If you’re like most people, you’ve had your share of days when you just don’t feel like your brain is firing on all cylinders. This unfortunate situation is colloquially known as ‘brain fog’—and it’s become an even more talked-about topic since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Now a studied medical condition, brain fog is an umbrella term for everything from feeling lethargic to having difficulty focusing and thinking straight. And, according to a study published in the journal Neurological Sciences, it’s been reported in as much as 25 percent of people who’ve tested positive for COVID-19.
Even those who haven’t dealt with the virus have likely faced brain fog head-on, though. “Since prior to the pandemic, society was already ‘plugged in’ to screens, with the average American spending 44 years looking at some sort of device in their lifetime, according to research by Vision Direct,” says naturopathic doctor Anya Warren, N.D., of Atlanta’s Cancer Treatment Centers of America. “The burnout of our go-go-go lifestyles, which includes multitasking, blurred boundaries of work and life balance, and drastic changes to the basics of daily living, don’t help either.” Read: It’s all a lot for our brains to deal with on a daily basis.
Thankfully for your noggin (and your sanity) there’s a whole slew of lifestyle changes you can make to boost your brainpower. Here, experts share their best-kept secrets for feeling sharper, more creative, and more clear-minded.
1. Move Before You Think
Exercising is beneficial for your overall health in about a million ways, and supporting your brain is one of them. More and more research, including a recent study published in The Physician and Sportsmedicine, has shown that individuals who exercise regularly have improved memory in comparison to individuals who live a more sedentary lifestyle. “Exercise increases the production of a powerful brain chemical BDNF, which nurtures brain cells and ushers in improved function,” explains neurologist David Perlmutter, M.D., a fellow of the American College of Nutrition and author of Drop Acid.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends exercising for at least 150 minutes per week (about 30 minutes a day five days a week). The type of exercise doesn’t matter; it just has to elevate your heart rate, notes The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Brittany Michels, R.D.N. Better yet, “consider adding your sweat session before work or school, which will not only prepare you for the mental stresses of the day but will improve information retention, reasoning, planning and reaction time,” Michels adds.
2. Eat More Plants
Several studies, including one published in Nutrients, have identified a link between diets high in highly-processed foods and low in whole ones with cognitive decline. So, in case you needed yet another reason to eat more plant-based, here it is: “When you eat a healthy diet filled with whole plant foods, you have more antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds circulating in your system, in addition to essential vitamins and minerals needed for many body processes,” says Sharon Palmer, R.D., The Plant-Powered Dietitian. “This helps ensure that your brain, in addition to other important organs like your heart and lungs, is getting the adequate nutrients it needs to work at its peak.”
Palmer recommends eating a Mediterranean-style plant-based diet, which emphasizes healthy fats like olive oil and eating green leafy vegetables every day. “These nutritious foods with powerful plant compounds have been linked to better cognition,” she says.
Another must? “Eat a type of berry every day, as these particularly powerful plant foods have also been linked with better cognition because of their phytochemicals,” Palmer adds.
3. Be Strategic About Your Screen Time
Americans spend nearly half of their lives (42 percent!) staring into screens, be it computers, smartphones, or tablets. “While there’s a lot we can accomplish in a positive way from the incredible amount of information and connectedness offered by our digital devices, mindless overindulgence can keep us from participating in other activities that can optimize brain performance,” says Perlmutter.
He recommends taking a break from the screen every now and then, ideally for a few minutes every half an hour so that your mind can recoup from all of the information it’s receiving while you’re plugged in.
4. Pursue Stimulating Hobbies
Invitation to stop spending your free time scrolling: A recent study published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest (among many others) demonstrates the integral importance of stimulating activities in maintaining proper brain function. “Keeping the brain engaged and challenged is an important way to preserve brain function,” says Perlmutter.
He recommends spending more of your downtime doing mentally stimulating activities, such as crossword puzzles, number games like Sudoku, or reading. Any time you can swap out a passive activity (especially one that involves a screen) with something more active, it’s a win.
5. Incorporate Certain Supplements
Certain nutrients are famous for their brain-boosting abilities, so consider adding a few key players to your routine to help your noggin fire up.
