Stress and Cognitive Fitness

Living your best life is completely within your reach.  There are no secrets just small smart lifestyle choices that will assure your happiness and health.  Ousting stress from your life isn’t probable yet learning how to minimize and manage life stress will help you become more resilient to life’s complexities.

Stress can impacts your physical health and affect your overall happiness, so start by viewing stress as an aggregate springing up from the environment, work, relationships, home, surgery, smoking, drinking, medications and illnesses.  In today’s turbulent environment where we are affected by a half – a – dozen stressors at any given moment in time we must make time for recovery.  The brain needs to be protected from information overload which can affect memory, mood, and performance.  Daily stress should be viewed as an aggregate composed of anything that drains you of your physical or emotional energy.  The high voltage, frustrating disruption of stress can rob you of nutrient.  Mental stress (emotional) forces the body to secrete more hormones that help speed up your metabolism and the turn over of cells. Conditions like high blood pressure, arthritis, anemia, impotence, over-the-counter prescription drugs can adversely affect your nutritional balance. Some accelerate excretion of vitamins and minerals, other impede absorption.   Physiological stressors are an even bigger threat to your nutritional well-being.  Your bodies reaction to injury (burns, stabs, and cuts), complications of surgery, chronic illness, immune system disorders (lupus, HIV) inflammation (rheumatoid arthritis) perpetuate a drain on your energy and protein stores. In cases of pregnancy or overweight individuals there is an immense amount of ongoing daily stress applied to the body.  Adequate nutrition improves ones ability to effectively meet the challenges of life. Here are some simple brain savers:

1          Consume adequate amounts of glucose and water.

Your body thrives on carbohydrates.  All foods and drink referred to as simple or complex carbohydrates have one thing in common, they are converted by the liver into simple unit of sugar called a monosaccharide. These simple sugars nourish all the cells of the brain and neuronal system.  Insufficient amounts of sugar and water adversely affect brain function including memory and concentration. 

2          Eat adequate amounts of protein. 

Protein raises the blood level for most all amino acids and the brain absorbs specific amino acids from that diet.  Upon entering the brain amino acids are used to create brain specific proteins which function as a traffic control center.  Your brain can quickly respond to proper nutrition.

            (See protein for a list of foods)

3          Eat your fat. 

Preferable the healthy variety (Omega 9, 3 and 6).  All fats whether saturated or unsaturated have a function in the body.  The essential fatty acids are particularly better choice for the brain.  The Omega 3’s and 6’s fatty acids are derived from polyunsaturated fat.  Then don’t forget (no pun intended) to get 10% of your fat from Omega 9’s known as monounsaturated fat which indirectly help with brain function protecting the body from inflammatory conditions.

(See fat for a list of foods)

4          Get your ZZZ’s. 

Seven to eight hours of sleep a night is essential for brain performance.  Sleep

helps in sustaining and consolidates memory, concentration, cognitive recovery, and coordination according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.  Sleep even affects your metabolism.  When you don’t get enough Z time the body sends out distress signals in the form of stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol at increasing levels, which means your body starts to store fat which in turn slows the metabolism. 

5          Exercise your brain. 

Learn a new language, read, do cross word puzzles, and physical exercise. 

6          Essential vitamins and minerals. 

Find a good multi-vitamin which has magnesium, vitamin B, C, and E.  But remember eating foods rich in vitamins and minerals are the best way to get your supplements.

            >Magnesium – During the stress cycle (positive or negative) the body naturally removes and distributes magnesium to cells, replacing it with calcium which helps your muscles.  The lost magnesium is not renewed until your body receives foods rich in that mineral. Three-quarters of the recommended magnesium comes from the diet.  In general, the amount of magnesium you take should equal one half the amount of calcium you consume.  Magnesium plays a critical role in cell function, it is also found in large amounts within the skeletal structure (bones) and plays an essential role in brain metabolism, with the rest being present in muscle, heart, liver, and other soft tissues, and only 1% in body fluid.  Good sources of magnesium rich food are soy milk, yogurt, spinach, bran cereal, oysters, black bean (or legumes), black-eyed peas, avocado, bananas, and potatoes.

