I organize my day-to-day living around two main goals: brain health and resilience. There is so much information out there around health and wellness that I find it helpful to focus on the most impactful areas and then keep it as simple as I can. Having studied this area for many years, and having had the privilege of speaking with some of the world’s leading scientists on this topic, this is what I have learned:
Sleep is essential for long-term brain health. Getting too little sleep across our lives will significantly raise the risk of developing brain health issues later in life. Making good sleep a priority will increase one’s emotional, mental, and physical resilience. It is such a simple concept, but unless we really make it a priority, it is easy to let it slip. In his book, Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker explains why we sleep: “We sleep for a rich litany of functions, an abundant constellation of nighttime benefits that service both our brains and our bodies.” Conversely, a lack of sleep impacts every area of our lives. If I lose an hour of sleep I am grouchy, inflexible, and not very creative. If I only get five or six hours, I may as well be drunk. As a former Olympian once told me, the most impactful thing a person can do to increase the daily quality of life is to get good and sufficient sleep. To prepare my mind and my body for restful sleep I always take a walk after dinner, I don’t look at screens of any kind within an hour of sleep, and I avoid caffeine and chocolate after noon.
Nutrition has a tremendous impact on the health of our brains. Like all the top neuroscientists I know, I eat a low glycemic Mediterranean-style diet. But, I’m also acutely aware of the fact that, even in healthy adults, there is up to a 20 percent reduction in overall brain volume throughout their lifetime. Yikes. Researchers have long searched for a way to slow down this age-related shrinking of the brain and, with the introduction of Matter from Elysium Health, we now have a clinically validated solution. The B-vitamin complex in Matter has been proven to slow grey matter atrophy in older adults with mild memory concerns. In areas linked to spatial long-term memory and visuospatial learning this atrophy was reduced by an average of 86% over two years as shown in a study conducted by The Oxford Project to Investigate Memory and Aging (OPTIMA). Here is the remarkably compelling image that convinced me to take Matter every day, and to recommend it to all my friends and family. By giving my brain the nutrients it needs, I am giving myself the best chance for having long-term brain health.
A strong sense of purpose keeps the body and mind grounded. A person with a purpose can overcome extraordinary difficulties. Think of how Jimmy Carter is deeply driven by purpose, and how he continues to be of service in spite of multiple health issues. As my favorite psychiatrist Viktor Frankl has written, having a purpose is what gives people their reason for being. If every day I feel I have meaning and impact in the world, that I am needed, that I can contribute, then not only do I have a good day, I am also empowered, and my brain is fully engaged.
Stress: There is a good kind and a bad kind. The good stresses are those that we choose to put on ourselves, such as exercise or learning new languages. These are growth stresses and are often neuro generative — that is, they build brain capacity and resilience. The bad kind of stresses are those we do not feel in control over. The solution is to take on more of the good kind, and avoid the bad kind. As James Nestor suggests in his excellent book Breath, “Be your own pilot.” If you feel in a state of stress that you are not controlling, focus on your breathing. Before I give a talk I will do a 4×4 cycle, also known as box breathing. That is, inhale through the nose for four beats, hold for four beats, exhale for four beats, hold for four beats and repeat four times. It works like a charm. This will immediately help clear away some of the health-eroding impacts of bad stress.
Community keeps us connected and engaged. Humans are social creatures, and without the reflection and interaction that others provide, we can lose touch with who we are. There are people who seem to be able to exist for long periods of time without human contact, but I am not one of them. In a time of lockdowns and social distancing, we need to put special effort into maintaining contact with our fellows, be it Zoom calls, telephone calls, or socially-distant outdoor interactions. On the one hand, the current health situation makes interactions more difficult; on the other hand, the ones we are making happen become more impactful. I have never appreciated my neighbors more than now. Community requires effort and careful planning now that was more effortless and routine in the past. The bigger and more diverse the group of people I am around, the more resilient I become, and the more my brain is stimulated by thoughts other than my own.