What did you eat for breakfast this morning? It matters more than you might think.
Anyone whose job depends on their body—like an Olympic athlete, builder, or ballet dancer—needs a diet to match; they might start the day with a slow-release carbohydrate to give them longer-lasting energy. But few people with “thinking” jobs sit down first thing in the morning and consider which foods and drinks will help them make good decisions that day, improve their focus, and reduce stress. And that’s a mistake.
What we put into our bodies has a powerful impact on our brains, which only weigh 2–3% of our body weight but use up 25–30% of the energy that’s found in what we eat. Our brains need to be properly cared for in order to make sure we perform at our best. You’d never jump in your car and set off without filling up the tank or checking the oil. If you tried to, you wouldn’t expect to get very far. Our brains are similar: They need to be properly fueled and hydrated in order to run smoothly, and we shouldn’t expect optimal performance when they’re not.
Here’s what your brain needs more and less of in order to work at its best.
Drinking enough water should be, well, a no-brainer—except that many people don’t do that. Our brains require about 500 millilitres of water for every 30 or so pounds of body weight. (So for the average 165-pound American adult, that’s about 2.75 litres of water each day.) This is the minimum level of hydration needed to avoid denting your memory, concentration, and decision-making. But there’s a real risk to missing that threshold even by a little. In fact, researchers have found that even a 1–3% shortfall in adequate hydration can substantially affect these functions. Water aids the free flow of chemical and electrical signals between cells, which is required for effective brain functioning.
If a glass of water can boost your brain, a glass of Chianti can slow it down. Drinking alcohol leads to increased levels of the hormone cortisol as the body reacts to the intake of a toxin. Cortisol is a natural part of the body’s response to stress, but chronic stress can lead to excess cortisol, which can have a host of negative effects on the body—like weight gain—as well as the brain, including anxiety and depression, particularly when coupled with a diet high in caffeine and sugar. So having a glass of wine every evening to unwind, as many people do, may have the opposite effect.
More Greens, Beans and Grains
Foods rich in magnesium can suppress the release of cortisol, but when we’re stressed we deplete our bodies’ magnesium stores more rapidly. Whole grains, beans, and leafy greens are good magnesium sources, as are nuts and seeds—which can also be great alternatives to sweet snacks. Unfortunately, these natural sources aren’t always enough to replenish our magnesium supplies during high-stress periods, so supplements, which are often available as tablets or even body salts and bath products, can help make up the difference.
Less Tuna, More Mackerel
Salmon and oily fish like mackerel are great for the brain because of their Omega-3 essential fatty acids, vitamin B12, and protein. These nutrients assist in brain-cell growth and can prevent cognitive decline. On the other hand, smoked fish and fish that are typically high in mercury (like tuna and swordfish) can increase levels of pro-oxidants in the body and actively damage brain cells. Your choice in seafood one day doesn’t just impact your brain in the near-term, it also has an effect on your future brain power.
More Rest, Less Thirst and Hunger
Speaking of brain power, there’s one factor we tend to grasp much better when we think about sleep than about diet: quantity. It’s not just about what you eat and drink, it’s how much you do. Being over-tired can lead to behaviours many of us are all too familiar with—from our attitude toward others to how we make decisions—plus a few we aren’t aware of, like the extent to which our choices are affected by our unconscious biases.
Much as it does when you aren’t well rested when you’re hungry or thirsty, your brain reverts to “survival mode.” It draws blood away from the rational cortex toward the part of the brain that controls basic functions you depend on to get through the day. So while you might have not much trouble getting dressed, commuting, or doing routine tasks when you’re underfed or dehydrated, your brain will struggle with higher “executive functions,” like complex problem-solving, thinking flexibly and creatively, regulating emotions, and overriding biases.
When they’re underpowered, our brains revert to well-trod neural shortcuts that require less cognitive energy. One well-publicized study even found a pattern of judges granting more parole after mealtimes, with their sentences getting harsher in the subsequent hours. The implications for reading resumes, interviewing job candidates, and making other important decisions when you haven’t eaten are clear—and worrying.
