Science-Backed Ways to Boost Your Brainpower

By Molly Rose Teuke

Alarm clock blues, late-morning slump, midday yawnies, post-work lethargy—we all flag at some point in our day. Most of us reach for caffeine when we hit that flat spot, and it’s the most frequently consumed central nervous system stimulant in the world.

Caffeine does heighten our attention and problem-solving abilities, gives us physical stamina and puts us in a better mood—but it can also leave us feeling jittery and make it hard to focus.

Science is revealing sustainable ways to boost our energy. Here are five areas where we can change our behaviors and feel more energetic.

FOOD AND DRINK

Caffeine: Pouring a cup of coffee or tea—or popping open an energy drink—seems like a good idea. And it can be. Drink it with food and it’ll give you a more sustainable alertness than drinking it alone. Before you pour a second cup, give the first cup ample time to kick in—up to 30 minutes.

Water: There’s ample evidence that by the time we get thirsty, we’re already at least slightly dehydrated— and dehydration sucks the energy right out of us. The simplest way to gauge whether you’re sufficiently hydrated is a visual test: if your urine is very light-colored, you’re getting enough fluids. If it’s dark, you need to be drinking more water.

Pantry Staples: Here are four “magic potions.”

  • Bananas have been shown to work as well as sports drinks at fueling your energy.
  • Green tea is a great way to get caffeine without the jitters, thanks to the ratio of caffeine (a stimulant) to L-theanine (a calming agent that occurs naturally in tea leaves).
  • Oatmeal is high in fiber, contains protein and has a low glycemic load, which means it will give you consistent energy instead of a spike and plummet pattern.
  • Almonds are a great snack that won’t spike your blood sugar and will give you a reliable source of mid-afternoon energy. They’re high in calories, which give your body a boost.

GET MOVING

For a midday energy boost, take the steps instead of the elevator or take a brisk walk around the block. In the moment, anything that gets your blood moving and more oxygen to your brain is going to help. In his book, “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain,” Dr. John Ratey says, “The real reason we feel so good when we get our blood pumping is that it makes the brain function at its best … the point of exercise is to build and condition the brain.”

SECURING SLEEP

Most of us need seven to nine hours of sleep a night, yet some 30 percent of adults get less than six hours. Try to increase your sleep duration by going to bed earlier—it will make you feel more energetic throughout the day.

For the nights when you don’t get enough sleep, take a power nap. Just 10 minutes will make a difference, and studies have shown that a nap of from 10 to 30 minutes will increase your cognitive stamina by up to 40 percent. If you nap longer than 30 minutes though, you risk waking up groggy.

Try not to hit the snooze alarm in the morning. If you do that, your brain stops producing the neurochemicals responsible for alertness. This results in what sleep experts call “sleep inertia,” a morning grogginess that can last several hours.

ENVIRONMENTAL CUES

Sometimes a minor tweak to your environment can help you beat the blahs. If it’s a sunny day, move to a window. If it’s a dark day, turn on some lights. Listen to some favorite music. Take a walk in the woods— there’s plenty of evidence that being in nature (or even looking outside) makes us feel more energetic.

Also take frequent breaks. In his groundbreaking book, “WHEN: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing,” author Daniel Pink cites a study done by DeskTime, a company that makes software to track productivity. “What the most productive 10 percent of our users have in common is their ability to take effective breaks,” the company says. Preliminary research findings suggest that working for 52 minutes and then taking a 17-minute break is ideal for maximum productivity.

A midday slump is sometimes no more than a symptom of boredom. Our brains love novelty. If you’re nodding off at your desk, try shifting venues. If you’re working alone, get social or connect with a coworker.

Disconnecting from electronics gives us another simple energy boost. Take an hour to disconnect, and you’ll feel mentally refreshed.

PERFECT TIMING

Brainpower gets depleted over the course of a day. Think through the timing of your day—if you have a task that will require a heavy cognitive load, do it when your brain is at its best. To sort out your best time of day (your peak), you have to know whether you’re a lark, an owl or what Daniel Pink calls a “third bird.” In his book, “WHEN,” Pink offers a method for sorting out your chronotype (lark, owl or third bird), and says, “Whatever you do, do not let mundane tasks creep into your peak period.”

When it comes to managing our personal energy, the best advice is “take a break—often.” As you implement ways to perk yourself back up, don’t get discouraged if something doesn’t work. Just try something else. Managing energy is a lifelong work in progress.

Molly Rose Teuke delivers a program for Nicolet College called Get Your Brain On Your Side and teaches brain-based leadership training for the NeuroLeadership Institute, a global leader in the performance arena. She also hosts a weekly classical music program and monthly audioblog called BrainWaves on WXPR-FM.

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