We all know that you have to train hard in order to take your physical performance to the next level. But the mental aspect of physical activity is just as important as keeping your body strong and fit. Good thinking skills are beneficial to everyone because making sound judgments can have a profound effect on maximizing your physical skills. Conversely, if you’re tired and unfocused, it can be difficult to make the right moves (both in sports and in life!). Fortunately, there are plenty of simple ways to improve your cognitive function, but you need to find out what’s going on inside of your body first. Blood analysis provides a unique window, as biomarkers are a great evaluation metric. Read on to learn about some of the most relevant biomarkers for your brain health.
Vitamin B12 is essential for a healthy nervous system, and for brain function. B12 works to strengthen the connection between the brain and the body’s nerve sensors, which include your toes, fingers, and the tongue. This helps to improve brain-body response time and ensure that your sensory reactions are up to par. Individuals who have low levels of vitamin B12 can experience slow reflexes and poor muscle coordination, which spells bad news for those of us who would like to perform at our physical peak. Studies have also shown that older people with higher levels of B12 are six times less likely to experience brain volume loss.
Your best bet for consuming adequate amounts of B vitamins is to stick to whole, unprocessed foods; for B12, animal products are the main source. Make sure you’re working animal-based proteins, such as salmon, beef liver, ground beef, haddock, milk, cheese, ham, eggs, and chicken breast into your diet. Even though you don’t need very much B12, those who avoid animal products (such as vegetarians or vegans) may have “beef” with this recommendation. Fortunately, many breakfast cereals are fortified with enough B12 to meet recommended needs without violating a vegetarian diet.
Cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, enables us to respond to both physical and emotional stressors. Long-term exposure to cortisol may cause the neurons in your brain to shrink, and can also interfere with their ability to send and receive information. This means that people who are chronically stressed may experience symptoms of “brain fog,” short-term memory loss, and inability to function. Fortunately, lifestyle modifications and stress management techniques can play a significant role in controlling cortisol levels. Identifying how you respond to stress, as well as your personal stressors and relaxants, is important. Consider the following tips for coping with stress:Exercise regularly Eat a healthy diet (think whole foods!) with consistent meal timing Get sufficient sleep and rest Maintain positive, healthy relationships Practice relaxation, whether through yoga, meditation, breathing exercises, listening to music, or laughing Reduce or eliminate alcohol and caffeine intake
Folic acid is another type of B-vitamin. It’s an essential vitamin, meaning that our bodies cannot produce it, and it’s vital for the production of new cells (aka the building blocks of life). It’s also crucial for brain function because it is required to make your DNA and RNA, which in turn create new cells. Folic acid also affects the production of neurotransmitters—which are substances that carry messages to different parts of your brain.
Folic acid is found in a variety of food sources. Some of the highest sources include beef liver, lentils, spinach, enriched noodles, great northern beans and asparagus. A federal law passed in 1996 mandated the fortification of enriched breads, cereals, flours, corn meals, pastas, rice, and other grain products with folic acid to prevent birth defects in women who weren’t consuming adequate amounts of the vitamin in their diet. Consuming a bowl of fortified breakfast cereal allows most people to meet their recommended daily intake.
Glucose, also known as blood sugar, is delivered throughout our bodies and derives in part from the carbohydrates that we consume. After we eat foods that are high in carbohydrates, our digestive system breaks them down and turns them into glucose, which enters the bloodstream. From there, the glucose enters individuals cells throughout the body and provides them with the energy that they need to function. Your brain also needs a constant supply of energy in the form of glucose in order to work properly. In fact, your brain cells need much more energy than the other cells of your body because they’re always in a state of metabolic activity. Even when you’re sleeping, your brain cells are hard at work in repair and rebuild mode.
Some good examples of meals and snacks that are high in carbohydrates include:Peanut butter on whole grain bread Oatmeal or cereal with milk Wheat pasta with garlic bread Grilled chicken breast and brown rice Any dried fruit (raisins, apricots, etc.)
Remember that not all carbohydrates are grain-based! Squash, potatoes, parsnips, carrots, and bananas are also good sources of healthy carbohydrates.
Unlike cortisol, magnesium is considered to be an “anti-stress” mineral because it works to calm the nerves and relax the muscles, which in turn can help people fall asleep. So, why is sleep important to maintaining optimal cognitive function? Most importantly, getting an insufficient amount of sleep can slow your reaction time. One study showed declines in split-second decision-making following poor sleep, and showed that subjects who were well rested had increased accuracy on tasks that required quick decisions. Conversely, getting enough sleep can have some great benefits: improved athletic performance, reduced appetite, and better memory function. When you are well rested, you are better able to focus and to learn more efficiently.
You can get magnesium from many types of foods, especially from leafy green vegetables. Other good sources of magnesium include: whole grain cereals, soybeans, nuts and seafood. Also keep in mind that magnesium absorption is primarily affected by the quality of your diet. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains contain phytate, which can inhibit the body’s absorption of magnesium. Avoid combining foods that are high in fiber with foods that are good sources of magnesium.
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