3 Small Changes that Can Ignite Your Brain’s Neural Network Potential

1. Eat real foods that will optimally fuel the brain’s glucose and lactate needs.

Your brain gets most of its fuel reserves first from lactate and then from glucose. It uses up about 120 grams of glucose a day, but recent research suggests that lactate is the brain’s preferred reserve fuel, producing a greatly enhanced neuroprotective effect. Lactate results from lactic acid breaking down in the body. Here’s what exercise physiology professor Thomas Fahey has to say about it:

Lactic acid has a bad reputation. Many people blame it for fatigue, sore muscles, and cramps. They think of it as a waste product that should be avoided at all cost. Guess what? Scientists have discovered that lactic acid plays a critical role in generating energy during exercise. Far from being the bad boy of metabolism, lactic acid provides fuels for many tissues, helps use dietary carbohydrates, and serves as fuel for liver production of glucose and glycogen. In fact, lactic acid is nature’s way of helping you survive stressful situations.

Lactic acid has a dark side. When your body makes lactic acid, it splits into a lactate ion (lactate) and a hydrogen ion. Hydrogen is the acid in lactic acid. It interferes with electrical signals in your muscles and nerves, slows energy reactions, and impairs muscle contractions. The burn you feel in intense exercise is caused by hydrogen ion buildup. So, when you fatigue, don’t blame it on lactic acid. Rather, place the blame where it belongs – on hydrogen ions.

Lactate has been made guilty by association. Far from being a metabolic pariah, the body loves lactate. It is an extremely fast fuel that’s preferred by the heart and muscles during exercise. Lactate is vital for ensuring that your body gets a steady supply of carbohydrates, even during exercise that lasts for many hours. Lactate is so valuable, that taking it as part of a fluid replacement drink before, during, or after exercise improves performance and speeds recovery.

So that’s the lactate story. As for the glucose story, foods containing processed sugars make the body and brain work much harder than necessary to obtain the glucose they need. Going out into an orchard to pick oranges, peaches, apples and plums will not only provide you with natural sugars, but will also get you some exercise absolutely necessary to maintain optimal health.

Obviously, growing and maintaining our own personal orchard isn’t realistic for many of us. But getting sufficient exercise and eating real food is something each of us can begin moving towards – and doing both will pay big benefits in brain function all across your lifespan.

2. Turn bed rest into contemplative practice.

I could simply say, “Get more sleep.” But the pace of life today makes sleep sometimes hard to come by. For those of us with active brains and wild hearts, who have trouble sleeping, a directive like “Get more sleep” isn’t especially helpful. Then what might be? Make bed rest a priority and turn it into a sacred, contemplative ritual.

One of the reasons various forms of meditation or mindfulness based stress reduction require practitioners to sit upright is because of the tendency for dozing off. Well, if being able to fall sleep is what’s troubling you, bunky, then what better way to do an end-around than to inaugurate a contemplative meditation practice while prone. I call it Prone Practice. Clinical psychologists call it: “Prescribing the Symptom.”

In addition, sleep researchers have found any number of things that can work to help us fall asleep. Here’s a list you might want to experiment with that can help with asleep-falling. Turns out there are lots of things we can do in bed that can work to make the time we spend there something we delightfully look forward to.

3. Hang with wise elders.

When Jeff Bezos left his cushy Wall Street job and decided to become an online bookseller, one of the first things he did was to make a hard and fast hiring decision – he would only hire people who he felt were smarter than he was. In effect, he was creating a powerful PLEA – a Personal Learning Environment by Association. While this might be something our own neurophysiology might find somewhat stressful – at least initially – hanging with people smarter than us is definitely something both social neuroscience and interpersonal neurobiology research suggests we can grow into. The Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience …

One of the reasons I decided to write books on listening is because I found that becoming a skillful listener was a great way to not only learn from other people, but also to draw wisdom out of others, while at the same time having a very skillful practice that worked to calm down the stress hormones that really smart people can sometimes trigger in us. As the great jester-sage Yogi Berra so eloquently pointed out: “You can hear a lot by listening.” Not to mention how much you can actually learn.

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