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Explaining the brain-to-body loop

4 ways to take advantage of your body’s natural rhythms
Blog 162 Explaining the brain

Amid this pandemic upheaval, it’s perfectly understandable that your mind may be losing focus. Your hippocampus is probably shrinking, and your neurotransmitters are likely disoriented. The sluggish connection of synapses in your brain no doubt reveals itself through a host of dizzy wonderings: Did I send that Zoom link? Was that meeting meant to be today or tomorrow? Are you my co-worker or am I your Grade 3 teacher? Wait, where did my inspiration go? (Brain sifts through the tabs and tabs of information open on its internal browser.) Am I in my bedroom or my office – or both?

Does this mental and/or environmental blur sound familiar? The brain fog many of us are experiencing right now is real. You may find yourself sifting through your mind to find thoughts from yesterday – a task that seems to take up the whole morning, to the point where you curse yourself for not writing more notes. Rest assured: this haze is simply your brain and body revealing the toll of long-term uninvited change and isolation.

But what if you could actively choose ways to enhance that brain-to-body energy loop? I propose you can clear the cumulus attached to your nervous system. Here are some ideas to teach yourself how to take advantage of natural rhythms and responses from the brain to the body (it probably won’t come as much of a surprise that yes, they do all interact).

Don’t drag it out – You’ve likely heard of a circadian rhythm: the 24-hour internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle, during which we go from a low- to high-body temperature. Well, we also have ultradian cycles: smaller patterns that occur over the 24-hour cycle, which are associated with peaks and troughs in focus. Over the length of the day, we ride a rollercoaster of energy highs and lows, oscillating between 90-minute-long performance peaks, when we’re focused and alert, to energy low points, or troughs. It’s during the latter phases – when we start to feel sluggish, tired and distracted – that we need to stop and take a break to allow our bodies and brains a chance to reset and refuel before heading back into our next high-performing period.

Lock in ideas with movement – Learning memory outcomes are associated with neurotransmitter activity in the brain. Research tells us a burst of high-intensity exercise immediately after a ‘thinking period’ enhances memory, helping us to lock in those neural connections. Exercise promotes blood flow to the brain, which circulates higher brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), the brain cleaner – and norepinephrine, a neural energy synapse connector.

Sleep on it – If you want to harness problem-solving power, sleep on it. Sleep researchers previously thought the brain was more active during wakeful hours – it’s now established that our brains are ‘alight’ while we sleep. Mark Beeman, a professor of psychology, explains that during sleep, the brain sorts, consolidates and stores new information – it also ‘rehearses’ recent memories. Researchers have even matched white noise and sleep and found a 55 per cent increase in problem-solving proficiency the following day!

Change of scene and socialising – The incidence of shrinking hippocampus (the area that plays a major role in learning and memory) among Antarctic explorers strikes an eerie parallel to lockdown life. Studies found that after expeditioners spent 14 months in Antarctica, parts of their brain – including the hippocampus, along with our friend BDNF – reduced in volume. The findings were based on the observation of a single living–working space, alongside limited exposure to a variety of environments and social interactions, over a prolonged period. Environmental monotony and social isolation? Sounds familiar …

The takeaway from all this is that you can take action to boost your brainpower. Here are four ideas to try:

  1. Don’t drag problem-solving into your sleep rituals. Schedule your harder tasks in the morning (approximately 4 hours after waking) rather than later in the day, and take a brain break every 90 minutes.
  2. During brain breaks, complete a burst of skipping or running on the spot, or to be a real overachiever, take a walk around the block as well.
  3. When you’re working on hard tasks, avoid distractions by playing quiet white noise in the background. An hour or so before sleep, review the problem (don’t try to solve it), then fall asleep playing quiet white nose.
  4. Leave the house daily. Walk or drive in different directions and seek out distractions (podcasts, music or conversations) that are dissimilar to those you’d tune into in your home office.

– Unna Goldsworthy

Who is Unna Goldsworthy?
Unna is an exercise physiologist concerned with questions like ‘but why?’ and ‘what will work for you?’ She’s enlightened to the fact that the creativity and passion of the industry finds opportunities for bodies to move, along with the minds attached to those bodies – which can be distracted or stuck, blocking the action to participate in healthy choices. Unna believes moments of success in health are found in knowing yourself and your patterns, asking for help and not walking the same path three times if it didn’t work the two times before. Can’t go left? Go right. If you want to learn more about Unna, you can find her here.

Image by Stefano Pollio

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