Boost Your Brain Health with These 5 Foods

In freshman PE class at Mount Saint Mary High School in 1983, Sister Jean told us that drinking alcohol kills brain cells. That got my attention and stuck with me, undoubtedly influencing my future decisions. Even then, I considered my brain one of my most valuable assets and wanted no part of killing my brain cells! While the acute brain damage caused by consumption of alcohol is more a matter of disruption of communication between neurons, alcohol is a neurotoxin. Just as what we take into our bodies can harm our brains, there are foods we can consume to nurture brain health.

Ever since I was young, I have been interested in fueling my brain for short- and long-term health and optimal function. Between my recent reading of Jim Kwik’s book Limitless and thinking about the fuel our brains consume for the blog post I wrote last week, brain nourishment has been on my mind even more than usual.

I thought it might be beneficial to share some of my favorite foods for nourishing my brain. While not an exhaustive list, here are five great foods to eat for brain health:

  • Berries contain powerful antioxidants that protect the brain from damage and reduce inflammation, which can protect brain function as we age. This is important because of the amount of glucose that our brains use, which produces a lot of free radicals, creating the potential for damage to our cells, including neurons. Eat fresh or frozen blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries and cherries in smoothies, with oatmeal or another whole-grain cereal or even as a delicious frozen treat using a Yonanas machine.
  • Avocados, full of monounsaturated fats and lutein, are not only great brain food, but also promote eye health. (And who doesn’t love guacamole?!) In addition to turning them into guacamole, slice raw avocados and enjoy them in salad or on sandwiches or wraps. Mash them on whole-grain toast for avocado toast, plain or with raw veggies and/or fresh herbs.
  • Dark green, leafy vegetables, (kale, spinach, broccoli, chard, arugula, collard, etc.) also contain lutein and zeaxanthin, benefitting both brain and eyes and possibly delaying or warding off age-related cognitive decline. These can be eaten raw or cooked, in smoothies, as salad, toppings for wraps or sandwiches, as side dishes or in this terrific lasagna recipe. (It really is great—one of my go-to recipes for special occasions.)
  • Turmeric has potent anticancer benefits and can reduce inflammation. It has been shown to improve cognitive function in people living with Alzheimer’s. Put ¼ teaspoon in your smoothie or on your cereal every day. Include turmeric in pasta sauces, casseroles, soups and curries.
  • Walnuts are great sources of Omega-3 fatty acids, Vitamin E, magnesium and zinc, all valuable nutrients for brain health. Eat walnuts raw, by themselves or with fresh or dried fruit. Blend them into smoothies. Put them on cereal and in salads.

There are so many great ways to incorporate these foods into your daily diet. You could even make a smoothie containing all of them. (more on smoothies in an upcoming post)

Feed your brain and put it to good use creating the life you want to live and making the difference you want to make. Click the button below to subscribe to my newsletter and receive a link to download my Blossom 2021 Self-Coaching Workbook.

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What to Do When Willpower Exhaustion Threatens to Derail Your Good Intentions

Do you often start the day with plans to eat healthfully, exercise and avoid getting trapped in the mental vacuum of screens big or small, only to find all your good intentions have fallen to the wayside by late afternoon? Why is that?

Do you find it easier to stick with the habits and behaviors you want to keep on some days than on others? Why?

One reason may be willpower exhaustion, also called decision fatigue or ego depletion. No matter what we call it, most of us experience it from time to time.

Personally, I most often experience it in the mid-afternoon during a very full workday, where I have had to do a lot of thinking, on other people’s schedules, rather than one of my own choosing. I am especially prone to it when I am feeling overwhelmed by how much I have to do and how many hours I am likely to be doing it.

Our brains are fueled by glucose. When we are at rest physically, our brains are responsible for consuming 60 percent of the glucose used by our entire bodies.

So, thinking hard, without adequate opportunities for rest, burns through a lot of glucose, leaving us feeling physically and mentally worn out.

This makes it harder to make good decisions and harder to stick to our goals and intentions.

We can’t always avoid this situation completely, so how can we minimize its effect on us?

