Thursday, June 20, 2024

Beat Burnout by Eating Your Way to Mental Clarity

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When we talk about fitness, we often emphasize weight loss, muscle gain, and exercise endurance, but for optimal wellness, it’s important not to overlook mental fitness. With burnout on the rise, we need all the help we can get to boost our brain power as well as recover—and maintain—our mental energy and motivation. Here, several brain health experts share tips for optimizing mental fitness through nutrition and lifestyle habits. 

What Is Mental Fitness?

According to Jim Kwik, a brain coach and New York Times bestselling author of Limitless: Upgrade Your Brain, Learn Anything Faster, And Unlock Your Exceptional Life, mental fitness is a state of well-being where you have a sharp, active, optimally-functionally mind with the ability to handle stress, adapt to new challenges, manage emotions, and make good, thoughtful decisions.

Mental Fitness: A state of optimal mental well-being where your mind is active and sharp. You can adapt to challenges with ease, handle stress effectively, manage emotions, and make clear, thoughtful decisions.

Mental fitness also influences every area of your life, including your emotional and physical health. For example, it’s really hard to get motivated to eat a well-balanced diet or move your body if you’re feeling totally fried or if difficult feelings have you glued to the couch binging on comfort food while binge-watching television. Consequently, when you’re not in a place where you’re nourishing your body, you may notice your mental function and mood start to dip. It’s all connected, says Kwik. 

But, mental fitness isn’t a destination someone reaches, it’s really a lifestyle, he says. “There’s no magic pill, but there’s definitely a process.”

Here’s Why Nutrition Matters

What we eat can make a significant difference in our mental function. For starters, eating a well-balanced diet helps prevent nutrient deficiencies that could impact our brain health. But specific nutrients also play an important role in mental fitness and we need to lean into those.

For those who take a “calories in, calories out” approach to nutrition and exercise, a shift in how you look at nutrition may be needed. We do ourselves a disservice when we become overly fixated on physical appearance and the number on the scale and overlook the importance of our brain health, says Barbie Boules, RDN, a registered dietitian, certified health coach, meditation teacher, cognitive wellness specialist, and optimal aging enthusiast.

”If the number on the scale kept us motivated, we would not have a lot of the health problems that we have,” she says. “What keeps us motivated is having a real ‘why’ behind these healthy habits.”

She encourages people to look ahead and ask themselves: “How do I want to live my life in 10, 20, 30 years? It has much more to do with keeping your brain and body in good shape on the inside.”

Boules says how we nourish ourselves also impacts our brain chemistry, structure, and health. Nutrition can be very nuanced and a bit confusing, especially if you go looking on social media for nutrition advice. But the good news is that there is solid research on protecting our brains long term.

For instance, studies have shown nutrition plays a role in protecting our brain’s gray matter, which is the primary source of brain cells. Nutrition and lifestyle can also influence neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to adapt structurally and functionally to new situations, environmental changes, and injury. This process is also involved in learning, memory, and overall cognitive function, and it’s key to development and adaptability throughout our lives. 

Plus, many of the same healthy habits that support brain health also support more appearance-focused goals, she says. “If we’re taking really awesome care of our brains, we’re exercising, we’re eating really well, we’re staying hydrated, we’re going to bed on time, we’re managing our stress, and that is going to manifest a physical appearance that is probably in pretty good alignment with what we’re looking for.”

What’s the Best Approach?

While there’s not one dietary plan that’s right for everyone, Boules says most approaches that promote metabolic and brain health have a few things in common. “These approaches are low in saturated fat—so keeping saturated fat to about 7% or less of our total calories—and low in added sugar.”

Eating lots of polyphenol-rich plant foods is another facet of these protective eating patterns, she says. “Polyphenols are the compounds that are going to be found in plant foods that generally reside in the pigments. [They] are anti-inflammatory, disease-fighting, and really good for the health of our brain. You don’t have to be vegan or vegetarian, but just prioritizing plants in your diet will go a long way.”

What to Eat for Mental Fitness

Rather than getting hung up on what to exclude, Boules suggests focusing on what you can add to promote brain health. Certainly, some things need to be limited, but if you’re more focused on including nutrient-dense foods rather than what you should exclude, you will fare better over time, she says.

So, if you’re thinking about adding foods that are low in saturated fat, low in added sugar, high in fiber, and high in polyphenols, what that translates to on your plate is lots of plants. But if you are the type that needs more of a guideline than that, there also are some research-backed diets recommended specifically for brain health.

For instance, the MIND diet, which stands for Mediterranean interventions for neurodegenerative delay, was developed from research done at Rush University Chicago and published in 2015. It combines elements of the Mediterranean and DASH diets and can help boost brain health. Here are some other ways to eat for mental fitness.

Eat Leafy Greens and Colorful Fruits and Veggies

Aside from eating olive oil, oily fish, nuts, and seeds—primarily for vitamin E, which is really beneficial for the brain—Boules emphasizes eating leafy greens and colorful fruits and vegetables.

But, if you’re like most people, getting a rainbow of foods every day is hard to do, so she suggests getting the reds, the blues, the yellows, the oranges, and the purples over the course of a week. But try to eat greens every day. “My mantra is always leafy greens every day, and then a rainbow throughout the week,” she says. Boules also notes that berries are particularly beneficial and that beans are a great source of fiber, phytonutrients, and protein.

