Sleep your way to the top

By Dr Tara Swart

What makes a good leader?

Senior executives, managers, and business leaders are paid to use their brains. So it is surprising how little emphasis many put on this vital organ.

In a fast-paced world that is constantly changing, the brain’s executive functions, such as creative and flexible thinking, task-switching, bias suppression, and emotional regulation, are becoming increasingly important. But our ability to perform well at these outputs will be enhanced only if fed the right inputs. These include nourishing, hydrating, and oxygenating the brain appropriately, simplifying tasks to give the brain mindful time, and resting it.

That final element – rest – is one of the most crucial. We often hear stories about famous leaders such as Margaret Thatcher surviving and even thriving on very little sleep (Thatcher did suffer from dementia in her later life). It is true that an extremely limited number of people (1-2% of the population) have a genetic mutation that reduces the amount of sleep they truly require for optimal functioning to 4-5 hours a night. But for the rest of us, getting seven to nine hours of good, quality sleep every night is vital for staying on top of our game.

Why is sleep important?

Sleep deprivation will negatively impact your cognitive performance. Getting less sleep than the recommended amount can cause an apparent IQ loss of five to eight points the next day, and population norm studies have shown that losing an entire night’s sleep can lead to up to one standard deviation loss on your IQ. In other words, you’re effectively operating with the equivalent of a learning disability.

Shorting your sleep can have longer-term effects as well. Our glymphatic system requires seven to eight hours to clean our brains, a process which flushes out protein plaques and beta-amyloid tangles that can lead to dementing diseases if allowed to accumulate. Not getting enough sleep, or getting poor quality sleep (which includes sleeping after drinking alcohol) inhibits this process and can therefore increase the risk of developing these types of disease.

While high stress levels can make sleeping more difficult, getting a good night’s sleep can also help to reduce the effects of stress.

How can I improve the quality of my sleep?

There are many simple but effective ways you can improve the quality of your sleep. Those who work late on phones, laptops, and tablets are at a higher risk of poor sleep quality. This is because melatonin, the hormone that helps regulate our sleep, is released by the pineal gland into the bloodstream. The blue light that phone and laptop screens emit confuses the gland because darkness is what triggers it to start work. Our ability to fall asleep, and the quality of that sleep, is thus impacted. Brain activity may increase by virtue of the information we are consuming at those late hours as well. Turning off all screens an hour before bed is a good antidote to this.

Other simple ways of improving sleep quality include:

  • Making sure you are sleeping in complete darkness—no stand-by lights in the bedroom and with black-out curtains (or wear an eye mask).
  • Avoid caffeinated drinks after 2:00 pm. The half-life of caffeine is 8-10 hours and its effects can disturb your sleep.
  • Try lavender. Our olfactory nerves directly connect the nose to the limbic part of our brain. Lavender is the strongest naturally occurring neuro-modulator. Try using it to relax and to create an association with sleep when you go to bed.
  • Skip the nightcap. Although alcohol is often used by people to help them fall asleep, it interferes with proper sleep cycles and does not provide a benefit.

If your sleep has been disrupted, there are ways you can cope in the short term:

  • Napping during the day gives your brain a power boost. A 30-minute nap improves your learning and memory. A 60–90 minute nap will help additional connections to form, which aids creativity.
  • As little as 12 minutes of meditation or mindfulness activity can boost your cognitive function significantly enough to build up your mental resilience.

Through my work as a leadership coach and the courses,I teach at MIT (Applied Neuroscience: Unleashing Brain Power for You and Your People and Neuroscience for Leadership) I regularly come across driven, ambitious, capable people who want to excel at what they do. But often they have not considered the mental resilience it will take to achieve and sustain their goals, whether heading up a global company or simply reaching the next level in their career. Resting your brain properly through a good night’s sleep is essential to achieving mental resilience and peak brain performance.

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.