Here are some things that can help:

  1. Expect it. If you know you have a full calendar of intense mental activity for the upcoming day, be prepared. Have healthful, nourishing snacks readily available. This way, you are less likely to grab a candy bar or chips. Fruit with nut butter; hummus and veggies or homemade trail mix, made with mixed raw nuts and/or seeds, dried fruit and a sprinkling of vegan dark chocolate chips (like Enjoy Life brand) are just a few of the options. Make sure it is something you like and make it easy, but also make it nourishing. When willpower exhaustion hits me, I often feel “desperate” for food. Knowing in advance what I pan to eat and having it easily accessible makes it more likely that I fuel my body and brain in a productive way.
  2. Oxygenate your brain and body. Breathing exercises are beneficial for helping to calm our nervous system and fill our bloodstream with fresh, oxygenated blood. There are many good options that can be done quickly most anywhere. Simply take a moment—eyes open or closed—and try this: First, breathe out forcefully through your mouth. Next, inhale through your nose for a count of 4. Hold your breath for a count of 7. Exhale with a whoosh through your mouth for a count of 8. Complete this cycle four times. This helps you relax by stimulating your parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) nervous system, and it refreshes your brain with oxygen-rich blood.
  3. Get up and move for a few minutes. When we are in the midst of busyness and mentally-draining activities, it can be hard to allow ourselves to take a break. One helpful practice that I have used for a long time is a brief bathroom-break walk. When I get up for a bathroom break, I take a quick walk on a predetermined loop. Since I have been working from home, it is a loop around the interior perimeter of my home, both upstairs and downstairs. It takes less than two minutes, but it gives me a short mental and physical break. As I walk, I do a mental run-through of the 3 Good Things practice, identifying three things that have gone well so far in the day. Then I think of three things to which I am looking forward for the rest of the day.

These three strategies don’t eliminate willpower exhaustion—at least not for me—but they help. When I am buried in busyness, it can be hard to discipline myself to take the breaks to grab a healthful snack, breathe or walk, especially if other people are around, but it feels good to take care of myself with these simple practices. When I use them, I am more likely to keep eating in a way that honors and nourishes my body, and the physical effects of stress feel less intense.

Do you experience willpower exhaustion? What does it look like for you? What helps to alleviate its effects?

In addition to the techniques I mention above, being clear about what we want to achieve and why can also help us stay on track with our intentions, even when willpower exhaustion strikes. Click the button below to subscribe to my newsletter and receive a link to download my Blossom 2021 Self-Coaching Workbook, with powerful questions to help you live the way you want to live and make the difference you are meant to make. Working through the questions can help you identify what’s really important for you and steel your resolve against the insidious repercussions of willpower exhaustion.

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Think Better to Live Better

“The highest drive we have is to act consistently with how we perceive ourselves—it is one of the most powerful forces in the universe.” –Jim Kwik

The way we think about ourselves in any situation matters because we tend to live up—or down—to that perception.

Neal Donald Walsch said, “Every act is an act of self-definition.” I agree, and I think it can be applied in two directions.

Our behaviors define us. They tell us and the world who we are.

But our self-perception—or self-definition—also determines the behaviors we choose.

Psychologists use the term “cognitive dissonance” to describe the inner conflict people experience when they act in a way that contradicts what they believe to be true about themselves.

As Jim Kwik mentioned, we are driven to act consistently with our self-perception. So, cognitive dissonance can occur when we either have a low perception of ourselves and strive to elevate our lives or when we have a high perception of ourselves and act in a way that doesn’t jibe with that perception.

This is why it is so important to upgrade our self-perception.

I have shared the story of the JustWind mindset which holds that we have the power and freedom to choose our perspectives and acknowledges that we can harness that power to live the life we want to live and make the difference we are meant to make.

Just like the mindset intervention that I experienced when my friend David answered my complaints about the wind with a shrug and the comment, “It’s just wind,” on 2002 Biking Across Kansas, sometimes we need a mindset intervention when it comes to our self-perception.

Here are 5 ways to create a mindset intervention and upgrade your self-perception.