            >Vitamin B – The B vitamins are helpers, facilitating the work of every cell; aiding the body in metabolizing carbohydrates, lipids, and amino acids. Because cell renewal depends on energy, and protein, which in turn depends on vitamin B, deficiencies can lead to a damaged digestive tract and blood system. When your body consumes energy-yielding nutrients (carbs, proteins, and fats); B vitamins help the body to use that fuel.  Because B vitamins are water soluble, unused portions are flushed from the body daily which means you need to replenish it daily.  When looking at vitamin B regarding cognitive fitness, vitamin B12 and thiamin are team players in brain function.  B12 is essential in the formation of red blood cells and when deficient can lead to anemia, which contributes to a lack of oxygen to organs.  In the brain, this can lead to neuron damage which results in mood disorders, dementia or psychosis. Vitamin B12 is found exclusively in animal products such as meats, eggs, and dairy.  Thiamin is essential in the conversion of carbs into energy.  Thiamin deficiency lead to memory disorders, disorientation and hallucinations. Foods rich in thiamin are Green peas, baked potatoes, whole-grain pasta and breads, seeds, legumes (beans), animal protein, fruits.  

            >Vitamin C – A diet rich in antioxidants keep free radical reactions under control.  Vitamin C is key in the synthesis of neurotransmitter, norepinephrine, which plays a critical role in brain function in regards to mood.  Vitamin C is also responsible for many metabolic functions, maintenance of connective tissue, helps protect against infections, and helps in iron absorption.  Food sources rich in C are fruits and vegetables like broccoli, green peppers, sweet peppers, brussels sprouts, bok choy, strawberries, orange and grapefruit juice.

            >Vitamin E – Like vitamin C, acts like an antioxidant within cell membranes and is essential for the integrity of cells that are continuously exposed to high levels of oxygen concentration such as the lungs and red and white blood cells. The brain needs a constant infusion of oxygen rich blood which is can only be derived from a nutrient rich diet.  Vitamin E deficiencies are rare because it is widespread in food.  20 percent of vitamin E comes from vegetable oil (polyunsaturated fat) Good sources of vitamin E come from plant sources like polyunsaturated fat, wheat germ, salad dressing, shortening, mayonnaise, seeds, fortified cereals, grain products, fish, eggs, milk, fruits and vegetables; it is destroyed by high heat.

            >Phytochemicals – A biologically active compound found in the pigments of plants and believed when consumed provide powerful protection against the effect of free radicals.  Phytochemicals can be found in tomatoes, soy, chocolate, berries, and apples. 

7          Fight Technological Stress with Technology.  Whether crazed by the office, family, or friends, just grab your MP3 player and take a walk.  Getting back in touch with yourself and finding your grove can bring you back to a situation as a calmer self.

8          Meditate.  You can do this with your eyes open or closed, in the office or outside, or driving a car. Simply breath deeply through the nose fully expanding the lungs and your belly and exhale through your mouth. If you are the quiet, eyes closed kind of person simply visualize your body being relaxed and fill it full a brilliant white light. Go through your body and see yourself being cleansed of any problems.  If you are an eyes wide open person, get in touch with the environment around you like the movement of the trees, air currents/wind, colors in the sky, flowers, and leaves.  Allow the environment to sweep your stress away.

9          Diary your situation.  Take an inventory of what is bothering you. Write down your feelings, pluses, minuses, learnings, and wishes.  Reflect on the situation and give yourself a good talking to.

References:  Read Keep Your Brain Young, by Guy McKhann, MD, and Maryiln Albert, PhD, Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002

          Read Your Body’s Many Cries for Water, Fereydoon Batmanghelidj, MD, Global Health Solutions,     Inc., 1997.

         Water is Cool web site. “The Link Between Water, Dehydration, Health and Learning”.
 (accessed May 19, 2008)    

         The Franklin Institute Resources for Science learning. “The Human Brain”, (accessed May 21, 2008)

          “Magic Power of Sleep”, by Lori Miller Kase

          Atlanta Journal-Constitution/ “The Quest for a Good Night’s Rest”, Wednesday,

March 12, 2008, page K4.

          “Is Sleep Really Necessary?” Lab Rat by Grant Stoddard, June 2008, page 132