Contact us at to book Dr Tara Swart and achieve peak brain performance through neuroscience.


Five Daily Habits For Future-Proofing Your Brain

By Tara Swart

This is how to keep your brain alert, creative, and rational for decades to come.

Just a few generations ago, most people weren’t expected to live much past 50. But now most of us can expect to live well into our 70s and beyond. A longer life, however, means that we’re working our brains harder as we age.

In an ageing population, health services worldwide will face increasing pressure. Combined with our sedentary lifestyles and modern habits, which are harming our brain’s health as well as our bodies, we could be heading toward a crisis when it comes to diseases like Alzheimer’s, according to studies published in the Journal Of Comparative Neurology and the Journal Of Alzheimer’s Disease.

But there are things you can do to prevent that fate. Small lifestyle choices throughout your adulthood can help your brain remain alert, creative, rational, and reduce the likelihood of disease. Here are some steps you can take to guard your brain against deteriorating as you get older:


Maintaining a healthy diet isn’t just good for our bodies, it’s vital for our brains. You can start by making small, easy changes to your routine like swapping your late afternoon cup of coffee for a green tea. Green tea contains less caffeine and has antioxidants, which will help protect your brain cells from long-term damage. You can also stay away from smoked foods or those high in mercury like tuna or swordfish, which are high in oxidants and damaging to brain cells.

Eating healthily doesn’t mean consuming only lettuce and quinoa all day. Academics at the University of Edinburgh found that a Mediterranean diet full of vegetables, olive oil, and oily fish could help promote cell growth and stave off cognitive decline.


Being well rested and properly fed isn’t enough to stave off cognitive decline – you need to get up and get moving. Aerobic activity boosts blood flow throughout the body and brain. Research has shown that it can improve memory and stimulates cell growth, making it easier for the brain to grow new neuronal connections. Better still, exercise can have the same effect on the brain as a low dose of antidepressants and is associated with a drop in stress hormones. To get the maximum benefits, try to do about 150 minutes of aerobic exercise each week (or about 20 minutes a day).


Your brain will stay fit and alert for longer if it is continually stimulated and challenged. Contrary to popular belief, our brains are not hardwired. Old habits can be unlearned and replaced with new ones. This process is known as neuroplasticity. Learning a new language or how to play a musical instrument is the best way to keep your brain flexible because it forces the brain to forge new neural pathways and develop new connections. By keeping your brain malleable, you are also maintaining the ability to keep an open mind.

Spending time with people of different generations or backgrounds will also help prevent your brain from defaulting to well-trodden neural pathways and biases.


While we sleep, our glymphatic system ‘cleans’ our brains of neurotoxins, including beta-amyloid plaques and tau proteins. This is an active process that takes time, hence the need to get your seven to nine hours and avoid accumulating ‘sleep debt’. As explained in 2015 research published in Nature Review Neurology, a build-up of these neurotoxins can contribute significantly to the degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.


Human beings are social creatures. But as we age, our social circle tends to decline, and we typically experience less social interaction on a day-to-day basis. However, maintaining an active social life with friends and family is critical to cognitive health. According to a study in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, cognitive decline was reduced by an average of 70% in people who were frequently socially active compared to those who were more isolated.
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.

Contact us at to book Dr Tara Swart and achieve peak brain performance through neuroscience.



5 Top Tweaks For Improved Creative Thinking

Creativity isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. The latest psychological research shows that simple tweaks to your environment and behaviour can make you a more imaginative and resourceful problem solver.

1. Keep your desk a little messy

In a study recently published in the journal Psychological Science, students met in either a messy or an organised room and had to come up with a new use for ping pong balls (a standard test of creativity). Judges rated the ideas, without knowing which rooms the groups were in. The result? Solutions from the messy room were gauged to be more interesting and innovative than those from the neat one. So if all your paper clips are lined up like soldiers and your books are in alphabetical order, throw caution to the wind and muddle things up a bit!

