(CNN) — As the year comes to a close, people are looking toward 2024 and the changes it will bring. The most enterprising will perhaps even think of initiating changes in the form of resolutions or intentions.
But for the less decisive, these can be difficult to find; with so many choices, where do you start and what areas of growth do you focus on?
Here’s a thought: start with what motivates you, the brain. It informs us about how we act, how we feel, and how we process all the information around us – and what happens in the brain also affects the body.
The eighth season of the Chasing Life podcast with Dr. Sanjay Gupta focused on the brain in some of its myriad states, including the organized brain, the menopausal brain, and the depressed brain.
Here are five of the best brain tips from the podcast guests to help everyone stay alert and focused in 2024.
Getting enough rest is essential for good overall health as well as good brain health. But what is enough?
“The things we always tell people are… you want to sleep seven to nine hours a night on average,” Victoria Garfield, senior researcher at the Medical Research Council’s Unit for Lifespan Health and Aging and university professor. College London, said Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent. “That’s half the battle won.”
Garfield said it’s OK if it’s not seven to eight hours of rest, as long as it’s close to that and good quality sleep. “It will help your brain regenerate.”
Taking short naps during the day can also give your brain a boost. One of Garfield’s studies showed that people who took naps regularly had, on average, larger brain volume than those who didn’t.
“We think this is really important because lower total brain volume is linked to certain diseases, earlier mortality and higher stress levels,” she said.
Two more tips from Garfield: Go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day. And unplug your brain: Even if you’re not sleeping, find another way to do something silly, whether it’s a walk, gardening, or talking with a friend.
Your brain needs food to function properly, but it’s important that you consider the source of this fuel.
“If you want to, you know, really optimize your brain, lean into the foods that you love, but healthier versions,” said nutritional psychiatrist Dr. Uma Naidoo, director of nutritional psychiatry and of lifestyle at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and on the faculty of Harvard Medical School.
Naidoo, who is also a professional chef and author, uses food and medicine to help her patients improve their mental health. “We’re not at the point where I can say, ‘Eat this many blueberries to improve your mood,'” she said. But she said scientific evidence is “definitely emerging and growing” that certain foods can improve mood.
“You can turn to those leafy greens — three to five cups a day,” she said. “Things like arugula and spinach all contain folate; low folate is associated with low mood.
There are many other foods that improve mood. One of Naidoo’s favorites is dark chocolate.
“What we know, from a fairly large population study, is that if you eat natural extra-dark chocolate, it improved depression by 70% in more than 12,000 participants,” he said. she declared. “It wasn’t the candy bars; it was natural extra-dark chocolate, which contained serotonin, magnesium and fiber.
Naidoo also recommends fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids like salmon, mackerel, anchovies and sardines as well as fermented foods like yogurt, almonds and other nuts, and seeds like flax and chia.
Caffeine is part of it, otherwise THE, the most widely used psychoactive drug in the world – and no wonder because it has many benefits. But as with anything, moderation is key. At higher doses it can also have disadvantages.
“Caffeine, or rather caffeinated drinks like coffee and tea, have many very positive health effects,” said science writer and author Michael Pollan. “They help fight cardiovascular diseases. They are correlated with lower rates of Parkinson’s disease.
Caffeinated drinks can also make you feel good, help you wake up and stay focused.
“There is something transparent about consciousness related to caffeine. Things… don’t seem distorted in any way, but they are certainly different. And the way you can tell is to give up caffeine for a while,” said Pollan, who did just that for three months (and documented his experience in a recent audiobook, “Caffeine: How Coffee and tea created the modern world.”). He said abstaining from caffeine helped him understand his relationship with it.
But caffeine also prevents the buildup of the chemical adenosine throughout the day, which can lead to difficulty sleeping in some people. For this reason, Pollan called using caffeine to stay alert is “borrow for the future”.
“My biggest advice would be to be aware,” Pollan said. “When are you finished?” When do you have your last cup of coffee or tea of the day? What does this have to do with your sleep? Just make that connection. It’s no secret that these are stressful times, with war in the Middle East, Ukraine and elsewhere, and political acrimony brewing in the United States. There’s also the opioid crisis, climate change, gun violence and, of course, the lingering effects of the pandemic.
Unplug and just breathe to reduce stress
All of these stressful events are happening in real time, through 24-hour news cycles as well as on social media, making it difficult to stay informed without getting caught up in a vortex of negative emotions.
“I worry that, in the world we live in at least now, we’re not prioritizing, say, mental health over access to these things,” said Dr. Gail Saltz, associate professor psychiatry clinic at the New York Times. York-Presbyterian Hospital and Weill Cornell Medical College and host of the podcast “How Can I Help?”
Saltz’s advice can be applied to any category of upsetting news.
“What a lot of people can do is really think about how they consume their information right now,” she said. “I don’t say, ‘Hey, crawl under a rock and have no idea what’s going on.’ I’m not advocating that, but I am advocating, perhaps, not scrolling through social media where… there’s no warning, it’s just a constant diet of really upsetting images.
Saltz recommends deep, rhythmic breathing to ground and relax your body and activate your parasympathetic (rest and digest) response, which is the counterpart to the sympathetic (fight or flight) response.
To do this, Saltz said to inhale through your nose for a count of five, with your hand on your chest (to make sure your chest — not your stomach — rises). “And then you would exhale through your mouth to a slow count of seven — a little bit longer of an exhale than an inhale,” she said. “And the reason is we know that that extra long exhale slows your heart rate down a little bit and that helps reduce…anxiety.”
Doing this type of breathing for five or 10 minutes will leave you more physiologically and psychologically relaxed, Saltz said.
Forgiving someone – a friend, a stranger, or even yourself – can lead to many physical and mental benefits, including reduced anxiety and depression, lower blood pressure, and better sleep. But it’s not always easy.
“Forgiveness is fundamentally a moral virtue; it is a merciful response to those who have not been good to us — without excusing people, without forgetting, lest it happen again, without necessarily reconciling,” said Robert Enright, a pioneer in the field of forgiveness science and professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
But forgiveness is a practice and, more often than not, it takes time, said Enright, co-founder of the nonprofit International Forgiveness Institute, which offers a road map for starting the forgiveness process.
“Often I suggest not starting with the major issues,” he said. “Start with the little ones and learn the path to forgiveness. As you do this, you grow into it. Then you can go to the bigger ones.
Enright said forgiveness can be appropriate when you are stuck and distressed about a situation.
“What are your ways of healing? And if there has been attempt after attempt after attempt without healing, I would kindly suggest the possibility of forgiveness,” he said. “But it is always the choice of the one who forgives.”
We hope these five lessons from Season 8 of the Chasing Life Podcast help you keep your brain sharp and relaxed in the new year. Listen to the full episode here. And join us in January when Chasing Life explores the topic of weight.
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