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Your brain is the most important working tool you have at your disposal, but many us put our minds under pressure and compromise our productivity by working long hours, not getting enough sleep and never switching off. Stress and burn-out are a real risk, so what can you do to keep your brain healthy?

Dr. David Rock of the NeuroLeadership Institute and Dr. Daniel Siegel of Mindsight Institute and UCLA have written an indispensable guide to sustaining brain health called “The Healthy Mind Platter”. It describes the seven basic neurological states that together form the ideal ‘diet’ for your brain:

  1. Sleep Time – this seems like a basic necessity, but studies show that people tend to allow themselves less sleep during the working week. Few things could be more counter-productive, as sleep is essential for neurological processes integral to learning and building memories.
  2. Play Time – whether it’s tennis, chess, or carpet-time with your children, the act of playing strengthens the brain by building up agile reactions to unpredictable situations. The important thing is to relinquish control of your environment, something many of us are reluctant to do.
  3. Down Time – best described as that most objectionable state for all busy people: inactivity, down time is a period of non-goal-focused reflection, referred to by Rock and Siegel as “going offline”. It allows unconscious thoughts the opportunity to find patterns and form connections amid the white noise of the day’s activity.
  4. Time In – time in is a period of inward consideration and relaxed decompression to meaningfully consider the events of each day, and is an excellent way to prevent the build up of stress.
  5. Connecting Time – whether it’s time with your spouse, or a casual conversation with co-workers, contact and communication with others in a non-working context is vital. Regular social interactions and the growth of meaningful relationships make for greater happiness, less stress, better sleep, and a more positive outlook.
  6. Physical Time – a healthy mind requires a healthy body, and substantial physical activity can also provide an excellent opportunity for ‘connecting’ and ‘play’ time in the form of sports. Sensory processing and motor activity during physical exercise test the brain in ways an exhausting day at the office never can.
  7. Focus Time – quality work time, free from distraction, when you really get the chance to focus can lead to a higher cognitive ability and a smarter, more powerful mind.

The food you put into your body is just as important to your brain as your neurological diet. Fernando Gómez-Pinilla, a UCLA professor of neurosurgery and physiological science found that:

“Food is like a pharmaceutical compound that affects the brain… changes in diet are a viable strategy for enhancing cognitive abilities, protecting the brain from damage and counteracting the effects of ageing.”

Putting the right fuel into your body can make a difference into your performance mentally, just as it can to your physical performance. Key things to consider in your diet are:

  • Glycemic index – the glycemic index (GI) of your food refers to how fast the energy or glucose is released from what you’ve eaten and into your blood stream. Your brain can use as much as 20% of your blood glucose – so if you’ll find complex cognitive tasks like analysis and decision making difficult if you’re running on empty. Try to pick foods with a low GI like oats, which will release energy slowly and keep your blood glucose steady throughout the day.
  • Omega 3 – Omega 3 fatty acids are important for many functions in the brain and body, and may also have a positive impact on learning and memory. You can find Omega 3 in fish, and some seeds and green vegetables.
  • Antioxidants – antioxidants help to repair the damage done by free radicals to the brain and body, and help support you immune system too. You can find them in many fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds and dark chocolate.
  • Protein – protein is made up of different amino acids. Amino acids are the “building blocks of your brain’s network” and you can’t function without them. Meat, fish, eggs and dairy products contain all the amino acids, and you can also combine grains, pulses/legumes, nuts and seeds to get all them all too.

Do you manage to give your brain all the elements of this ‘diet’? (If not, this post on habits might help you come up with a strategy to change that.) Do you notice a difference in your performance at work when you change your diet or routine?