2. Color yourself blue

Blue is the hue for creative thinking, a series of experiments from the University of British Columbia found. More than 600 participants did cognitive tasks that demanded either creative or detail-oriented thinking. The tests were performed on computers that had either a blue, red, or white background screen. The blue screens encouraged participants to produce twice as many solutions during brainstorming tasks as other screen colours. (Conversely, red screens improved performance on tasks like proofreading and memory recall by as much as 31 percent, compared to blue.) “Through associations with the sky, the ocean, and water, most people associate blue with openness, peace and tranquillity,” study author Juliet Zhu told This makes people feel safe about being creative and exploratory, she said.

3. Dim the lights

Turning the lights down “elicits a feeling of freedom, self-determination, and reduced inhibition,” which is key to imaginative thinking, according to German authors of a study recently published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology. The researchers assigned a group of 114 students to work on a series of problem-solving tasks that require creative thinking. Those in a dimly lit room (150 lux) solved significantly more problems than those in a brightly lit room (1,500 lux). (Typical office light is about 500 lux.)

4. Work when you’re tired

It sounds counterintuitive, but night owls may actually be more creative first thing in the morning, and early birds may do more innovative thinking late at night, according to a study by researchers at Michigan State University and Albion College. The researchers believe that you use more creative thinking when you’re less inhibited, which happens when brain fog compromises your attention span. So early-bird students, for example, may do well to save art and creative writing projects for later in the evening.

5. Change up your routine

Psychology Today reported that Dutch study participants who prepared their breakfast sandwiches in reverse order had a more productive brainstorm than those who made them their usual way. “If you want to get into a creative mindset, do your normal routine in a completely different way,” cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, PhD, said after analysing the research for PT. “Write with your other hand. Moonwalk backwards on your way to work. Eat something new for lunch. Smile at strangers. Be weird. With your brain re-shuffled, you’ll be in a better position to be creative.”

The full article originally featured on Reader’s Digest.

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6 Foods To Help You Cope With Stress

We’re all aware of the foods that can promote anxiety, such as alcohol, caffeine and fatty foods.  But what about the foods that help us feel energised, refreshed and calm?

Here are six foods which are great at helping to manage your anxiety. From getting your neurotransmitters the nutrients they need to lowering blood pressure – these foods are optimal for stress relief.

1. Almonds

Balance your mood with the zinc found in almonds. The iron they hold will assist you with brain activity. You will also benefit from the healthy fats they contain for the optimal functioning of your neurotransmitters.

You may not think that your tired brain is linked to your anxiety. However, a lack of mental energy can increase your anxiety when you have a fatigued state of mind.

2. Turkey

Put yourself to sleep with the tryptophan in turkey. Importantly, tryptophan does not only induce a restful sleep but also serves as a precursor to serotonin. Your serotonin secretion is believed to act as a mood stabilizer that can calm you down.

3. Avocados

Your super food for health truly is avocado. This is because it provides you with fibre, heart-healthy fatty acids, potassium and an abundance of vitamins!

Your blood pressure will thank you for eating avocado, as with their high levels of potassium -higher even than that found in bananas – they are fantastic at lowering blood pressure. Your neurotransmitters also receive vitamin B from avocado as well as monounsaturated fats. This allows them to function at their optimal.

4. Water

We all know that hydration is key to overall health and wellness. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that it can assist in relaxation. It has been shown that even mild dehydration (when you start to feel thirsty) can have a large impact on your energy levels and general mood. Staying hydrated keeps your body regulated naturally and can result in lowered levels of anxiety.

5. Eggs

Your brain will operate at its best when assisted by the high levels of vitamin B in eggs. You will also assist your brain from becoming confused, irritable, or exhausted with the choline found in eggs.

6. Salmon

As a fish high in omega 3 fatty acids, salmon has been shown to help improve general mood and assist the brain in managing stress levels.

This article originally featured on