It might feel overwhelming to totally change your diet, but sticking with even one behaviour change to boost your brain health can make a real difference. So start small—swap that bag of chips today for a bag of nuts. Your brain will be grateful.
This article originally featured on FastCompany.
About the Author: Dr Tara Swart is a neuroscientist, leadership coach, award-winning author and a medical doctor. She works with leaders all over the world to help them achieve mental resilience and peak brain performance, improving their ability to manage stress, regulate emotions and retain information.
By Roger HB Davies
How many times have you been asked a question that causes ‘brain fog’ even if you know the answer? Maybe your audience is intimidating. Perhaps the topic is sensitive or emotional. Suddenly, you find yourself stammering or rambling. And after the damage is done you remember what you should have said. Many of us believe that a select few are born with the ability to skillfully handle impromptu situations. The reality is that there are three practical tips anyone can apply to respond effectively when caught off guard…
Step 1: Listen to understand your audience before you react
In today’s fast-paced world, we feel the need to think and speak quickly. When we hear a question, we often begin to reply before the other person stops talking.
There are times when you can quickly make your point and move on and everybody is happy. And there are also times when listening carefully and asking for clarity is essential to finding the right answer. For example, you are talking to your team about implementing a new process and you hear “Why is this company always making things more complicated”. A good listener will acknowledge that change can be challenging. If spoken with sincerity it will help move the conversation in the right direction. Then, ask them for an example of what they mean. Chances are this will help defuse the situation and lead you to their real concern.
Step 2: Identify triggers to know how to respond
Let’s say the reaction to your query above is “I am already busy enough, I don’t have time to deal with this”. You could launch into a defensive and emotional brain dump. Or, you could identify the triggers in their language and react effectively.
The trigger in this situation is “I”; they are only focused on how the change is impacting them. Their perspective is narrow, so to get them on board you start broadening their perspective. Shift the focus from their individual problem to the broader solutions being offered to support the initiative, and the big picture impact the new process will provide for everyone. If your argument is credible you will find your audience slowly but surely moving to a new and more productive perspective.
Step 3: Remember the rule of threes to stay on track
One of the biggest challenges most of us face is knowing when to stop talking, especially when put on the spot.
When we are subject matter experts we get wrapped up in too much detail. If we are passionate our emotions override our logic and we ramble. If you need to say more than a couple of words to make your point, try focusing on the rule of threes to keep you on track. Give the quick answer and support it with no more than three points. For example, an executive stops you in the hall and asks what’s new and exciting in your department. You could say “we’re keeping busy” and hope they don’t ask more questions. Or you could launch into a detailed description about all your great ideas and risk boring your audience. Your best option is to say that you are working on some exciting ideas and then briefly share the top three. Move from one key point to the next and you will sound organised and confident. It’s not the only way to communicate but experts know it is one of the most memorable ways to deliver a message. Remember Goldilocks and those Three Bears?
Practicing these tips will make brain fog disappear, whether dealing with off the cuff questions on your feet or on your seat.
Originally published on ThinkOnYourFeet.com.
About the Author: Roger HB Davies CEO, Think on Your Feet International, Inc. Roger established his reputation in the early ’70s as one of Canada’s top business magazine editors. His awards include the prestigious Jesse H. Neal, the Pulitzer of the American Business Press, which he won a record three times. As CEO, he is responsible for long-term planning, product innovation, and marketing. Davies has served as President of the Ontario Society of Training & Development, Canada’s largest professional training association.
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Multiplier leaders behave similarly in 5 ways: they act as talent magnets, liberators, challengers, debate makers and investors.
- Talent Magnets don’t have a shortage of talent, quite the opposite – people line up to work for them. They have an innate ability to identify what Wiseman calls the “native genius” in each member of their team, naming the talent and then putting it to work for them. They are not constrained by traditional job descriptions, but rather seek to apply the talent of their team to the job at hand.
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Finding a brain-body balance is not only beneficial for oneself, but also for those whom you lead at in your personal and professional capacity.
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Timothy Maurice Webster explores the topic of excelling as a leader through optimising ones brain power with Dr Tara Swart.
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