s got more to do with how your body needs time at night to detox, and repair and process all the things that have happened during the day. If you skip your sleep, you aren’t giving your body a chance to do this.
By forcing yourself to work through the night (or even late into the evening) you are making it less able to work well the next day. Which feeds into a cycle of feeling more tired, and less brainy, which in turn leads to relying on stimulants to keep you going. And relying on stimulants to keep you awake, leads to you not sleeping so well at night. Which means you then need more stimulants the next day.
Stimulants aren’t just caffeine. Sugar – disguised as biscuits or cakes or chocolate – keeps you locked in a cycle of relying on something to wake you up, followed by tiredness. It’s better to hit the sack earlier (even 30 minutes can make a difference) so that you are less likely to rely on caffeine and sugar the next day.
2) Avoid stimulants
Stimulants do wake you up, but they don’t give you brain power. I recently saw a set of photographs of spider webs from an experiment in which spiders were given different substances to see what effect it had on their ability to perform one of their most instinctive tasks.
The most surprising web was the one created by a spider on caffeine. It was all over the place. It had the basic outline of a web – i.e. you could tell that the spider kind of knew what it wanted to do – but it seemed as if it was so busy creating a web, that it couldn’t quite figure out how to put all the different pieces in the right places. Sound familiar?
Now, I’m not suggesting that we are anything like spiders, but if a little caffeine can make a spider forget how to make a web, and end up busily spinning crazy stuff, can you imagine what caffeine might be doing to your work.
It might FEEL as if you are nice and busy, but does it actually make you productive? Does it actually help you produce better work? Or create the kind of masterpiece that will increase your income?
The problem with caffeine is that giving it up is hard. Really darned hard. Rather than give it up completely, why not try reducing it a little, especially in the afternoon so that by nightime, your body is in a much more relaxed state, and able to sleep better.
3) Keep hydrated
One of the main effects of caffeine, is that it is very dehydrating. Which is never a good thing because your brain is mainly made up of water, and it also relies heavily on water to enable it to do the job it was designed to do – and that’s think.
So even if you can’t reduce your caffeine intake, try to increase your water intake to compensate for the brain-drying action of your cuppa.
A great rule of thumb is to start your day with some water, and then have a glass of water around 20 minutes before each meal. If you can manage just this, you’ll find your increased brain power will more than compensate for the fact that you might need to nip to the loo more often for a few days.
If drinking water before a meal seems too hard for you, just keep a glass of water on your desk, and have a good couple of swigs before you make your next cup of tea or coffee.
4) Eat fat (but only the healthy type)!
Fat isn’t a bad idea – it’s a great one. In fact, fat is what makes great ideas. Why? Fat is what helps your brain hold on to all that lovely water, and fat is also what your brain is made of. Without fat, your brain is just a pool of water splashing around your head.
So if you want your brain to work brilliantly, you need to feed it fat. Feeding your brain fat will also help keep it in tip top shape, which is vital for women who have to keep so many things bouncing around their brains all the time.
The best way to feed your brain fat is to quit eating low fat foods. I know that this goes against everything you ever heard about being healthy, but low fat foods are low in fat. Which means they are low in the vital ingredient your business brain needs.
I’m not suggesting that you immediately start eating all the pies (the fats in those aren’t necessarily the ones you need). Instead, think about foods which naturally have fat in them.
Fish, for example, is a great source of fats for your brain. Nuts, seeds and avocados are also foods which have plenty of ‘good’ fats in them. Often though, they are avoided by dieters because they are considered fattening.
As far as I am concerned, a handful of nuts or seeds or an avocado will give you the most useful and easy brain boost. And as long as you don’t eat loads of them, you don’t need to worry about how many calories they contain.
Another food source which often has the natural fat removed is dairy. Skimmed milk and low fat yoghurt are often suggested as healthy alternatives to the full fat versions, but if you want to feed your brain and keep it functioning well, you might want to consider skipping the diet versions and indulging occasionally in the much tastier full fat versions.
5) Eat blueberries
Eat blueberries when you need to think better. I know that sounds weird, but a recent study said that blueberries increased your brain power and made you cleverer for a few hours. While I never encourage people to take up faddy diets, eating blueberries makes a lot of sense anyway (they are chock full of goodies) and if they can give your brain a little boost too, well, just go for it.
I challenge you to boost your brain power!
There are loads of other ways (I could go on for hours!) to help boost your brain power, but I like to make things easy and simple. You might think the tips above are way too simple to have any kind of effect. But I’d like to challenge you.
Try just one or two of the above, and see what happens. You’ll most likely find yourself able to think better which can only be a good thing for you, your family and your business. As a Talented Lady, why not make full use of that super talented brain of yours?
Claire runs the Healthy Business Retreat for women in business as well as working one-on-one with clients to hand craft the right nutritional guidance for them.Claire Stone