  1. Act “as if.” Father of American psychology William James said, “Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.” Sometimes we need to act in an elevated way in order to start perceiving a higher version of ourselves. Just as our self-perception determines the behaviors we choose, we can intentionally act in a way that is aspirational in order to allow ourselves to recognize that higher version as who we really are. Subconsciously, the actions follow the perception, but consciously—with intention—the perception can follow the actions.
  2. Visualize yourself acting as you want to act. Actions count most, but they may need a little boost. Visualizing yourself living the way you want to live can be very effective. Close your eyes and, either as part of your meditation practice, or as a practice all its own, do your best to really see and feel yourself acting at this higher level. What does it feel like? What does it look like? How do you feel about yourself? What does it create in your life? What doors will it open for you? Visualize it as vividly as possible.
  3. Write a letter to yourself. A great way to give yourself a mindset intervention to upgrade your self-perception is to write yourself a letter. Project yourself some distance into the future—maybe one year, five years, whatever feels right—but try to make it a time frame that is not so far off that you can’t fathom it. Write to yourself and congratulate yourself for all the work you have put in to accomplish your goals and elevate your quality of life. Make it as detailed as possible. Describe what you’ve done and how it has enhanced your life. Take your time writing it and reread it often.
  4. Teach someone else. As the saying goes, we often teach what we most need to learn. Help someone else level up their self-perception. Teach them these strategies. Tell them how you perceive them. As you teach and help someone else, watch your own self-perception increase.
  5. Surround yourself with people who lift you up. We can’t always control who is around us on a regular basis. This can be hard. We can definitely get dragged down be negative people who don’t bring out the best in us and aren’t trying to grow. Even if you can’t eliminate these negative people in your life, you can bring in some positive ones—in person and/or virtually. Social media has plenty of downsides, but it also can serve as a way to connect you with people who share your aspirations of living at a higher level. Join groups centered around the way you want to live and act. Listen to podcasts. Read books and blogs. Find ways to grow the positivity in your life and expose yourself to it often. Aspire to emulate these positive influences and see yourself in the same light.

None of these strategies will guarantee an upgraded self-perception, but all of them can help, especially when done on a regular basis.

This is important work because we become who we believe we are and who we believe we are capable of becoming.

Think better (about yourself) to live better.

“The greatest discovery of our generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind. As you think, so shall you be.” –William James

I’d like to help you blossom into the highest perception of yourself. Click the button below to sign up for my email list and receive my Blossom 2021 Self-Coaching Workbook.

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“Happy in Spite of” vs. “Happy If Only”

“Karl Pillemer of Cornell makes the distinction between ‘happy in spite of’ and ‘happy if only,’ the former being a benefit of old age, the latter a vexation of youth. ‘Happy in spite of’ entails a choice to be happy; it acknowledges problems but doesn’t put them in the way of contentment. ‘Happy if only’ pins happiness on outside circumstances . . ..” –John Leland

After reading these words in Happiness Is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year Among the Oldest Old a couple weeks ago, I went for a pre-dawn walk in a high wind warning. As the crosswind threatened to push me sideways, and the headwind occasionally stopped me in my tracks, I thought about this idea of being “happy in spite of” vs. “happy if only.” It brought two concepts, to mind.

The first is the JustWind mindset, inspired, of course, by the Kansas wind. The JustWind mindset asserts that we have the power and freedom to choose our perspectives, and that is really what Pillemer’s distinction is—a recognition of the “wind” that presents as challenges in our lives and the decision that we are not victims of circumstance.

The second was the Serenity Prayer, which teaches the wisdom of releasing the illusion of control where there truly cannot be any and accepting responsibility where we do have the ability to change our conditions.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Happiness is a Choice You Make felt almost like a sequel to the book I highlighted last week, The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, although it was published about four months earlier, and by a different author, than The Happiness Curve. Much of the same research was mentioned, and the age group that Leland featured was a generation or two beyond that examined by Rauch. Leland followed a group of 85-year-old+ seniors for one year and shared stories of his conversations with them that were poignant and instructive. What really struck me was the wisdom these older adults had gleaned. Most were generally content, even happy, despite quality of life that most of us would find very disagreeable.

The “happy in spite of” vs. “happy if only” distinction was the most significant idea in the book for me. The seniors who made the choice to be “happy in spite of” recognized that life had problems and was not perfect. Maybe their conditions were not what they would choose, but they decided to control what they could and made a conscious decision to be happy in spite of life’s imperfection.

No matter our current season of life, odds are we can find flaws in it. There are things we wish were different—some small, others larger.

