Restoring my natural relationship with food and reconnecting with my natural desire to move my body has required a lot of exploration and experimentation. It’s been interesting to notice how my choices have naturally evolved from this — my best days now tend to start with a banana followed by a workout. It’s been even more interesting to learn bananas were once considered “the fruit of wise men” and my workouts are building and conditioning my brain. This article is the fourth and final in a series that examines how brain function affects change.
Nutrition and Fitness For The Brain
Your body is constantly adjusting its balance of over 40 chemical elements and compounds essential to its function. Many of these have to come from the nutrients you ingest daily. You may recognize your body is unique and what you consume affects you physically, but do you realize it also affects your brain’s neurotransmitters?
Neurotransmitters are the chemicals that enable neurons (brain cells) to communicate and these are ultimately reflected in everything we think, feel and do. What we typically assume is our psychology actually stems from the biology of these communications. Having difficulty with your mood or impulsivity? This suggests a low level of Serotonin, which modifies these. Challenged with your lack of attentiveness or motivation? You may need more Norepinephrine, which amplifies these. Struggling with compulsive or addictive eating behaviours? Your Dopamine circuits are likely out of whack.
These neurotransmitters and others are considerably more complex than what I’ve shared here — the point is, when they’re out of balance our thinking, feeling and doing are out of balance. Too much imbalance can lead to significant issues like stress, anxiety or depression but scientists are discovering that even minor vitamin and mineral deficiencies can alter our cognition and performance. You may want to think twice before skipping your banana and the other nutrient-dense foods you had in mind for breakfast.
Think twice before reaching for your drug-of-choice foods too. Long-term use of these eventually shuts down your body’s neurotransmitters that these mimic, resulting in withdrawal headaches and other symptoms until your body adjusts its balance again.
If you’re looking for a boost, physical activity offers greater benefits. It elevates key neurotransmitters like Serotonin, Norepinephrine and Dopamine, and these in turn balance the overall mix of neurochemicals in your brain. You’ll feel this balance in your state of mind and you’ll naturally make better choices from here.
How long does it take to consistently feel and act this way? In my experience it takes about three weeks for these benefits to fully kick in but this doesn’t preclude the immediate quality-of-life benefits you’ll experience. Just one 30-minute stint on the treadmill at 60-70% of your maximum heart rate enhances your creative thought process. It’s why I choose to do my writing following my morning workouts.
The deeper story at work is how profoundly this physical activity is changing your brain while it changes your body. Exercise not only increases neurogenesis — the formation of new neurons — it generates growth factors that increase the brain’s connectivity. One in particular, Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) is nicknamed Miracle-Gro for the brain.
This cellular and network infrastructure of the brain is required for increasingly complex motor function and learning. In fact, your body and brain evolved to be challenged regularly — use it or lose it applies to both. For you intellectual-types out there who insist on only investing in yourself from the neck up, pay attention. Your prefrontal cortex can recruit the same networks it uses for physical activity and use these for thinking. Is enhanced cognitive function incentive enough for you to break a sweat?
Do It For Your Brain
The obvious questions from my new clients are what should I eat and how much should I exercise to lose weight? I ask them if they’re serious about restoring their natural relationship with food and reconnecting with their natural desire to move their body because if they are, I encourage them to make their choices for their brain not for weight loss. If you carry excess weight, it indicates your brain’s current wiring does not support weight loss, so that is where you begin. And you too will see your choices naturally evolve in a way that best serves your unique chemistry.