Add Eggs, Turmeric, and Green Tea to Your Meal Plan

Another brain-healthy food is eggs. According to Kwik, the choline in eggs is a precursor to acetylcholine, which is really important for cognitive health and performance.

He also encourages using turmeric, whose active component, curcumin, has been shown to help reduce systemic inflammation. And he notes that green tea is a wonderful brain-healthy beverage, thanks to its antioxidants and the amino acid, L-theanine, which has been associated with improved focus and feelings of calm. It’s also lower in caffeine than coffee. And, it’s a great choice for people who like the little boost in alertness but find that coffee makes them too jittery. 

Prioritize Hydration

Finally, hydration (especially with water) is also incredibly important and is essential for proper brain function. Most experts recommend drinking at least 64 ounces of water daily, but even more if you are active. Dehydration can zap your energy, brain power, and sense of clarity.

Of course, these foods are by no means a complete list of what to eat, but they are a great place to get started if you’re working on incorporating more brain-healthy foods into your diet, Boules says. “If you’re including these things and you’re also including some foods that are just fun and pure pleasure, you’re doing fine.”

Brain-Boosting Foods

  • Olive oil 
  • Oily fish
  • Eggs
  • Avocado
  • Leafy greens 
  • Broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables
  • Blueberries and other berries 
  • Other fruits and vegetables 
  • Walnuts and other nuts 
  • Flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds 
  • Turmeric 
  • Green tea
  • Water 

Why Mindful Eating Is Important, Too

Eating mindfully, Kwik says, is also important for promoting mental fitness. “So many people, when they eat, they’re stressed or working, and they never get in that parasympathetic rest and digest.  Mindful eating involves eating slowly, chewing, and actually tasting your food, which can improve digestion.”

What’s more, better digestion ensures that the brain receives a steady supply of nutrients for optimal functioning, he says. Mindful eating can even help reduce stress, promote relaxation, and decrease your cortisol levels, which is meaningful because stress can diminish brain function.

Additionally, Kwik suggests paying closer attention to the food that you eat so that you’re more likely to make healthier food choices. “It also helps promote better recognition of hunger and those cues when we’re satiated or full. So then we don’t overeat because obviously that could lead to negative effects with our health, obesity, metabolic disturbances, which all could impair cognitive function.“

Other Healthy Habits to Support Mental Fitness 

Beyond nutrition, there are other healthy lifestyle habits that can benefit mental fitness, says Boules. “Solid nutrition is a nice foundation. [But] you’re not going to notice a significant benefit from day to day. That’s a more long-term approach to supporting your brain chemistry and the structure of your brain.” 

Exercise Consistently

At the top of the list, Boules recommends exercise, putting it on par with sleep in terms of importance. “Exercise is probably the best thing that we can do for the health of our brain. We can’t have a healthy brain if we’re not getting good quality sleep, but exercise helps promote good quality sleep. So moving our bodies is crucial to the health of our brain and our metabolic health.”

Plus, exercise is a great way to regulate blood pressure, she says. “Blood pressure is one of the most significant modifiable changes that we can make to keep our brain in good shape.”

Build a Cognitive Reserve

Boules also recommends building a cognitive reserve. “We can achieve this by learning and using new information. Think of your brain like a muscle and give it a workout.”

A few examples of things that can build cognitive reserve include learning a new language and finding friends to speak it with, planning a trip and traveling without using your GPS, learning to cook and doing that regularly, or learning all about plants and building a garden.

What these things have in common is that you aren’t just learning the information, you’re actually executing the information that you’re learning, which is beneficial to the health of your brain, she says. 

Manage Stress

Kwik puts a big emphasis on stress management with his clients. “Chronic stress has been shown to actually shrink the human brain. The release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline puts us in that fight or flight state, holding us hostage in our survival brain and keeps us away from our executive functioning, creativity, and problem solving.”

Chronic stress can also lead to emotional disturbances, mood swings, irritability, and feelings of hopelessness, he adds. And, there is a very strong connection between stress and sleep, so focusing on stress management can also benefit sleep.

“Stress could also disrupt our sleep patterns, which could lead to difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep,” Kwik says. “And then it’s kind of a negative feedback loop because poor sleep can further add to your stress and impair cognitive functions and mental resilience.” 

Take Stock of How You’re Feeling 

Being honest about when you’re feeling burnt out can also be important. Kwik says experiencing burnout can increase the risk of developing mental health issues such as anxiety disorders and depression.

In some cases, you may have too much on your plate and need to unload what you can, but he says sometimes it may help to look at what you could be doing more of. “Sometimes we feel burnt out not because we’re doing too much, but because we’re doing too little of the things that nourish us [and] make us come alive.”

Bottom Line

Mental fitness is a key facet of overall health. Eating a brain-healthy diet and integrating habits that support brain health can help you enjoy optimal mental, physical, and emotional well-being. If you need help putting together a meal plan to boost brain health, speak with a registered dietitian trained in this approach. Together, you can devise a plan that will work for you—and boost your mental fitness.

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