We know that there is some complex chemistry in our brain and we are not entirely in control of it. Typically we do not even care to think about it: too many factors involved. Today I want to make an exception. Also, check out here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Brain blood barrier
Our brain is very sensitive, and to protect it, nature created several defense mechanisms. For me, the most powerful of these mechanisms is a sort of separation of the brain’s blood from the rest of the blood circulation. This brain blood barrier often can be considered as a filter that only certain particles can pass.
To tell the truth, we really want the barrier to work well. Its malfunction may cause dementia and death. We take antioxidants, oily acids, even super expensive anti-cancer drugs to boost the immune system and protect the barrier.
Even a fully functional barrier is not idiot-proof. Once a molecule is small enough to pass the blood barrier, its effect on the brain might be very surprising.
Stress and alcohol
Alcohol is a small molecule and it can easily go through the pores of our body. The effect of alcohol on our brain is complex. We know alcohol effectively turns off some high-level control function, making us less self-conscious, feel free and wild.
When stressed, people sometimes tend to take alcohol to calm down. But then something strange may happen. We do not understand anymore how much is enough. The mechanisms which make us stop drinking may experience “meltdown” when faced with a combined attack of stress and alcohol. This may result in heavy drinking, substance abuse and loss of control.
Too much oxygen
A very different cause of strange brain reactions is oxygen. Stress is a strange body reaction that allows animals to run away from predators and catch prey. It involves several complex functions, including reduced blood and oxygen to organs that are not vital. At the same time, we try to increase the amount of blood that goes into our feet and brain. Sometimes this means hyperventilation.
Somehow the signs of hyperventilation are very similar to what we feel when stressed:
- Feeling lightheaded, dizzy, weak, or not able to think straight.
- Feeling as if you can’t catch your breath.
- Chest pain or fast and pounding heartbeat.
- Belching or bloating.
- Dry mouth.
- Muscle spasms in the hands and feet.
- Numbness and tingling in the arms or around the mouth.
- Problems sleeping.
Deep slow breathing with grounding (or visualization of a peaceful place or focus on the belly button) will often do the trick and reduce the oxygen consumption.
Not enough oxygen
More often than we get too much oxygen, we do not get enough oxygen. Athletes run and breathe deeply. Their pulse is high and their brains are pumped with oxygen. No wonder, the athletes’ brain often has higher connectivity and reaction time.
As we sit in our offices, our heart rates go down. We do not get enough space for deep diaphragmic breathing and instead take small shallow breaths. This saves energy, but we do not need to save energy anymore.
- Bluish coloration of the skin caused by lack of oxygen.
- Daytime drowsiness.
- Morning headaches.
- Swelling of the ankles.
- Waking up from sleep unrested.
- Waking up many times at night.
Here the focus might be not so much on breathing exercises (although they will also work) as on physical activity. At the very least, take a break now and then to breathe deeply with an open chest. Take the hands up or to the sides and feel in control. This is an empowering position.
We do not stop to breathe because we are overloaded. Most of us are bombarded by sounds and images, especially if you do not spend time in your own office. Open spaces and conference rooms tend to be noisy, bombarded with visuals.
Interestingly we see better in silence. We hear better when we close our eyes. When there is a mild sensual deprivation like in a saltwater tank, our mind becomes more creative.
I can recommend walks in nature, meditation or swimming. At the very least an hour of digital detox may do the job. If you work an hour from your workplace, a long drive in a jam might be a blessing. We use our lunch breaks to mingle with coworkers, but if they are too busy to join this might be actually nice. Your phone here might be your number one enemy.
We know that certain kinds of music with rich harmonic content and complex chord progressions are good for the brain. The focus is typically on jazz and classical music, but I guess a complex style like progressive rock will also do the job. On the other hand, simple and loud music might or noise actually hurt the brain. There are not enough researches to understand what is happening. We do know that training piano, guitar, and drums have a positive effect on memory, coordination, and focus.
We often think with our guts. The bacteria in our bellies are important for such things as depression. The connection is not a clear one. It is also not very clear what to do about it. Maybe eat complex carbo and fiber-rich food?
It is clear what we should not do. Antibiotics and too much cleaning may reduce the number of healthy bacteria too much. Probiotics contain a very small variety of bacteria and may actually hurt us. Sugar and lactose (milk) probably are bad for our bacteria, but the connection is not very clear. Certain beans give us gas, as our bacteria work extra time. Basically, anything that is sufficiently fried to increase the chances of intestinal cancer is not very good for the bacteria.
And one of the things stress does: reduce the oxygen and other good things our blood carries to our guts. So do your best to reduce stress levels once more…
Coffee and chocolate
Dark chocolate (low on sugar) and espresso (no sugar no milk) is probably not just incredibly tasty and stimulating if you give them a chance, but also good for you. At least at low levels, they carry stimulants and antioxidants. There is increased productivity, increased longevity and reduced chance of dementia reported over several large scale studies.
Overdose of coffee and chocolate may cause adverse effects which are usually pretty mild. People who drink a lot of coffee, tend to sleep better than expected, and actually may need a cup of coffee to fall asleep. So if you have to get a splendid but mildly unhealthy addiction, go for coffee and chocolate. Just make sure to drink a lot. And try cinnamon to deal with sugar intake.
The “brainy” food often includes nuts, avocado and other foods rich with “good” fat. Even butter and cheese might be good for your brain. Vitamins that are needed for the brain typically include Omega3 and B-complex. Minerals might include magnesium and zinc.
If you eat red meat at least once a week, you might get enough of the good stuff in your diet. Otherwise, consider supplements or focused “superfoods”.
I guess we all know what to do, even though we do not always do the right thing. So, … live long and prosper.