I think our responsibility lies in recognizing when there is something we can change and when we cannot change our circumstances. Just because we CAN change a situation that is less than desirable, doesn’t mean it is easy. Doing so requires the courage mentioned in the Serenity Prayer. Part of the reason it calls for courage is that creating change comes with no guarantees.  Making the decision to pursue change may come down to the choice I discussed in this post—that the risk to remain tight inside the bud of our comfort zone is more painful than the risk it takes to blossom.

Legitimately, sometimes we may decide that the risk of blossoming is greater or that we actually have no control over a situation. That leaves us with one choice.

We can choose to wallow in our misery, or we can choose to be happy in spite of our circumstances.

That is both wisdom and power. Since we can’t control the situation itself, we are controlling our response to it, rather than allowing it to dictate our quality of life.

Living in a pandemic, there are many things we would like to change but can’t. We always have control over what perspective we choose, though, and we can make the decision to be happy in spite of the things we can’t make go away.

That is a very freeing thought. No one and nothing outside of us determines how we respond to what life gives us. We do.

It’s not too late to claim your free Quick Coach Power Session to help you take responsibility for courageously changing the things you can change.

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A Frank Discussion of Midlife Malaise

I like to think I am pretty good with words—at least on paper, if not always while speaking on the spot (a common characteristic of introverts). But, for the past several years, I had not been able to find a label that I felt accurately described the sense of internal unrest that that been nagging me. Sure, there are aspects of my life that I would like to be different, and I am actively working to improve some of them, but it was more pervasive, if subtler, than that. I felt guilty for my unsettledness. There was no good reason. What was the deal?

Just after the first of the year, I read Jonathan Rauch’s The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, and I felt like he was reading my mind. So often throughout the book, I found myself saying, “Yes!” or “That’s exactly how I feel.” And he gave me a new vocabulary for identifying and explaining—even if only to myself—this underlying nag of discontent.

Rauch found himself feeling the same way in his 40s. He was a successful journalist who was in a loving relationship. Outwardly, he had achieved so much of what he wanted to accomplish, and life looked good. Overall, it felt good, too. He appreciated what he had. That was why he felt so bad about feeling bad.

Yet he also felt like there was more that he should have done and achieved and that time to do so was running out. He decided to dive into this nagging feeling and learn more.

His own informal research and conversations with many experts in human growth and development, lifespan, aging, psychology and even primatology revealed that some level of this slump in the 40s to early 50s is not only common, but normal. We’re familiar with the stereotype of “midlife crises,” usually involving red sports cars, but, although, like most stereotypes, this one holds true in some cases, the reality is that for most people it is less dramatic than a crisis. It’s more like an underlying sense of unease and disappointment. In most cases it is not precipitated by any momentous event; it just sort of creeps in and makes itself known. There is even evidence that this midlife melancholy has a basis in biology. Experts who study our primate relatives have recognized that middle-aged chimpanzees and orangutans exhibit signs of a slump that resembles what humans experience.

Since “crisis” doesn’t accurately describe the more common—yet largely undiscussed—phenomenon, Rauch searched for a word that better captured it—slump, melancholy, dissatisfaction. All of those fit, but the one that resonated with me the most was “malaise”—”a general feeling of discomfort, illness, or uneasiness whose exact cause is difficult to identify,” according to Oxford Languages. While “illness” doesn’t fit my personal experience (another reason to be grateful!), “discomfort” and “uneasiness” certainly do, and there is no single, easily identifiable cause, which is why I believe it feels so shameful and ungrateful to discuss.

Rauch’s book convinced me that we need to be able to talk about it, though. Just knowing that it is common, even close to universal, albeit to varying degrees, mitigates the sense of shame. So, I decided to write about what I read in Rauch’s book and to own up to my own experience with this midlife malaise. And I also wanted to share hope.

Rauch’s research revealed that, while this midlife malaise is prevalent and unpleasant, those who study the phenomenon have consistently found that it occurs in the shape of a U-curve, with a peak in the 20s, a gradual decline to a nadir that varies from the mid-40s to mid50s, averaging around age 50 worldwide, to a gradual incline into the 70s. One reason for this seems to be the development of wisdom, an emerging area in science. Viewed through a lens of wisdom, midlife malaise can best be described as a passage from one phase of adulthood to another. It makes me think of a term we hear in higher education: “the murky middle.” In higher ed this refers to sophomore and junior years, when college students are most at risk for dropping out.

