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Can You Build a Better Brain?

If you want to enhance your emotional resilience, become razor-sharp at work and lower your risk of neurological diseases, you’ll need to boost your brain power. Here’s how...

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Photograph HITANDRUNMEDIA.COM. *Developed by Sleep Psychologist
and Clinical Director of Sleep Unlimited Dr David Lee

We hit the gym because we know it’s good for our body. We diligently cleanse each night to save our skin. But it seems we’ve forgotten about one body part, and it’s a pretty major one: our brain. But by adding a few simple habits into our routines, we can exercise our grey matter and see improvement in 
all areas of our life—from our performance at work to helping prevent neurological conditions later down the line. How? UK-based psychologist, Kimberley Wilson, whose new book How To Build A Healthy Brain delves into the subject, explains…

Tuck yourself in. “The journey to a more resilient brain and better mental health starts in bed,” says Kimberley, who has observed the detrimental effects of burning the candle at both ends first-hand, having worked in a law firm during her psychologist training. “A lack of sleep wreaks havoc on emotional well-being and decision-making. I had several lawyers tell me they’d go home and cry for hours due to exhaustion. They then felt shame at not being ‘tough enough’ to handle the intensely competitive environment.” Before artificial light existed, us humans were more in tune with being active during daylight hours and restful under the cover of darkness. This pattern is called a ‘circadian rhythm’, and our bodies work best when sticking to it—but modern life makes that tricky. Longer working hours, smartphones and side hustles all come into play, but there are ways to prioritise sleep, says Kimberley.

See The Light

Aim to get half an hour of direct natural light before work or during your lunch break. “It helps to anchor your circadian rhythm,” explains Kimberley. If the weather’s bad, even opening a window helps.

Math-ZZZ

Work out whether you’re a night owl or an early bird by taking the Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire. Yes, that’s the legit scientific name. You can find it on the Sleep Health Foundation’s website, via a quick Google search. Then do some self-reflection to see if you’re a short or long sleeper. “If you do well on six to seven hours, you’re a short sleeper; if you need eight hours to feel vaguely human, you’re a long sleeper,” says Kimberley. Try not to spend too long in bed either side of your actual sleep requirement, too. So, for example, don’t get into bed at 9pm if you don’t intend to drift off until 10:30pm. Equally, don’t lounge around in bed once you’ve woken up. Both will help you to feel more alert and stick in your natural rhythm. Sorry, snooze button.

Get Some R.E.S.T.

Kimberley advises following the R.E.S.T.* acronym. That’s routine, environment, stimulation control, and thinking. Your routine should be going to sleep and getting up at the same time every day, even on weekends, in a room that’s reserved just for sex and sleep. Ensure your bed and pillows are comfortable, and that the space is tidy. “Watch TV, scroll social media, read, eat and work somewhere else, as this helps to create a psychological association that the bedroom is a place to sleep.”
As for stimulation control: “Avoid coffee after mid-day and alcohol two to three hours before bed—the latter is a sedative, helping you fall asleep faster, but blocks deep, quality sleep.” Ditch any light-emitting devices (laptops, smartphones, Kindles, etc) at least an hour before bed, too. Or, if you really can’t resist, switch them to ‘night mode’ or download an app to rid it of the blue light.
When it comes to thinking, try not to let your mind wander by keeping a ‘worry book’ by your bed. “Use it to write down any thoughts, tasks and anxieties that are plaguing you late at night,” says Kimberley. That way you’re reassured that you won’t forget them.

You need to let some stress into your life. Yes, really. Not all stress is bad, says Kimberley: “There’s another type of stress that we should all be exposing ourselves to: it’s called hormesis.” If we give ourselves sufficient recovery time from hormesis, it can help us develop greater resilience (meaning that next time your manager is grinding your gears and you simultaneously argue with a pal, you’ll be better equipped to cope). “It’s also associated with better health in general.” Here’s how to deal...

Work It Out

A good way to expose yourself to hormesis? Exercise, for starters. Take weight-lifting for example: by applying short-term but manageable pressure to the muscle, the body responds by boosting the muscular repair processes, therefore making the muscles stronger and better able to tolerate the same amount of stress in future—after enough recovery time. Equally, if you prefer the sauna in your gym to the weights room, that provides a nice hormesis hit too.

Head Homework

Remember that feeling you used to get after a long day of revision before exams, or after a training day in the office? That’s what you should be aiming for when it comes to getting your mental hormesis hit. “It’s an indication that your brain is being forced to assimilate new information and to do that, it has to grow.” Learning a tough dance routine, taking up a new language, or challenging yourself to ace a new skill, such as chess or crochet, will all deliver that satisfactory ‘ah!’ feeling.


You are what you eat. Right? Yep, and just like the rest of your body, how and when you chow down can also impact your brain. “People are often surprised to hear that although your brain only accounts for about 2%-3% of your total body weight, it actually makes up around 20%-25% of your daily energy requirement,” says Kimberley. Translation? It’s important to keep that clever organ well-fed and watered (your brain is 80% water and even small percentage drops in hydration are associated with increased fatigue, poorer cognitive function, and low moods). Treat yourself to a sustainable bottle to keep on your desk, and download a nudging app, such as Water Drink Reminder.

Go Green

Current research suggests that aiming for one proper serving of greens per day—including savoy cabbage, romaine lettuce, kale, and spinach—will give  your brain a good hit of brain-proactive nutrients, such as Vitamin A (which helps with new brain connections and cell survival),  Vitamin K (linked to better memory and a lower risk of dementia) and folate (reduces inflammation). One serving doesn’t just mean topping your pizza with a bit of rocket, though—it is equal to a cereal bowl full of leaves or four tablespoons of cooked spinach or kale.

Limit The Junk

“The brain can derive all the glucose it needs from the digestion of whole grains and vegetables,” says Kimberley. So ideally, sugar-sweetened drinks, fried foods, and heavily-processed grubs shouldn’t be eaten more than three to five times a week. Erm, sorry.

Up The Anti(Inflammatory)

Studies have found that the higher the number of inflammatory foods (including alcohol and artificial sugars) a person consumes, the greater their risk of recurrent depression, mild cognitive impairment and dementia (especially in women). To combat a high white-blood cell count, a marker of inflammation, make sure that your diet includes lots of anti-inflammatory foods, such as garlic, ginger, brightly-coloured vegetables (as they contain beta carotene), berries, turmeric, and green or black tea. 

*How to Build A Healthy Brain by Kimberley Wilson is available on amazon.com, Rs 1,216 approx