One to start with? Omega-3s. “Omega-3s are supportive fats not only for building a better brain but for preserving function as well,” says Perlmutter. “While most of the focus is on DHA, other omega-3s that are important for the brain include DPA and EPA.” He recommends choosing a supplement that will supply 900 to 1,000 milligrams of DHA each day.
Magnesium is another nutrient that can help you think more clearly. “Deficiency in magnesium can reduce attention span and concentration, and increase irritability and fatigue,” says Warren. To meet their needs, women should consume around 300 milligrams per day while men should aim for 400, according to Perlmutter. Find it in whole grains, nuts, seeds, and cocoa, as well as in supplement form. “Magnesium threonate, in particular, may offer some distinctive advantages for brain health, but other good forms include magnesium carbonate and magnesium citrate,” Perlmutter adds.
Though not a vitamin or mineral, l-tyrosine is another supplement that can help when you need a brain boost. “This amino acid converts into norepinephrine and dopamine in the brain, supporting mental alertness, mood, and memory,” says Michels. Beef, pork, salmon, and chicken are all good sources, but you can also supplement. She recommends The Vitamin Shoppe brand L-Tyrosine, which offers 500 milligrams per serving.
6. Set Work Boundaries
Long work days and weeks have become the norm for many Americans, but Toronto-based naturopathic doctor Olivia Rose, N.D., warns that this lifestyle can be detrimental to brain health. In fact, research published in the American Journal of Epidemiology has shown that longer work hours impair cognitive performance. Plus, “since many people now work from home, the lines and boundaries between work life and home life have become even more blurred,” Rose adds.
To boost your brainpower, ironically, you might need to cut down on work. There’s no magic number of work hours that’s been highlighted as going overboard, as the threshold may vary based on the individual, Perlmutter notes. If anything, do your best to start and end your workday at or around the same time each day to maintain consistency.
To optimize brain health and resilience, you need enough time each day for at least 30 minutes of exercise, 20 minutes of meditation, eight hours of restorative sleep, and ample time to prepare healthy meals.
7. Optimize Your Sleep
The quantity and quality of your sleep play important roles in maintaining and even improving brain function, notes Perlmutter. “A good night’s sleep allows the brain to process our daily experiences and create memories, and even turns on the brain’s built-in mechanism for clearing out waste products that accumulate during wakefulness,” he explains.
Perlmutter recommends that adults aim for around eight hours of total sleep that includes at least 90 minutes in REM sleep (to allow for the consolidation of memories) and one or two hours of deep sleep (to allow the brain to purge itself of various toxins accumulated during wakefulness). To get the full download on your shut-eye habits, look into a sleep-tracking device like the Fitbit Versa or Withings Sleep.
8. Spend at least 20 minutes outdoors each day
According to Warren, spending the majority of our time indoors working or attending school and such limited time in nature can take a toll on our cognition. “Walking in nature among trees and plants offers clear benefits, such as reducing anxiety, promoting contemplation, and improving complex work memory tasks,” she says. As a result, “green spaces can ultimately improve our cognition and focus.”
Research backs this up, too. One recent study published in International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that walking outdoors for just 50 minutes can improve cognitive function. While you can certainly benefit from that near-hour of daily outdoors time, even shooting for just 20 minutes will make a difference in boosting your brainpower, Warren says.
“Stress has been linked to inflammation as well as increases in brain levels of beta-amyloid protein, a key component of Alzheimer’s,” warns Palmer. “So, managing stress in a healthful way to preserve cognition.”
Of course, there are several ways you can reduce stress in your life—but meditation is a great research-backed method. In fact, researchers see positive changes in the brain function of people who regularly meditate or pray, says Perlmutter. “These changes are associated with better focus as well as improved ability to plan for the future,” he adds. Two brain boosts we could all use these days.
According to Perlmutter, even meditating for 20 minutes a day can boost brainpower. He recommends setting a timer, cuing up calming music (if needed), lying down, and trying to let go of the thoughts and to-do lists that creep into your head. If 20 minutes feels like a lot, start with five or ten and work your way up.
10. Connect with people in real life
One unexpected way to boost your brainpower? Make at least one social connection per day, Michels says. “Ask a coworker about their day, chat to the barista at the coffee shop, or call a friend who lives far away,” she suggests. “Research shows that individuals who report greater levels of social connection activate brain regions needed for facial recognition, emotions, and decision-making.” So climb out of that shell and get social!