Midlife can feel murky but viewed as a passage to a state of greater contentment with the potential benefit of wisdom, it feels more normative and hopeful.

Monika Ardelt, an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Florida, is one of the experts Jonathan Rauch consulted. She studies wisdom and considers it to be a “combination of personal qualities” that she divides into three categories: cognitive, reflective and affective. She defines cognitive wisdom as “an understanding of life and a desire to know the truth.” In action this is a recognition of both the positive and negative aspects of life and an ability to make decisions in the face of uncertainty. Reflective wisdom is “a perception of phenomena and events from multiple perspectives.” This may manifest as accepting responsibility for one’s own circumstances. Finally, affective wisdom is “sympathetic and compassionate love for others,” which is pretty self-explanatory.

In a 2014 article in The Atlantic, Rauch gives a good synopsis of the topics in the book, including reasons why it is important to share this information. He says, “The story of the U-curve . . .  is a story not of chaos or disruption but of a difficult yet natural transition to a new equilibrium. And I find that when I tell troubled middle-aged people about it, their reaction is one of relief. Just knowing that the phenomenon is common can be therapeutic.” He notes that some of the experts he consulted agreed that the awareness of this normal passage can make an important difference in mitigating both the suffering that it can cause and the regrettable decisions that can result when people blame relationships, jobs or other life circumstances for their discontent. That’s not to say those things don’t ever need to be addressed or changed, but they don’t always, and making those changes should be well considered, rather than rash. Princeton researcher Hannes Schwandt said, “Part of your disappointment is driven by disappointment itself.”

As Rauch says, “People thrash around for explanations, which can lead to attribution errors and bad decisions. And those, of course, can bring on what really is a stereotypical midlife crisis, complete with lurching change and ill-judged behavior.”

Ultimately, Rauch recommends caution when making major decisions in midlife. He outlines this strategy:

  • Be careful: Because of the underlying sense of dissatisfaction, there can be a tendency to make reckless decisions, upending lives. This could be the right direction, but it very well might not be. It might be best to take a wait-and-see approach.
  • Step, don’t leap: Make changes gradually. Build on your life experience to this point, rather then abruptly throwing everything away.
  • Reach out: As is true in most things in life, shame is reduced when we can talk openly and especially when we realize that others experience the same thing.
  • Consider coaching: As Rauch describes, “coach and client work as allies to better align the client’s life and values. That approach is well suited to those who feel successful yet unfulfilled.” This can be very helpful in making reasoned changes that reflect the client’s growing wisdom as she/he progresses through the passage of midlife.
  • Forewarned is forearmed: It’s too late for those of us who are already working our way through midlife malaise, but being more open about this phenomenon can help those younger people who have not yet reached that point. Just knowing that it might be coming and that it is normal can minimize the misery it can provoke.
  • If in doubt . . . wait: Once again, the best approach may be patience. While it may be hard to tease out the difference between patience and complacency, it can be valuable to proceed with caution and wait and see what changes really need to be made and what actually is okay or even good.

Have you experienced this midlife malaise? Are you on the upside of the U-curve? I feel, at 51, like I am starting—just starting—to ride up the other side of the U. Reading Rauch’s book gave me hope and helped to normalize my feelings. I still have moments when I feel ungrateful because of the discontent I feel, but I have released some of the unhelpful mental habits that tormented me more a few years ago, like comparing my accomplishments to those of similar or younger age. We all live our own lives and create our own paths as we go. No two of us are exactly alike. We are all strong in some areas and not as strong as others. But I firmly believe that we can all make positive contributions in the world and that there is a difference we are all meant to make. This may look dramatically different from one person to another, so comparing is pointless at best and masochistic at worst.

If you can relate with the concept of midlife malaise, I recommend Rauch’s book. It is excellent and enjoyable to read, and I found it tremendously helpful.

Whether you are experiencing a midlife slump or just feel like there is more you can do to optimize your life, I’d love to help. Claim your free Blossom 2021 Quick Coach Power Session by clicking the button below to sign up to receive a link to schedule your session. In this coaching call, we’ll get right down to business with a powerful coaching conversation designed to help you blossom in 2021.

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